The week in “blasphemy” news #6

Public beheadings for blasphemy and homosexuality, a diplomatic furore stemming from Raif Badawi’s “insult to Islam” sentence, the Dalai Lama “blasphemes” his own religion, says China, and Rafida Bonya Ahmed speaks out after her husband’s murder three short weeks ago.

ISIS destroy ancient statues including king Hatra in the Mosul Museum collection

ISIS destroy ancient statues including king Hatra in the Mosul Museum collection

Vox has a rundown on the various acts of extreme cultural vandalism associated with ISIS and predecessor Wahabi groups, against artifacts including statues and entire city sites that they consider “blasphemous” or “idolatrous”.

Meanwhile refugees from Syria have risked the ire of extremists by filming themselves satirising and laughing at ISIS:

“Settled in a makeshift studio in the Turkish city of Gaziantep 40 miles from the Syrian border, the film-makers decided ridicule was an effective way of responding to Islamic State and its grisly record of extreme violence.

“The entire world seems to be terrified of Isis, so we want to laugh at them, expose their hypocrisy and show that their interpretation of Islam does not represent the overwhelming majority of Muslims,” says Maen Watfe, 27. “The media, especially the western media, obsessively reproduce Isis propaganda portraying them as strong and intimidating. We want to show their weaknesses.”

The films and videos on Watfe and his three friends’ website mock the Islamist extremists and depict them as naive simpletons, hypocritical zealots and brutal thugs. It’s a high-risk undertaking. They have had to move house and keep their addresses secret from even their best friends after receiving death threats.”

And the violence has continued. ISIS’s supposed “penal code” prioritizes the crime of:

“Blasphemy against Allah, Blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed, Blasphemy against Islam—all merit Death as does Sodomy, Adultery,  Murder, Apostasy, and Spying for Unbelievers.”

And indeed, this week ISIS reportedly beheaded a further three men (four on some accounts) “for homosexuality and blasphemy” in Iraq.


An ISIS representative reads out charges against the men ahead of their execution

“Pictures circulated by accounts affiliated with the group show a man kneeling on the floor behind a fighter brandishing a knife. In a third image, a man can be seen reading from what is understood to be a charge sheet…

Additionally, a document is being circulated by Isis supporters detailing the so-called crimes committed by the men and the punishments handed to them as stipulated in its brutal penal code.

Other punishments advocated by Isis include amputation, crucifixion and stoning.”

Another theocratic regime which uses the same cruel punishments for similarly backwards charges is the sovereign state of Saudi Arabia.

A recent demonstration for justice at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Mexico City

A recent demonstration for justice at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Mexico City

The kingdom has finally deigned to issue a response to widespread concerns over its appalling human rights record, (full translation here) in particular centering on its  use of barbaric punishments, and the detention and lashing of Raif Badawi and his various liberal colleagues for crimes such as “insulting Islam” and alleged “apostasy”. The official response, however, fails to address any actual concerns, instead lashing out at the very idea of international criticism, asserting that its law is based on Sharia and has signed up to human rights instruments, and blaming media for “politicising” the situation. News flash: being signed up to the human rights instruments means you need to accept that criticism from abroad is at least in principle valid!

Margot Wallstrom

Margot Wallström

The Saudi government also fell out with Sweden, specifically, after the Saudis blocked a speech by Margot Wallström, Swedish foreign minister, to the Arab League, in which she would have criticised the Saudi rights record. So Sweden decided to cancel its arms trade agreement with Saudi Arabia. So Saudi Arabi withdrew its ambassador.

Whatever else all this shows about modern diplomacy, or the hypocrisy of western states systematically arming flagrant human rights abusers, it certainly shows how a single “insult-to-religion” case can escalate when the deep injustices against an individual like Raif Badawi are highlighted and seen for what they are, around the world.

There were two rulings from Pakistan this week which – possibly – may be taken to indicate a renewed courage on the part of the judiciary against the demands of “blasphemy” law supporters. The Supreme Court found serious concerns including “bias” and the apparent “ambivalence” of police investigating the murder in November last year of a Christian couple, Shehzad Masih and Shama Bibi, who had been pregnant at the time of their murder. The couple had been accused of “blasphemy” and were burnt alive in a kiln by scores of so-called protesters.

“According to lawyer Khan, the bench had questioned why the police had failed to record statements of any of the relatives of the Christian couple, including eyewitnesses, as required under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code. He said the court ruled that the police’s apparent ambivalence was forcing the establishment of a judicial commission.”

On Monday the High Court in Lahore also ruled in the Mumtaz Qadri case. The court:

“…upheld the murder conviction against self-confessed killer, Mumtaz Qadri, despite significant pressure from Islamist supporters of “blasphemy” laws to free him. The court also overturned his conviction for terrorism.

Mumtaz Qadri on his arrest in 2011

In 2011, Mumtaz Qadri assassinated his own employer, the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer. Taseer had criticised ‘blasphemy’ laws, and supported those victimized by ‘blasphemy’ accusations, most famously championing the case of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death for supposedly insulting Islam during an argument with neighbours. Mumtaz Qadri, who was meant to be acting as Taseer’s bodyguard, shot him dead on the streets of Islamabad.

