One year ago, during tumult over the "Innocence of Muslims" video, a series of academics suggested that we Americans cling too tightly to our concept of free speech, and that we should be open to alternative views — including the views of people who urge laws criminalizing blasphemy in order to protect religious sensibilities. I explored that view by examining a full year of instances of blasphemy prosecutions across the globe. My point was this: if there are values and norms we should consider, how do they look in practice? I concluded that anti-blasphemy laws are most often used as a tool of systematic abuse of religious minorities and other powerless and despised groups.
What's changed in a year?
As you will see below, the practice of blasphemy laws hasn't changed. But the call for them to be imposed in the West has subsided a bit. The King of Saudi Arabia — which is ostensibly an ally, at least during those moments when it's not beheading people for sorcery — demanded an international anti-blasphemy law in the past year, and the Arab League continues to call for them, although the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has backed off of the issue. But the UN seems less receptive than it once was. In fact the United Nations' special rapporteur on freedom of religion expressly called out the connection between apostasy and blasphemy laws and the abuse of religious minorities.
Calls in academia have been less frequent, but are not unknown. For instance, Howard University School of Law hosted a presentation by Dr. Qasim Rashid, who argues that the easy transmission of communications over the internet justifies restrictions on offensive speech when such speech may inflame people across the world. He advocates using the model of "cyber-bullying" laws to address speech offensive to religious sensibilities. This is clever; in framing the issue as one of giving offense over the internet, Dr. Rashid may find support from sectors of academia calling for restriction of free speech rights online. The view that online speech is a special case that justifies censorship is shared by — for want of a more derisive term — some mainstream academics, who like Dr. Rashid frame it as a right to be free of certain kinds of online offense.
If calls for anti-blasphemy laws have slackened, enforcement of those laws has not.
Pakistan: A 16-year-old boy was charged with sending blasphemous text messages, his mother was immediately suspended from her job, and after the family fled a mob hauled their possessions from their home and set them afire. "Police at the Mobina police station where the case was lodged said, 'How can we arrest a mob for they are the ones who are among the complainants.'" Meanwhile, Christian pastor Karama Patras was arrested for blasphemy after a mob attacked his home upon the rumor that he blasphemed Islam during a Bible study there. Pastor Patras, taken into "protective custody," was more fortunate than Sajjad Hussain, who was shot to death by two men after he was acquitted of blasphemy based on lack of evidence.
Egypt: Alber Saber Ayad was one of many Coptic Christians charged with "defamation of religion" under Egypt's new government. He was arrested after an angry mob stormed his house. Ayad's prosecution arose from him asking questions like “How do I know who the true God is?”
Turkey: Pianist Fazil Say stood trial for "insulting religious values" for a series of statements on Twitter. "The staunch secularist has also regularly criticised the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), accusing it of having a secret agenda to Islamise Turkey."
Poland: Poland's Supreme Court ruled that heavy metal musician Nergal is subject to blasphemy charges — and a potential two-year prison sentence — for ripping a Bible onstage.
Indonesia: Alexander Aan, an atheist blogger, appealed his two-year-six-month prison sentence imposed for writing things like "God doesn't exist." There is no appeal for his brutal beating by a mob.
Pakistan: Upon rumors that a teacher distributed blasphemous materials to students, a mob torched a school for girls and the headmaster was arrested for blasphemy. The headmaster was remanded to custody at the demand of clerics despite a lack of evidence that he had anything to do with the alleged lessons. Meanwhile, Hazrat Ali Shah — accused of blasphemy by his village and his own family — was sentenced to death, a ten-year prison sentence, and a fine amounting to approximately $1,700. On the brighter side, charges were finally dropped against Rimsha Masih, an illiterate and mentally impaired 14-year-old from a religious minority accused of desecrating a Koran.
Turkey: Turkish authorities fined a TV station for offending religion for showing a Halloween episode of the Simpsons in which Ned Flanders is shown taking orders from what he thinks is the voice of God.
