On Blasphemy Laws

| by Malhar Mali |

Walaiha Irafat did not know why they came for her. In Pakistan, during March 2012, she was arrested for allegations of “spitting and sitting on the Koran,” and also “tearing pages and insulting Allah.” After being denied bail, Walaiha spent 43 months in prison — around 24 of those were in solitary confinement. She attempted suicide in her prison cell in October 2013.

It took the involvement of Saul ul Malook, the same lawyer who took on the Asia Bibi case, and the relentless efforts of M Aman Ullah, a man who would eventually go on to become Walaiha’s husband, for her to be released on bail in 2015. But that was not the end of her ordeal. Her marriage to Mr. Ullah was on October 28th that same year. A short while later she was gang raped as retribution for her supposed crimes.

Walaiha finally managed to escape Pakistan in late 2016 and is currently in hiding in an unnamed Islamic country. Her husband, M Aman Ullah, who remained in Pakistan, helps others accused of blasphemy seek legal help and other counsel. After his marriage to Walaiha, the local Mullahs declared that he could no longer follow Islam and should be killed for marrying and helping a blasphemer. He lives a life of danger and uncertainty — always on the lookout for religious fundamentalists who take offense at his actions.

Cases like Waliaha’s are not so rare. Blasphemy laws — laws which dictate what can and what cannot be said in terms of criticizing religions, holy figures, and books — are used in many “he said, she said” cases around the world and to often oppress religious minorities and non-believers. To learn more, I spoke with Bob Churchill who works at the International Humanist and Ethical Union and heads the campaign to End Blasphemy Laws.

The following is our exchange:

Malhar Mali: Can you give us a background on blasphemy laws, what they are, how they operate around the world and how free expression is challenged?

Bob Churchill: “Blasphemy” laws are laws which criminalize various kinds of expression about religion. Some ban irreverence, ridicule, or satire about religion. In recent years we’ve seen prosecutions against writers, comedians, social media users, and cartoonists. There was even a case from Egypt of school children from a Coptic Christian background who were just having a laugh, filming themselves pretending to pray. This was after ISIS linked terrorists had killed a number of Coptic Christians abductees. So the school children were simply responding to terrorism with mockery. For this, they were accused of “blasphemy” and actually faced trial and imprisonment.

Some “blasphemy” laws ban criticism of religion more generally. So for example if you wrote or talked about religious beliefs, practices, figures, institutions, leaders and so on, in a critical light, then you might face charges. I would say this is happening increasingly across Islamic states in particular, where simply to question or raise concerns about any particular element of religious life, even if it’s quite tangential really to core religious beliefs, can be used to attack or prosecute you as a “blasphemer.” Perhaps the most famous and twisted example of this is from Pakistan, where those who question the “blasphemy” law itself are accused of a “blasphemy!” Another example: in recent months in Indonesia there has been a huge backlash against the mayor of Jakarta. He had said publicly that some competing candidates in an election were using verses of the Koran against him — because he is a Christian and of Chinese descent, essentially. He said this was unfair, and bad election practice. And for this he was accused of “humiliating” the Koran and faces a “blasphemy” trial.

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Nahed Hattar, a Jordanian writer who was shot in the head for sharing a picture of Prophet Mohammed on Facebook

Of course, “blasphemy” laws also tend to prohibit certain kinds of non-conformism or minority views, so if you describe yourself as an atheist “apostate” (someone who has left religion) you may face “blasphemy” or “apostasy” charges. And minority religious groups often suffer: recently there have been death sentences handed to men in Nigeria who believe in a sect which is “heretical” to mainstream Islam. Ironically this kind of prejudice is often distorted whichever way is necessary to cause minorities the most harm: take Baha’is in Iran and elsewhere, who are told that their religion is a deviant form of Islam and therefore “blasphemous,” and compare their situation to Ahmadis around the world, who do identify as Muslim but are told that they’re not Muslims and that to claim they are Muslims is “blasphemous!”

