2015: Another Bad Year for Blasphemers

Popehat is pleased to offer a second guest post by Sarah McLaughlin. Sarah works for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (though the opinions expressed here are her own) and is interested in free speech and civil liberties. You can follow her on Twitter at @sarahemclaugh.

At the conclusion of 2012 and 2013, Ken undertook annual surveys of the state of blasphemy laws, and their enforcement, around the world. I did the same for this year, while paying close attention to the way that individuals have also played a significant role in punishing people accused of blasphemy. From the horrific January 7 Charlie Hebdo attack and Saudi Arabia’s first flogging on January 9 of blogger Raif Badawi (who was found guilty of insulting Islam in 2014 and sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison), there were early signs that 2015 would be another year where blasphemy would be punished harshly by governments and vigilantes alike[1].

How Blasphemy Was Punished This Year

Of the many dark entries in this year’s review, at the forefront stands ISIS. It is perhaps unsurprising that ISIS’ penal code, published in late December of last year, promises a death sentence to anyone found guilty of blaspheming Islam, Allah, or Muhammad. Who knows how many people have been executed under it this year[2]?

Saudi Arabia—which threatened to sue Twitter users who compared its justice system to ISIS'[3]—dispenses harsh punishments to those accused of blaspheming Islam in a manner fairly similar to that of a certain militant jihadist group that shall remain nameless, demonstrating the conduct that can apparently be expected from countries on the UN Human Rights Council. While Raif Badawi’s flogging punishments were halted over the course of the year, his wife claims they will soon resume and he remains imprisoned. In February, a man was sentenced to death (likely beheading, as is the Saudi Arabian way) for cursing God and Muhammad and hitting a Koran with a shoe. A month later, an Indian man was arrested (in Saudi Arabia) for liking a post with “blasphemous content,” causing it to appear on his page. That he did not intend for it to do so is apparently irrelevant. Last month, artist and poet Ashraf Fayadh was sentenced to death for apostasy, a charge apparently supported by the content of years-old poems and “the testimony of a few witnesses.” By the time Fayadh was sentenced, Saudi Arabia had already beheaded at least one hundred and fifty one people, many of whom been found guilty of nonviolent crimes including blasphemy, apostasy and, most often, drug offenses.

Like Saudi Arabia, Iran, on track to execute one thousand people this year, treats blasphemy as a serious crime—violators are usually charged with “spreading corruption on earth.” This fall, Iranian courts decided that activist Soheil Arabi will spend 7 years in prison as punishment for “insulting the Prophet” on Facebook, and must prove his faith and knowledge of Islam in monthly meetings. This is actually an improvement over his earlier sentence: death.

Saman Naseem, a 17-year-old man scheduled to be executed in February after being tortured until he admitted to being guilty of “enmity against God” and “corruption on Earth,” was missing for months in early 2015, leading his family to believe Iran had gone through with a secret execution. In July, Amnesty International learned that Naseem had been granted a retrial, so there is hope that Naseem will be found innocent, or at least given a lighter sentence. However, given that it took over two years for Iran to reach that conclusion, there’s little reason to believe that Naseem will receive fairer treatment this time from a fundamentally unfair system.

Pakistan has seen a number of convictions and killings this year as well. In March, Liaquat Ali was sentenced to death by a Pakistani court for blasphemy and a month later an assistant professor who earned his doctorate under a scholar, Muhammad Shakil Auj, who was accused of—and assassinated for—blasphemy, was shot to death in what was likely an attack inspired by his connection to Auj. In August, three men were arrested for referring to a Christian pastor as “prophet” on a poster. Then in October, Bilal Husain, a man whose father reported him to police was given the death penalty for blasphemy too. Also in October, Asia Bibi, a Christian woman[4] on death row for supposedly insulting Muhammad was moved to solitary confinement over fears that she would be killed by guards, vigilantes, or other inmates. That same month, Christian faith healer Naveed John was arrested for the apparently blasphemous act of “having Islamic script on a sword he used to treat his clients.” Pakistan has received well-earned criticism over the past few months because of the ease with which its blasphemy laws can be used as a weapon “to settle petty disputes against Christians.”

Like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria is all too willing to execute supposed blasphemers. In June, a Nigerian court sentenced Muslim cleric Aminu Abdul Nyass and eight of his followers to death for statements about Muhammad. The sentencing was held in secret because crowds at the previous trial attempted to burn down the court—their second target after burning down Nyass’ home. A Nigerian governor seemingly attempted to justify the death sentence, saying: "The concern is mobs would take extrajudicial action if these convicts are for whatever reason released because they would certainly kill them when they see them on the streets."