Pakistan: A 22-year-old jailed for blasphemy died mysteriously in custody. Meanwhile, Professor Iftikhar Khan got into a dispute with his nephew over real property; his nephew accused him of blasphemy and he was arrested. Also, after a mentally unstable man was arrested on accusations of burning the Koran, a mob stormed the police station, liberated him, beat him to death, and set fire to his body. This is not to be confused with the July 2012 incident in which a mob carried a mentally unstable man from police custody upon allegations that he burned the Koran, beat him to death, and set him on fire. That was a completely different province.
Netherlands: After the Dutch Parliament decriminalized blasphemy, a Somalian radical Islamist group threatened "major consequences."
Yemen: Yemeni authorities sought to execute a blogger and force his divorce and for "only believing in Quran as the main source of Islamic rules . . . ignoring the Sunnah and consequently of retreating of Islam."
Saudi Arabia: Novelist Turki al-Hamad was arrested for blasphemy for comparing the strict social controls of Islam to the strict controls of Nazism. They sure showed him up.
Pakistan: Ghulam Ali Asghar was charged with blasphemy for misquoting a Hadith — that is, a saying of Muhammad — in the Punjabi language. However, he was convicted of offending religious feelings and sentenced to ten years in prison. Meanwhile Sherry Rehman, Pakistan's envoy to the U.S. — who, as I mentioned in last year's coverage, was subject to death threats over her opposition to blasphemy laws — was charged with blasphemy in Pakistan over comments she made in a 2010 television interview. Also, Barkat Masih — a Hindu who converted to Christianity — saw his death penalty for blasphemy overturned by Pakistan's high court. Masih was accused of blasphemy when in the course of his job as a security guard he prevented several Muslims from entering his employer's office to steal papers related to a property dispute. They accused him of blasphemy.
Russia: The head of the Russian Orthodox Church called for blasphemy prosecutions, defending the incarceration of the group Pussy Riot.
Pakistan: Four employees of a printing press were arrested for blasphemy. The book they were loading into their truck when arrested is about the minority Ahmadi faith shared by the men. Meanwhile, Christian pastor Karma Patras was released; he had been jailed for four months on the blasphemy accusations of Muslims who heard him preaching about Christ at a funeral.
Pakistan: Reacting to allegations that a Christian blasphemed Mohammed, a Muslim mob torched 200 homes in a Christian neighborhood. In a separate incident, police rescued a mentally ill man from a mob — and arrested him for blasphemy — when he was accused by children of burning pages from a Koran.
Egypt: An Egyptian court rejected the appeal of two Coptic Christian children, 10 and 9 years old, imprisoned since April 2012 on a blasphemy charge. Also, an actress was accused of blasphemy and investigated by prosecutors for saying that Mohammed's wife was raised by a Jewish tribe.
Belgium: A Belgian court convicted a man and sentences him to four months in jail for "racist hate speech" for tearing up a Koran in front of a group of Muslims.
Saudi Arabia: A Shi'a cleric in this Sunni-majority country was sentenced to death for blasphemy.
Pakistan: A Christian man — accused by Muslim neighbors of interrupting their singing to make blasphemous remarks — was acquitted and his death sentence lifted after six years in prison.
Russia: Russia's parliament preliminarily approved a bill making it a crime to offend religious feelings.
Bangladesh: Mobs took to the streets, infuriated by writings of atheist bloggers, demanding enactment of anti-blasphemy laws. They shout "God is great – hang the atheist bloggers." Bangladeshi police arrested three atheist bloggers. Bangladesh's Prime Minister took the position that the country's defamation of religion law — which allows a ten-year jail sentence — should be sufficient to protect religious feelings.
Egypt: Pianist Fazil Say, mentioned above, was given a suspended sentence for blasphemy. Humorist Bassem Youssef was arrested and charged with offending religion after satirizing President Morsi.
Indonesia: Four teenagers were arrested for blasphemy for dancing to a Maroon 5 music video during a prayer.
Malta: A State Department report revealed that Malta prosecuted 99 people for blasphemy against the Catholic Church in the last year, down from 119 the previous year.
Pakistan: The Chinese manager of a construction project was cleared of blasphemy charges, but only after a mob attacks his offices.