I think it’s also important to note that there are different kinds of victims here. Sometimes it is writers and satirists and campaigners on many and various issues who are targeted for work they have actually done or words they have actually written or spoken. Usually it’s work and writing around human rights topics, expressing humanist values, campaigning on particular issues or pointing out the problems or absurdities with some specific religious belief or practice or institution. Other times people are accused as it were completely out of the blue: lots of cases in Pakistan revolve around people accused of “desecrating the Koran” and the evidence can be extraordinarily light and yet still people can be dragged through the courts and end up in prison — sometimes on death row — for years. That’s if they haven’t been killed by a “blasphemy” mob. Always these accusations just seem to be people being framed, either because they’re a business competitor, or some kind of personal feud, or just to try and get rid of a religious minority. The Rimsha Masih case from a few years ago is instructive here: a Muslim cleric who had previous talked about how useful it would be to have some kind of incident that provoked furore against Christians in Islamabad was basically caught in the act of himself burning pages in order to frame a young girl from a Christian background.

We must avoid saying that in the latter kind of case the victim is “blameless” because that would imply some kind of fault on the former kind of case. We should probably call them something like “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” cases — to indicate whether the injustice they are facing originates from their own actions or outside of it. But both kinds of case are equally important: we need the right not just to say and campaign and question, but also to just be who we are.

As you can see, there are lots of variations on how these laws are worded and how they are applied.

MM: I suppose these laws function to protect religions from “insult,” but where does criticism of ideas tie into this? Are these laws just used by religious authorities to silence dissent?

BC: They can be used by religious authorities — groups, individuals and so on. They can also be used by state authorities, for example in order to enforce a religion which they see as beneficial to their rule, or to society. We have to be careful about lumping together all authorities in a country, of course. A parliament is not the same as a government, and very often in some of the countries where “blasphemy” laws are used most perniciously and harmfully many politicians know very well that this is the case, but are intimidated into silence, or into paying lip service to “blasphemy” laws, for fear of losing their seat — or worse for fear of assassination. Imagine being a politician in Pakistan and knowing that some of your fellow lawmakers had been murdered just for saying there were problems with how the “blasphemy” law was applied!

I think a good example of how complex the situation can be is Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, since around the beginning of 2013 and most especially in 2015, we saw a whole spate of murders against writers, bloggers and activists who were accused of “insulting” Islam: mostly they wrote about extremism and Islamist political parties, about human rights especially minority and women’s rights, and about their views on how science and reason stand against faith. For this, they were targeted by machete-wielding men and butchered in the streets. Of course, the Bangladesh government would occasionally condemn these murders, but at the same time it would also keep reminding everyone that those who had been murdered were accused of “insulting Islam.” The prime minister Sheikh Hasina kept saying how Bangladesh wanted “harmony” and that atheists shouldn’t talk critically about religion (I suppose everyone always saying the same things as everyone else is technically a kind of harmony — but true harmony requires people singing different notes!). And several atheist bloggers were actually prosecuted under the country’s quasi-“blasphemy” law, the ICT Act, and this was after the murders began. So in other words the government responded to extremists who were murdering people by in effect legitimizing their complaint.

In Bangladesh, that quasi-“blasphemy” law says you can’t “hurt religious sentiments,” that’s how it is worded. But there are lots of rising radicalist groups in the region whose sentiments seem to be fantastically sensitive to hurt! They get hurt by Facebook posts they haven’t even read, they get hurt by rumours about what someone might once have written in a book, they get hurt by satirists drawing cartoons about ISIS even! So of course, it’s easy to prove “hurt sentiments,” and it means that the space for free expression is diminished, not just by the murders, but by the government itself playing into their hands, by supporting the idea that critical talk about religion must be prohibited in law.

MM: Raif Badawi, Asia Bibi, these are only the best know cases of blasphemy law victims. Does End-Blasphemy-Laws.org keep track of the number of cases around the globe where Blasphemy Laws have been used to silence citizens ?

