Government restrictions on religion around the world have reached the highest point in the past 11 years, as revealed in the Pew Research Center’s annual report on religious freedom released last week. A global trend of government policies impeding individuals’ peaceful expression of their faith is disturbing, and it ought to motivate advocates of free speech and religious freedom to action.
Blasphemy laws are widespread across much of the world and are an invasive means by which governments restrict religious expression. Repealing these laws must be a primary focus of human rights advocates everywhere.
As archaic as they sound, blasphemy laws still harm hundreds of people a year. International outrage ignited in September following reports that a Sharia court in Nigeria sentenced a 13-year-old Muslim boy to 10 years in prison on a blasphemy charge. The boy had been accused of using offensive language toward Allah when arguing with a friend.
Using accusations of blasphemy to settle unrelated disputes is a common theme in countries that have such laws. As CBN has reported, one married Christian couple in Pakistan remains on death row after being charged with “insulting the Qur’an” and “insulting the Prophet,” illegal acts in Pakistan. Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar were accused by a local imam of sending blasphemous text messages in English to the imam’s phone.
If it were not so tragic, the claim would be laughable. Shafqat is disabled, and Shagufta works a menial job to provide for her husband and four children, all of whom live on a church compound. Reports indicate that they are both illiterate and do not speak English. They allege that the imam’s accusation is in retaliation for a disagreement between their children and their neighbors. The couple has been in prison since 2014 and are still appealing the court’s decision.
The Shiite community has been a particular target for accusations of blasphemy. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported that 40 blasphemy cases were registered in August, with the majority being against Shia Muslims. In 2019, at least 17 Pakistanis were on death row for a blasphemy charge.
Blasphemy laws do not merely plague the Middle East or Africa. Several European countries also have them on the books.
Debates in Scotland this year about updating the country’s blasphemy law has led to questions about the status of free speech protections. Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Justice, suggested an update to a new law that would target speaking, publishing, or distributing thoughts perceived as hateful by minority communities. His proposed law could carry up to a seven-year prison sentence.
Laws like the one debated in Scotland pose a threat to everyone because anyone can feel offended by speech regardless of the speaker’s intent. Consequently, this law has receive backlash from diverse groups, including groups of Catholics and humanists.
Most blasphemy laws in Europe are no longer utilized. Yet, as long as they remain on the books, there is no guarantee they will not be applied. Momentum has steadily grown to repeal blasphemy laws on the continent.
A newly updated report by Family Research Council (FRC) released this month, “Criminalizing Conscience: The Status of Apostasy, Blasphemy, and Anti-conversion Laws Around the World,” details every country where blasphemy laws exist, as well as apostasy and anti-conversion laws, which restricts the ability of individuals to choose and change their faith. The report found that 17 countries around the world have apostasy laws, 70 have blasphemy laws, and 6 have anti-conversion laws. Ireland, Canada, and Greece all repealed their blasphemy laws in the last two years. This is commendable, and other countries ought to follow their lead. In India and Nepal, anti-conversion laws pose significant threats to religious minorities.
When “blasphemy” is legally prohibited, it sends the message that the fragile feelings of one religious group is more important than the basic ability of other religious adherents to express their faith. That is not something that should be affirmed by law.
Religious freedom is a fundamental human right, recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international documents, precisely because it affects the ability of individuals to freely follow their deepest convictions about the nature of God and humanity. Blasphemy laws restrict the freedoms of religion and speech, compelling people to outwardly express beliefs other than their own and preventing the free expression of their own beliefs.
Ultimately, blasphemy laws are a grotesque violation of basic human rights. Efforts to promote human rights and religious freedom abroad should prioritize the repeal of these laws, until all people are free to express their fundamental beliefs.
Arielle Del Turco is the assistant director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council.
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