Egypt: A court increased the sentence of a Coptic Christian teacher, accused by her students of blasphemy. Another court sentenced a blogger to jail for "openly denigrating the religious values held by a certain portion of the population."
Australia: Australian National University forced a student paper to destroy an issue with a satirical infographic about the Koran, citing international violence against blasphemy.
Pakistan: Rimsha Masih, the 14-year-old girl falsely accused of blasphemy, fled to Canada as she and her family continued to suffer death threats. Professor Junaid Hafeez was accused of blasphemy for words on Facebook; for representing him, his lawyer received death threats. Local bar groups severed ties with him.
Egypt: Amnesty International reported on the increasing prevalence of blasphemy charges against religious minorities in Egypt. Meanwhile, a court sentences a Muslim preacher to jail for tearing up a Bible during an anti-U.S. protest. Another court convicted a Coptic Christian lawyer in absentia on allegations he mocked the Koran at a law library.
Russia: The Duma unanimously approved the final version of the law criminalizing “public actions expressing clear disrespect for society and committed with the goal of offending religious feelings of the faithful.”
Pakistan: A Christian was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to life in prison despite his accuser recanting. Protestors demanded his execution. He was convicted on allegations he sent blasphemous text messages. Days later a Christian couple was arrested for blasphemy on the same theory. Meanwhile a man deemed mentally unfit to stand trial for the past four years was scheduled to return to trial on charges that he burned the Koran.
India: A novelist was arrested for blasphemy upon an accusation that his latest novel portrays the Hindu god Lord Ganesha in an offensive manner.
Pakistan: Muslim cleric Khalid Chishti — who admitted to making false blasphemy accusations against 14-year-old Rimsha Masih, leading to death threats and incarceration — was acquitted and released when prosecutors failed to present evidence against him. An attorney fled his latest hiding place after Islamic militants discovered it; he has been subjected to death threats because of his opposition to blasphemy laws and his relationship to a cousin accused of blasphemy. His cousin, Aasia Bibi, was moved to a different prison after the Taliban assault her previous prison, where she was awaiting imposition of her death sentence for blasphemy.
United Kingdom: Broadcasting officials fined an Islamic TV station after a host tells the audience that Muslims have a right and duty to murder blasphemers.
Pakistan: Authorities banned "the nation's first gay website" as blasphemous. Meanwhile police arrested a woman for blasphemy for saying she's a prophet. In another village, dozens of Christian families who have clearly been paying attention to what country they live in fled their homes after their pastor was accused of blasphemy. A Pakistani high court reversed a lower court finding of blasphemy against a columnist who had written that Mohammed's respect for women was unmatched in history; critics said it implied Mohammed had secular values. Pakistani authorities, perceiving issues with the application of blasphemy law, decided that more killing may help and contemplated a law imposing the death penalty on people who make false accusations of blasphemy.
Bangladesh: Four of the atheist bloggers who inspired riots earlier in the year are indicted for making derogatory comments about Islam and Muhammad. A fifth blogger was not charged on account of having been hacked to death by a mob.
Pakistan: The family of a mentally ill man asked a court to convict him of blasphemy. “He has insulted our religion and anyone doing that should be sternly dealt with,” said a family member. The man faces life in prison.
Qatar: Legislators drafted a model law for Islamic countries to ban blasphemy. “The main feature of the draft is that it gives every state the right to put on trial those who abuse and hold in contempt religions even if they are outside the country.”
That Was The Year That Was
These are the values that advocates of blasphemy laws would have us accept: use of state power to enforce religious orthodoxy, suppression of political and religious minorities, and the rule of law employed to channel mob violence against the powerless.
As I said last year:
It is right and fit that any nation be prepared to examine its own values, and evaluate competing ones. But I feel no qualms whatsoever at rejecting the competing values embodied in that year of blasphemy. Instead, I will stand by the values embodied in the modern interpretation of the First Amendment. When others advocate that America ease protections for free expression to ease international relations or to protect feelings and sensibilities or to move towards some imagined international consensus or to achieve "progress," I will point to this year and ask: do you truly grasp what values you are promoting, and what values you are abandoning?
The people who support anti-blasphemy laws and anti-blasphemy norms should be regarded accordingly.
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