For Americans, it is easy to take for granted our freedom of religion or belief—the right of each of us to believe, or not believe, as our conscience dictates and to live out those beliefs peacefully, openly, and without fear. Religious freedom is one of the United States’ founding values, and it is guaranteed in both law and practice. For many of our fellow human beings, however, this is not the case. Reports by the Pew Research Center have found that about three-quarters of the world’s population lives in countries where religious freedom is highly restricted, either by the government or by societal actors. This is despite the fact that religious freedom is a fundamental right protected by international declarations and treaties to which most of the world’s countries have agreed.
As I see in my work at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which monitors religious freedom conditions worldwide, blasphemy laws are an all-too-common official limitation on this right. More than fifty countries around the world still have criminal blasphemy laws, though some use them more than others. These laws usually are discriminatory on their face, protecting only one or some religions. And in countries where they are enforced, they often are applied unfairly, against members of some religious or belief groups and not others. They also foster vigilante and terrorist violence.
Among the most severe, and most frequently applied, is Pakistan’s law, which imposes the death penalty for defiling the name of the prophet Muhammad and life imprisonment for desecrating the Qur’an. Blasphemy allegations—which are often false and used to settle personal scores—result in lengthy detentions and violence, particularly against Christians and Ahmadis, members of a religious group who view themselves as Muslim but whom the government of Pakistan has deemed non-Muslim. Currently, USCIRF is aware of thirty-eight individuals on death row or serving life sentences on blasphemy convictions in Pakistan, a statistic unmatched in any other country.
In Saudi Arabia, blogger Raif Badawi—the founder and editor of an online forum that allowed diverse views to be expressed freely—is serving a ten-year prison sentence for insulting Islam. He also was sentenced to one thousand lashes (fifty of which were imposed in January) and a substantial monetary fine. In Egypt, charges under the country’s blasphemy provision have increased since the ouster of the Mubarak regime in 2011, particularly against Coptic Christians but also against Muslim dissidents and atheists. This has occurred under both the Morsi and al-Sisi governments. Other countries where there have been blasphemy investigations or prosecutions in the past few years include Burma, Greece, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Sudan, and Turkey. Official enforcement of these laws is not the only problem. Extremists often take it upon themselves to punish violently perceived blasphemers or their defenders. For example, in February and March 2015, two nonreligious bloggers, Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman, were brutally hacked to death in broad daylight on public streets in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Roy’s wife was seriously injured. In January and March 2011, two Pakistani government officials—Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, a Muslim, and Minister of Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian—were assassinated for speaking out against that country’s blasphemy law and in support of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death under it. Lawyers who represent individuals accused of blasphemy also have been targeted.
This extremist violence, moreover, has not been limited to countries that have and enforce blasphemy laws, although it is more frequent in them. The dangerous idea that blasphemy justifies violence was also behind the January 2015 terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, for instance.
Blasphemy laws, which protect beliefs over individuals, violate not only the freedom of religion or belief but also the closely related freedom of expression, both of which are guaranteed by international norms. They empower governments, majorities, and extremists against individuals, minorities, and dissenters. When enforced, they result in serious human rights abuses, and even if not enforced, they chill the exercise of protected rights. Though often justified as needed to promote religious harmony, they in fact have the opposite effect, exacerbating religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence.
The United States government and the European Union have urged the release of blasphemy prisoners and the repeal of blasphemy laws in their diplomatic efforts to promote religious freedom internationally. USCIRF has also made these issues a priority in our work, as have many nongovernmental organizations, including the Center for Inquiry.
These efforts are vital, and not just because religious freedom is a fundamental human right. There is increasing evidence that countries that protect freedom of religion or belief for all—including for members of the majority faith, dissenters, minorities, and those who hold no religious beliefs—tend to be more stable, prosperous, and peaceful. Countries without these protections often suffer from violence, extremism, and instability. As a result, promoting religious freedom for everyone, everywhere, is a way to help promote security. The end of criminal blasphemy laws would be a good start.