What’s Wrong With Blasphemy Laws?

The End Blasphemy Laws campaign holds that “blasphemy”  and “insult” to religion laws are wrong in several ways:

  • They violate the human right to freedom of expression
  • They protect religious beliefs and practices, institutions and leaders, from legitimate and often necessary criticism
  • They are intrinsically bad, subjective, inconsistent laws; there is no “right way” to use them
  • They legitimize vigilantism, mob violence, and persecution of minorities

All these areas are discussed in detail below.

Violating freedom of expression

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right for individuals. It is also vital for all societies, to enable a plurality of opinions. It is protected by all major international human rights instruments (including Article 19 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ICCPR)). The vast majority of countries are signed up to these conventions, and there is a strong claim even on the countries that are not signed up, namely that the right to speak freely is a basic moral right which states should uphold and protect.

Unlike freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief (Article 18 of the UDHR and ICCPR) which is absolute, freedom of expression can be limited under the international human rights framework. These limits vary from state to state but for example, they sometimes include libel and defamation against individuals, incitement to hatred, violence or discrimination against a person, a group or a community. (Such limits must respect strict legality and proportionality tests, as freedom of expression remains a human right, and its limitation must be the exception.) For this reason, some “blasphemy” laws may include — or be included in legislation which places — a ban on inciting hatred or violence. Such prohibitions against incitement to hatred or violence do not necessarily in themselves violate the right to freedom of expression.

However, by their nature laws against “blasphemy” and religious insult always go beyond a ban on incitement to hatred or violence. “Blasphemy” and religious insult laws always in practice prohibit, problematize or chill free expression when it comes to the asking of questions, the offering of criticism, and the expression of satire or ridicule, in relation religion.

These modes of discourse (questioning, criticising, satirising, ridiculing) belong firmly in the realm of freedom of expression. Therefore “blasphemy” and “insult to religion” laws, which criminalize such expression, contravene freedom of expression and are in violation of the international human rights framework.

While freedom of thought and belief, including religious belief, must be protected, it is equally important to guarantee an environment in which a critical discussion about religion can be held. There is no fundamental right not to be offended in one’s religious feelings. Religions per se do not hold rights. Churches and religious groups should be open to hearing criticism, just as every group in society. Intellectual and cultural advance rely on the free exchange of ideas.  Protecting any ideas from criticism does them no favour: it allows them to survive unchanged without being adapted and improved.

Protecting religion from insult and criticism

To some it may sound desirable to protect religion from “insult”. After all, insult may seen unnecessary and hurtful to the followers of a religion. However, in practice prohibiting “insult” means prohibiting all manner of enquiry and critique in relation to religion; as seen time and again in countries around the world, it is easy to claim “insult” in response to any critical discussion of religion. As one high profile example, Raif Badawi advocated secular reforms between religious and state authorities in Saudi Arabia; for this he was prosecuted for “insulting Islam” and sentenced to 10 years jail, a 10 year travel ban, and 1,000 lashes.

So criticism bleeds into “insult”. But why should criticism as such be protected free speech? — To some it may sound desirable to shield religion from any criticism, however politely it is offered!

But banning criticism not only means violating the freedom of expression of the critic, it means that criticism is deterred or prevented altogether on:

  • religious beliefs and practices or beliefs and practices that someone associates with religion, (for example, child “marriage”, slavery, genital mutilation, stoning and other corporal punishments that constitute torture, denial of citizenship, bans on “inter-religious” marriage, persecution of religion or belief minorities, discrimination against sexual minorities, and many other such practices, have all sometimes been defended — or their perpetrators have claimed immunity from investigation or exemption from human rights legislation — on the basis that they are ‘religious’ practices or that they are based on ‘religious’ beliefs)
  • religious institutions (for example it is widely recognised that taboos against appearing to question, criticise, or threaten the public perception or ‘greater good’ of the Catholic Church and other religious institutions deters people from reporting sexual abuse and other crimes)
  • religious leaders (such as clerics, who in some cases may escape charges of abuse or corruption because adherents of their religion, or others, feel unable to raise their voices against them)

Shielding religion from criticism cannot be regarded as a social good. Criticism which is false can be tested and met with legitimate counter-arguments, while criticism which is true should be heard for the sake of correcting errors. In some cases, criticism helps religious thinkers improve theology. In more substantive cases, criticism is essential to shedding light on immoral or unlawful practices carried out in the name of religion.

Intrinsically bad law

The violation of the right to freedom of expression is a matter of incompatibility with international human rights legislation, as well as most domestic human rights laws. But in addition, “blasphemy” and “insult to religion” laws also suffer from internal inconsistency and subjective applicability.

A law prohibiting “insult” or “offence” to religion, or for “hurting the sentiments” of religious persons, may itself be “insulting” or “offensive” or “hurtful” to religion or to religious persons, if it prevents them from expressing their religious views because others find their religion offensive.

