In his recent speech at the U.N. General Assembly, amid global protests and calls to ban perceived insults against religion, President Obama gave a stirring defense of the right to freedom of expression. “Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. … In a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities,” he said
Muslim leaders are using the controversy over a YouTube video to renew their push at the United Nations for a “defamation of religions” resolution—a global blasphemy code. Speaking for the 56-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Pakistan’s ambassador Zamir Akram said the video, like Koran-burnings and anti-Islamic cartoons, is “flagrant incitement to violence” that should not be protected by law. The Arab League is also calling for the international community to criminalize blasphemy.
While it might be tempting to treat a non-binding U.N. measure as benign or irrelevant, that would be a mistake. The “defamation of religions” resolution would validate the national blasphemy laws that have led to persecution and violence in many countries and lead to their proliferation.
Proponents of blasphemy laws promote them in the name of protecting religion. In fact, as our report— Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions” — reveals such laws are a grave threat to religious freedom. Analyzing more than a hundred cases in 18 countries, we found that governments and members of majority faiths have used these laws to stifle dissent and persecute religious minorities.
Insults—or perceived insults—against religions or religious symbols can cause real offense. But laws designed to curb such slurs only intensify the sense of grievance and put the issue in the realm of politics, often with deadly consequences. Rather than provide a peaceful mechanism to resolve conflicts, blasphemy laws tend to inflame passions and encourage violence, in the way that Jim Crow laws in the United States gave license to lynch mobs.
The cautionary example is Pakistan, where charges of blasphemy have led repeatedly to bloodshed. Its draconian laws are products of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s military rule in the 1970s and 1980s. To build support from fundamentalists, he embraced a program of Islamization and increased the severity of the blasphemy law that had existed since the country’s formation in 1947. Since 1985, Pakistan’s courts have handled more than 4,000 blasphemy cases.
The case of Rimsha Masih—the mentally impaired 14-year-old Christian girl arrested after a neighbor accused her of burning the Koran—made international headlines, yet it is more representative than extraordinary. Consider Fanish Masih, the 19-year-old Christian found dead in jail after being arrested for allegedly washing pages of the Koran down a drain. Or Muhammad Amjad, a mentally impaired Muslim charged with blasphemy after a cleric hostile to his family claimed he’d burned the Koran.
In Rimsha Masih’s case, a mob surrounded a police station and demanded that she be charged with a crime; that, too, is not uncommon. Where there is a charge of blasphemy, there is often a mob, like the one in the village of Bahmani that attacked Christians, burned churches, and destroyed homes after a man publicly accused another of defaming Muhammad. Increasingly, when accused blasphemers stand trial, vigilantes are called to arms over the mosque loudspeakers and urged to take the law into their own hands if the court does not hand down a guilty verdict.
Violence victimizes not just alleged blasphemers and religious minorities but also those who defend them. Two prominent Pakistani politicians who spoke out against the blasphemy laws—Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab Province, and Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti—were assassinated. Taseer’s daughter, Shehrbano Taseer, a journalist for Newsweek Pakistan, is carrying on her father’s dangerous work. Last October, when she came to New York to receive our human rights award, she said blasphemy laws are “instruments of repression and terror” that “ruin the lives of people every day.” Taseer reports that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are most often used to settle personal vendettas and land disputes.
Taking the recent media coverage about “Muslim rage” at face value, you might believe that “hyper-sensitive” and “childlike” Muslims are poised to take to the streets whenever they see their religion disparaged. In fact, however, if you trace the roots of the furor over alleged blasphemy, you often find people or groups making a play for money, power or revenge. The charges against Rimsha Masih, for example, grew out of an effort to expel Christians from the neighborhood—a successful effort, it turned out, as hundreds fled for safety following her arrest.
Similarly, the recent protests in the Middle East did not organically arise in response to the video, which, after all, had been available on the Internet for weeks prior to the protests. The initial instigator was Khaled Abdallah, a host on Al-Nas TV, a Saudi financed, pro-Salafi satellite television channel. As clips of the video rolled, Abdallah railed against the United States and Christians and called for protests on Sept. 11, 2012.
Religious extremists tried to take advantage of the controversy over the video to press their demands on weak transitional governments in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, arguing that banning offensive speech equates with standing up for Islam and against a hostile United States.
There will always be another video, book, or cartoon just waiting to be exploited by politically savvy demagogues. That’s why attempts to suppress this video are not only inimical to free speech principles; they’re impractical. Efforts to suppress offensive material on the Internet inevitably backfire by calling more attention to it.
What, then, should the United States do? It should forcefully condemn hateful material, as the president did in his U.N. speech, calling the video “crude and disgusting.” And, in addition to working to defeat the “defamation of religions” resolution at the U.N., it should oppose blasphemy laws already in place at the national level. In its bilateral dealings, not just with Pakistan but also other allies—Indonesia, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, India, Malaysia, Tunisia, Egypt, and Nigeria—the U.S. government should treat the abuse of blasphemy laws as the life and death matter that it too often is.