Though he’s wrong that the government should give out the punishments the mob wants, but in a more orderly fashion, he’s right that mobs will often act against people who they believe have insulted their gods. In a particularly horrifying example from March, a crowd in Afghanistan attacked Farkhunda Malikzada, a 27-year-old woman they believed had burned the Koran. Specifically, they beat her, ran over her body with a car and dragged her down the street, stoned her, and then lit her on fire. She received essentially no help from the police during the attack. Only days after her death was it discovered that Malikzada had never even burned the Koran in the first place—she had insulted men selling amulets by calling them un-Islamic, and they retaliated by yelling to the crowd that she had burned the Koran.

Bangladesh, meanwhile, shows how common murders like Malikzada’s were this year. In February, Al Qaeda members “taught a lesson to blasphemers” by hacking atheist Bangladeshi blogger Avijit Roy to death with machetes. A little over a month later, Oyasiqur Rhaman, a satirical blogger who mocked fundamental Islam and had mourned Roy’s death by changing his Facebook picture to an image reading “I am Avijit,” met the same fate. He was hacked to death by three men who heard that Rhaman had “made some comments against Islam,” which they had never actually even seen. Then in May, a third atheist blogger, Ananta Bijoy Das, was also murdered by men with machetes. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for Das’ death as well. He had advocated for secularism on a blog called Free Mind, which had been moderated by Avijit Roy before his death. In August, Niloy Neel was the fourth Bangladeshi man to be hacked to death for his role as a secular blogger.

Roy, Rhaman, Das, and Neel were all on a widely-known list of secular bloggers created by groups pressuring Bangladesh to prosecute blasphemers more harshly. Bangladesh’s government was not content to let the machete-wielding murderers be the only villains in this story—after Neel’s murder the Inspector General of Police, while admitting that murder is wrong, actually asked that people report to the police secular blogs, whose contributors could face up to 14 years in prison, for “hurting religious sentiments.” What Bangladesh should do is eradicate its blasphemy laws and acknowledge that its treatment of blasphemy as a crime worthy of imprisonment encourages murderers targeting those who offend them. Instead, the Bangladeshi police have reaffirmed the notion that authority figures should violently censor speech that insults their constituents’ gods. I can hardly think of anything less safe for Bangladeshi bloggers than a public record of police investigations into their criticism of religion.

Threats and violence against blasphemers were not contained to the countries listed above. Three men were convicted under Myanmar’s blasphemy law and sentenced to 2 and a half years in prison in March for insulting Buddhism by publishing a flyer showing Buddha wearing headphones to promote their bar. Amos Yee Pang Sang, a 16-year-old blogger in Singapore was sentenced to a 4 week prison term in July for insulting Christianity, and he “admitted to his guilt and promised not to reoffend, as he realised his actions were against the law and could disrupt social harmony” after he was required to go to counseling. An executive at a Four Seasons hotel in Indonesia is facing blasphemy charges and up to five years in prison because she allowed a gay couple to hold a Hindu ceremony at her hotel. And an Indonesian footwear company is being sued solely because the word “Allah” is printed on sandals they produced, which they’ve promised to destroy. In October, a five year prison sentence against TV personality Islam El-Behery for “contempt of religion” was upheld by Egypt. In August, two men in India murdered professor M.M. Kalburgi, who was likely targeted for his criticism of idol worship. A few weeks ago, Indian director Pan Nalin received death threats because of the blasphemous content in his newest film, and took calls warning him: “We will make sure you go Charlie Hebdo way.” Last month Kuwaiti blogger and teacher Sara Al-Drees was arrested for “Insulting the Prophet” on Twitter, and could face up to ten years in prison doing hard labor. Events of a blasphemous nature faced threats and violence as well—in February three people were wounded and one man was killed when a gunman[5] targeted Lars Vilks’ event in Denmark and a Muhammad cartoon contest with keynote speaker Geert Wilders in Texas was unsuccessfully attacked in May by two gunmen (one of the gunmen had claimed allegiance to ISIS.)

More Blasphemy Laws, More Problems

In addition to the many acts of violence committed against blasphemers this year, a few countries introduced or passed bills that will likely perpetuate that violence, or at least frighten dissidents into silence. Kuwait is considering an amendment to its 1959 Alien Residence Law, which would ban “any person convicted of contempt of religions or penalised for derision of Islam, Islamic beliefs or the Prophet’s (PBUH) companions or family members” in another country from entering Kuwait. In July, the United Arab Emirates President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan[6] decreed a law that could easily be used to target blasphemous speech. Some of the “anti-hate” law’s provisions:

  1. Criminalises any acts that stoke religious hatred
  2. Criminalises any act that insults religion through any form of expression, be it speech or the written word, books, pamphlets or online
  3. Punishes anyone for terming other religious groups or individuals as infidels, or unbelievers
  4. Provides a sound foundation for the environment of tolerance, broad-mindedness and acceptance in the UAE
  5. Aims to safeguard people regardless of their origin, beliefs or race, against acts that promote religious hate and intolerance
  6. Includes jail terms of six months to more than 10 years for those who break the law

Not to be outdone, Bahrain began drafting a bill in August that would ban “any hate or sectarian discourse that undermines national unity, differentiates between individuals or groups on the bases of religion, creed or sect and triggers conflict between individuals or groups.” New Zealand’s new Harmful Digital Communications Act says digital communications "should not denigrate an individual by reason of his or her colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.” Humanist groups have raised concerns about the law’s ability to target blasphemous speech, but New Zealand’s Justice Minister Amy Adams claimed "a person would have to do much more than simply post blasphemy to fall foul of the criminal offence in the Harmful Digital Communications Act." There’s plenty of evidence from this year alone that many people consider blasphemous statements to be “denigrations” of their religion, so Adams’ comments are poorly thought out at best[7].

Poland and Denmark both took incredibly disappointing stances this year by reaffirming the legality of their blasphemy laws. The International Humanist and Ethical Union reports that Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Vanessa Vega Saenz spoke at a UN Human Rights Council meeting in March and acknowledged that Denmark’s blasphemy law is rarely used but claimed it’s “‘legally important’ in that it gives the state the possibility to stop people burning bibles and Korans, and to punish those who do[8].” In October, a Constitutional Tribunal upheld Poland's blasphemy law that states “whoever offends religious feelings of other people by publicly insulting an object of religious cult or a place for public holding of religious ceremonies, is subject to a fine, restriction of liberty or loss of liberty for up to 2 years.” In the ruling, one of the justices said “religious criticism is acceptable, only if it’s devoid of abusive, insulting or degrading opinions” and the tribunal asserted the importance of “punish[ing] such offenses, because the public debate about religion must be conducted in a cultured and civilized manner.”

Some Rare Good News

There were a few brights spots this year, though. In March, Jordan withdrew its proposed Inter-Parliamentary Union resolution that sought to restrict speech that failed to show “respect for religions and religious symbols.” In response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, two Norway politicians pushed through a proposal in May that finally achieved the long-planned end of the country’s blasphemy law, arguing that its existence “underpins a perception that religious expressions and symbols are entitled to a special protection.” Two months later, Malta announced that it was in the process of weakening its blasphemy laws[9]. Iceland’s parliament, also motivated by Charlie Hebdo, repealed its 75 year old provision against blasphemy in July. And in October, Pakistan’s Supreme Court decided that suggesting revisions to Pakistan’s blasphemy law is not, in fact, a violation of the blasphemy law. Alarming as it is that this needed to be said, it’s still progress worth noting. It’s a minor, but important, step forward for free speech advocates demanding reform.

That Norway’s and Iceland’s blasphemy laws (like Denmark’s) were rarely, if ever, used is irrelevant—laws that could be used to punish expression often do a very good job of chilling the speech they’re intended to suppress even if they’re never exercised. And sometimes, as evidenced by the tragedies in Bangladesh and Afghanistan, blasphemy laws do worse than chill speech—their existence reinforces the idea that blasphemous speech is something that should be physically punished. It shouldn’t be, and we should be genuinely concerned about the prevalence of the desire, from governments and mobs, to inflict pain on people whose beliefs deviate from what their neighbors or leaders deem acceptable.

[1] This list probably does not contain every newsmaking blasphemy incident of 2015, but it illustrates the hostility with which religious dissent was met in the past year. I used essentially the same methodology as Ken did when he blogged about blasphemy in 2012, but I grouped the incidents differently (as you can see).

[2] These are just a few examples of ISIS’ brutality. You can easily find many more if you’re so inclined.

[3] But who among us wouldn’t threaten to sue someone willing to criticize us for doing very rational things like beheading people for not imaginary crimes like sorcery? Who are we to judge?

[4] And the only woman.

[5] His motives were not known but Vilks is a well known target for his cartoon depictions of Muhammad.

[6] A rule to live by: anyone that demands to be called “his highness” can probably be expected to “decree” terrible laws.

[7] For more poorly thought out comments, check out Keith Vaz’s “lol idk maybe” ideas on blasphemy laws in the UK.

[8] This is a fairly blunt way of saying that they like being able to chill speech.

[9] But the Justice and Culture Minister said that “the new amendments will also aim to safeguard social and racial minorities, since the law will not allow for the vilification of any minority work,” so this is still worth watching.




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  1. Sad Panda says

    And I'm reminded why I don't watch the news anymore.

    Good post, but it must have been painful to assemble.