A law against “blasphemy” depends on some standard of what counts as “blasphemy”, which assumes something like a correct, inviolable standard of religion which is being blasphemed against. But even when states try to found blasphemy laws on a single religious text, it is abundantly clear that different sectarian groups within a single religion interpret all mainstream scriptures in a variety of ways, with different groups deciding that some declarations or depictions are ‘blasphemous’ while others disagree, or find other declarations or depictions ‘blasphemous’.

It may be considered “blasphemous” by some Muslims to consider Jesus of Nazareth “the Son of God”, while some Christians may find it “blasphemous” to say that Jesus was merely a prophet or an ordinary human being. Many Islamic scholars consider deviations from their own sect (either Sunni or Shia) blasphemous, as well as sects such as Ahmadiyya which they do not recognise as “Islamic”, but which are frequently treated as “blasphemous” to Islam.

In some jurisdictions, such as Pakistan, it is frequently claimed by witnesses to alleged “blasphemy” cases that to repeat what the accused is supposed to have said or done would itself be “blasphemous” and therefore they are exempted from having to explain the accusation. Courts will therefore sometimes accept the testimony of a supposed witness to the blasphemy without hearing any of the details of the accusations.

Likewise, those who call for the reform or repeal of blasphemy laws, have sometimes been accused of “blasphemy” for questioning the blasphemy laws.

The confused and subjective nature of “blasphemy” and “insult to religion” laws makes them bad law. They are therefore hugely prone to abuse, being used to target a variety of supposed “blasphemy”, from actual criticism or satire of religion, to merely stating alternative religious views, stating atheism, or in some cases, the accusation is entirely malicious, based on rumours or planted evidence.

“Legitimizing” mob violence, vigilantism, and persecution of minorities

Countries which prosecute “blasphemy” and “insult to religion” tend to suffer disproportionately many incidents of:

  • intercommunal and mob violence (for example: the episodic burning of Christian properties and murder of Christians by mobs of Muslim men in Pakistan, such as this incident in 2009 that left 6 dead, which usually follow unlikely, malicious, unsourced rumours that someone has “desecrated” the Koran)
  • vigilantism against individuals (for example: violence against secularist Bangladeshi bloggers in the past few years, including the murder of Ahmed Rajib Haider and a potentially fatal machete attack on Asif Mohiuddin, both of which coincided with calls by Islamist groups to have “atheist bloggers” prosecuted for writing which supposedly insulted religion and criticised religious leaders)
  • the general silencing and persecution of minorities (for example: in several Islamic states, Ahmadiyya Muslims are often regarded, against their self-identity, as non-Muslims who are “blaspheming” Islam, while conversely Bahai’s are often regarded, against their selfi-identity, as wouldbe-Muslims who are “apostates” from Islam because they follow Baha’i teachings! Both groups are widely marginalised and persecuted in countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and numerous other states, and discrimination against them is bound up with claims of blasphemy, apostasy, or being kafir (infidels).

Criminalising “insult” to religion in the penal code, lends legitimacy to the social persecution of individuals and groups who are said to “offend” mainstream religious sensibilities, sometimes with their speech acts or writing, often just through their existence, or based on rumours spread with the intention of whipping up violence.

Moratoria and “dead letter” laws

icon-dead-letter-100x100In some jurisdictions, a given law against “blasphemy” or religious insult might be said to be a “dead letter” law, meaning that it is no longer enforced but remains on statute. Alternatively there may be a “moratorium” against enforcing the law, meaning that there is either a formal precedent or informal convention which is assumed to block or deter the use of the law.

The End Blasphemy Laws campaign recognises that in these cases, some laws may be considered for practical purposes to be unenforced, or unenforceable. Nevertheless even these “dead letter” laws remain of concern, and we want to see them repealed. There are several reasons for this:

  • even an apparently “dead letter” law can be reactivated. Some examples: In the weeks prior to the launch of the End Blasphemy Laws campaign (in January 2015) there were threats to file suits under the blasphemy laws in Ireland and in France in response to the publication of Charlie Hebdo. The “blasphemy” law the United Kingdom was declared by a peer in the House of Lords a “dead letter” law in 1949, but this status was unofficial and the law was used again; the last successful prosecution under the law came 28 years later, in 1977! In December 2014 the closely related death-for-apostasy law was reactivated after many years of disuse in Mauritania.
  • even unused or seemingly unenforceable laws can lend a legitimacy to people who argue that there is something inherently wrong with criticism of, or satire about, religion, or who advocate for the revival, use, or creation of new “blasphemy”-type laws
  • inactive, unused or less severe blasphemy laws in one country, still lend legitimacy to much more severe and actively-used blasphemy laws in other countries; for example the relatively recent creation of a blasphemy law in Ireland (despite there being no prosecutions under this law) has been used to justify the continued existence of Indonesia‘s blasphemy law (under which people have been sentenced to lengthy jail terms simply for posting about atheism on Facebook)
  • sometimes there is public desire, but no political will, to finally abolish “dead letter” laws; by listing and rating countries citing their blasphemy laws we hope to add to local pressure to repeal them.