Qadri’s appeal case centered on the argument that extrajudicial killing could be a legitimate response to those criticising “blasphemy” laws or otherwise committing “blasphemy”, in effect that he was only carrying out a death sentence that the court might hand down anyway. In rejecting the appeal, the High Court decision refutes this argument as fallacious – the judges argued that even members of the judiciary did not have a right to personally kill someone even if they were found guilty of a capital crime.”

IHEU pointed out that the death sentence for the murder conviction alone was unlikely to be carried out in the near future, however subsequently Pakistan lifted its longstanding moratorium on capital punishment for crimes other than terrorism!

““This shameful retreat to the gallows is no way to resolve Pakistan’s pressing security and law-and-order problems,” said Amnesty International’s deputy Asia-Pacific director Rupert Abbott.

More than 8,000 citizens languish on Pakistan’s death row, including women like Aasia Bibi, a Christian convicted under the nation’s blasphemy laws.”

The decision means that in principle, as their appeal possibilities expire, the “blasphemy” murderers like Qadri, but also those convicted of “blasphemy” such as Asia Bibi, face a renewed threat that their sentence will be carried out.

Rafid Bonya Ahmed, the wife of murdered Bangladeshi-America blogger Avijit Roy, has spoken out this week for the first time since the attack on 26th February.

In audio for the BBC she discusses her loss of memory over the attack itself, why they had decided to revisit Dhaka despite the threats to Avijit’s life, and the need to continue to write, speak and champion “the cause that Avijit died for; I will not be quiet”:

In a statement published by our partners CFI she said:

“While Avijit and I were being ruthlessly attacked, the local police stood close by and did not act. Now, we demand that the Bangladeshi government do everything in its power to bring the murderers to justice.

I do not believe that simply catching the killers will be enough. I urge the government to address terrorism and stop a legal culture of impunity, where writers can be killed without the killers being brought to trial. I urge the world to recognize what has happened and join us in this demand for justice.”

Ahead of elections in Israel, religious parties have warned that those not voting will be guilty of “blasphemy”.


Making use of one of Russia‘s various problematic anti-freedom of expression laws, the Russian Orthodox Church is suing a theatre director for directing some theatre:

“Novosibirsk prosecutors have taken Russian theatre director Timofei Kulyabin to court over a performance of the Wagner opera ‘Tannhauser’. The case was opened due to objections raised by local Russian Orthodox Church officials who reportedly didn’t watch the play but claimed that it ‘offends the feelings of believers’.

According to Russian legislation, the theatre director could face up to three years in prison if convicted.

The first performance took place in December, provoking protests from 800 local residents angered by the interpretation of Wagner’s play, which they claimed ‘mocked Jesus’.”

In India, a Facebook post has led to another “blasphemy” complaint against an individual from a minority community, filed by a group that purports to defend the poor and downtrodden.

An official in China’s (officially atheist!) Communist party has accused the Dalai Lama of blaspheming against… Buddhism! It’s a clearly political maneuver, and shows how broadly the terms of “blasphemy” may be used to the ends of political manipulation.

“A top Chinese Communist Party (CPC) official in Tibet on Monday accused the exiled Dalai Lama of “blasphemy” over his comments that he may be the last to hold his position as the Tibetans’ spiritual leader.

“What he said is blasphemy against Tibetan Buddhism,” the CPC-appointed governor of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Padma Choling who is an ethnic Tibetan, told reporters, speaking on the sidelines of the on-going 10-day session of the National People’s Congress, or Chinese Parliament, in Beijing.

“It’s not up to the Dalai Lama,” Choling was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency, which added that the Dalai Lama’s statement was “against the Tibetan Buddhism tradition as the soul of a senior lama is reincarnated in the body of a child on his death”.

His comments underline an unusual situation where the officially atheist CPC is demanding that a centuries-old system of reincarnation continue.”

“Time to repeal Canada’s blasphemy law” calls Joyce Arthur writing at, citing our international coalition and the work of our partners in Canada:

“There may be little political will to repeal “dead letter” blasphemy laws, but the ICABL hopes that by bringing public attention to the harms and injustice of blasphemy laws, enough public desire and local pressure can be brought to bear against governments to persuade them to take action.

We must defend and exercise the right to blasphemy, not criminalize it, or silence ourselves out of fear. One small start would be to repeal Canada’s blasphemy law as an unconstitutional anachronism.”

In Italy, a clothing company commissioned a billboard featuring a topless nun, attracting accusations of “blasphemy”. The billboard has appeared in the run-up to a Papal visit. The company has issued a highly concessionary apology:

topless-nun-billboard“”We recognize that we have made a strong marketing choice but there was no intent to blaspheme,” the statement said. “Trivializing the act of prayer was not the intention in any way.”

The statement said the company “strongly regrets being accused of things extremely far from our values and our culture.””

And finally, the Spectator reported on a “new low” as the so-called “Islamic Human Rights Commission” awarded its international “Islamophobe of the Year” award to the murdered staff of Charlie Hebdo.

“This might be thought laughable in any other circumstances.  The IHRC, one should remember, is a registered British charity.  But of course it is not very funny, because only two months ago another group of people who thought Charlie Hebdo is ‘Islamophobic’ went into the magazine’s offices and gunned down their journalists and cartoonists.  This is the way the pattern works now – the Islamic terrorists break through the front door with Kalashnikovs and then a whole network of fellow travellers try to sneak in through the back door and explain why the cartoonists and journalists might have had it coming.”


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Title: The week in “blasphemy” news #6
Date Posted: March 13, 2015
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Category: Round-ups

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