  2. BlueDanube says

    And I'm reminded why I don't watch the news anymore.

    Good post, but it must have been painful to assemble.

    I don't know how people are "detached" from all that evil. I can't understand why some are overly concerned over the right to promote religious hate than they are in the freedom to criticize primitive ideas and ignorance. I can see how some might believe they benefit in encouraging religious fog in others. So they appear to be for freedom. Are we an "appear as if" society now? I am asking. Thank God for the freedom we have but we aren't a utopia. There are many oppressors in America.

  3. Daniel says


    A great contribution as always. Keep up the outstanding work. I'd love to see your thoughts about the EU speech codes and anti-hate-speech laws… I've argued with Europeans on the internet who seem to think EU free speech protections are just as strong as the US.

  4. Sad Panda says

    @BlueDanube: I can't figure out what the relationship is supposed to be between my comment (that you quoted) and yours.

    Slow Panda

  5. DaveL says

    New Zealand’s new Harmful Digital Communications Act says digital communications "should not denigrate an individual by reason of his or her colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.”

    I wonder, would it be considered denigration to call an individual a fool, to say of a group that they are corrupt, that they have done abominable works, that there are none of them who do any good?

  6. TimL says

    Nice work. It's kind of weird that you followed Ken's style/format on this, but yet you didn't use "taint" or "fuck" once.

    It's a depressing world out there. Sadly, posts like this could be used by someone like Trump to support his views, when it reality this should convince us all that Trump is wrong.

  7. Richard Smart says

    Dear Sarah,
    The inclusion of NZ's "Harmful Digital Communications Act" on account of the Principle 10, that A digital communication should not denigrate an individual by reason of his or her colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. was worth a good belly-laugh.

    Not that this should not be taken seriously, but that was simply a 'principle' or 'guideline' for prosecutors and the court – specifically, Principle no. 10 of 10, in section 6(1) of the Act.

    Should any idiot crown prosecutor actually try to enforce such a thing they'd be creamed by a mobb of angry kiwis led by maori members of parliament. Of course Principle 10 only came into force on 27th. November so there's been few ripples so far.

    Realistically, all such principles are made subject to section 6(2)(b), which subordinates them to the Bill of Rights Act 1990. That Act includes s14 [Freedom of expression], "Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form."

    Trust me, there is case law on this, s14 is taken seriously by the courts. And actually, there's another active Bill of Rights Act dating from 1688 – yes, that one, and doubtless enforcing Principle 10 would run foul of that, too.

    In my personal opinion anyone who thinks such 'denigration' is going to nibble at freedom of speech is completely doolally. It's true New Zealand is a monarchy with an absentee monarch whose reserve powers are delegated to the Governor-General, just like a lot of other commonwealth nations. In principle the Queen can prorogue Parliament, imprison inconvenient media people, and do all manner of things which in practice never happen or have the G-G do that on her behalf. The idea that this might actually happen is usually laughed at.

    Of course, there is a reason these are called 'reserved powers'. Given the right circumstances all bets are off, which is one reason such things never ever happen.

    This is true everywhere the writ of the Commonwealth's monarch runs, even in those places with a Basic Law in the form of a constitution, as Australian PM Gough Whitlam discovered when the Governor-General kicked him out of office and called new elections – which the opposition won in a landslide. It's still controversial which side behaved most badly, but the then G-G (John Kerr) didn't even have to call out the army.

    And NZ is right next door. Still, some things are just unthinkable.

    If push came to shove at least one politician – Tim Shadbolt – was sure from his conversation with them, that Her Majesty's Privates would shoot protesters if given the order. And the current NZ Governor General, Jerry Mateparae, was formerly head of the army. But that nation has four million-odd souls. The army has just about one thousandth that many actual troops and only a tenth of those, four companies, are combat personnel. They'd have to be supported by large numbers of the armed, angry, radical conservative kiwis who would rather like the things Donald Trump says if he wasn't such an obvious fathead. Of course, in this sort of polity, if the unthinkable has to be thought that will happen, but imprison some teen for hurting the feelings of some sensitive internet denizen?

    Not bloody likely.

  8. Everett says

    New York City wins on blasphemy laws.

    If you 'misgender' (that is, if you refer to someone by their scientific and biological gender instead of their make-believe gender like you are supposed to) then you face a $250 thousand dollar fine. This is of course a fine for blasphemy of the state religion. Where else is there a $250K fine for wrongspeech?

    Ken White of course will never call out or analyze such violations of the First Amendment (hello, this is government banning speech, in a big way!) because its not his ox being gored.

  9. Keith says

    Sarah, I'm glad to see you taking up Ken's torch on this series. I think the yearly cataloging of the evils of blasphemy laws is a rather important work, and it was sorely missed in 2014.