Asiia.jpg
Asia Bibi

BC: We maintain information about countries with “blasphemy” laws, and this includes individual cases. I wish we had the resources to be able to say that it was totally exhaustive, and then put numbers on it, but part of the problem with these laws is that they’re often applied in some of worst countries for human rights generally, or in some of the murkiest situations: a Sharia court in northern Nigeria, an illegitimate authority in some militant-occupied territory, or a village council in rural India, where accountability and transparency are non-existent. So we can say that we know of x number of cases in a given country, but I wouldn’t want to say that we’d necessarily captured every case and put on a number on it. Definitely you can say that for every Raif Badawi there’s dozens or hundreds more campaigners and writers facing charges and imprisonment. For every Asia Bibi there’s dozens or hundreds more members of minority groups being persecuted quite arbitrarily.

At the IHEU, both through our Freedom of Thought Report and the End Blasphemy Laws campaign, when we look at those countries with “blasphemy” laws, it’s important to note that we’re looking at countries with laws that criminalize what should be legitimate talk about religion, whether or not the law actually used the word “blasphemy” or “blasphemous libel” for example. In some cases they use words like “heresy.” More often they use language about “insulting religion” or “hurting religious sentiments” and so on. So in our monitoring and campaigns work we try to include the problematic laws regardless of their exact terminology.

What you can say in terms of trends certainly is that right now, at our current moment in history, the worst states in terms of having and using “blasphemy” laws to curtail free speech, resulting in terrible human rights violations, are Islamic states. This isn’t exclusively so: the rise of Hindu nationalism in India has meant “blasphemy” type cases there, including ones where mainstream Muslims are the target, and it’s not just Hindus but Sikhs too getting on the “blasphemy” bandwagon in India. In Myanmar it’s the Buddhists who have a radicalized nationalism problem and there have been a couple of “blasphemy” prosecutions against people supposedly insulting Buddhism. But it’s usually Islam or the Koran or the prophet and his family and so on that is said to have been “offended” or “blasphemed” Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia all have death penalties for “blasphemy.” You can go to prison in another 43 countries for “blasphemy”-type crimes, most of which are Islamic countries, but also absurdly includes the likes of Denmark and Germany. And another 26 countries have some other sort of restriction, for example “blasphemy” might get you a fine. You can get a summary of all the data from our Freedom of Thought Report here.

I also think that whenever we talk about “blasphemy” laws we must also talk about “apostasy” laws, which criminalize the simple act of saying you don’t belong to the religion you were born in. Again, it’s a kind of “blasphemy,” but this specific act is particularly demonized in Islam, and the list of countries with a death penalty for the specific act of “apostasy” increases to 13. Often some other kind of supposed “blasphemy” is used as evidence of “apostasy” where someone hasn’t declared themselves an “apostate” at all.

MM: Some people talk about the “misuse” or “abuse” of blasphemy laws. Would you say the problems you’ve discussed are about misusing laws, or is the objection to blasphemy law more fundamental?

BC: I would say it is more fundamental, and at the IHEU we try to avoid talking about the “misuse” of these laws, because any use of them is wrong. There is no right way to use these very wrong laws. And in reality, the kind of persecution and intimidation we see in connection with these laws really is part of what they were intended for: to marginalize and suppress.

I think people are lying to themselves if they imagine that there’s some kind of peaceful, sensible way to use “blasphemy” laws. They are always a contravention of the human right to freedom of expression. They always criminalize minority thought and minority belief. They always protect harmful practices and bad people from necessary criticism. They always result in good and innocent people being demonized, sometimes imprisoned, sometimes killed.

So, while obviously some cases are more horrifying than others, they’re all wrong. And I would challenge any casual defender of “blasphemy” laws to show me any place — at any time in history — where they consider that “blasphemy” laws have been used “correctly” and have had a good, peaceable, sensible effect to the benefit of all in society! It does not and has never happened, because all these laws do is attempt to elevate religion above criticism, to inoculate religion against satire and new ideas. That’s why we campaign against them all, wherever they’re on the books.

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Malhar Mali writes about secularism, human rights, politics, and culture. He is the Editor at Areo. You can connect with him on Twitter @MalharMali

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