It is shocking to note that almost half of the world’s countries have laws and policies that criminalize blasphemy, apostasy, conversion, or so-called “defamation of religion.” These “crimes” are sometimes punishable by death, as is the case in 12 countries, or life imprisonment. The impact of such laws, which tend to be vague and poorly defined, tends to drastically limit the exercise of freedom of religion and expression. They all too often lead to the persecution of members of minority groups.
One need only look at recent news stories to see the impact these laws can have on people around the globe. A university lecturer in Indonesia recently became the target of a police investigation after he was accused of blasphemy. The acts for which he was being investigated? Posting a Facebook status that read, “Allah is not an Arab. Allah will be happy if His verses are being recited with Minang, Ambon, Chinese, Hip hop, Blues style.” In Egypt this year, authorities charged individuals ranging from a prominent poet to four Coptic Christian teenagers on such charges. Naghash Zargaran, a Christian convert in Iran, has been in prison since 2013 for apostasy, which has in turn been spun by authorities into a charge of “threatening national security” due to her Christian activities.
Furthermore, these laws have a cascading effect that go beyond simply infringing on an individual’s freedom of conscience and expression. Laws can contribute to shaping societal norms, and the enforcement of blasphemy laws has a pernicious effect on the rule of law in many countries. In numerous instances, mere accusations of blasphemy have sparked vigilante mob violence and killings. The existence of blasphemy laws create the kind of environment that led to the death of a young Afghan woman named Farkhunda at the hands of an angry mob, a Pakistani Christian couple being burned alive in a brick kiln, and dozens of targeted killings of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan in recent years.
Acknowledging the tragedy and suffering that is often behind these laws is critical to our effort to address this challenge. By the same token, it is also worth noting the heroic efforts of those who show moral leadership and stand up for those who would otherwise face persecution under blasphemy laws. For example, in July 2015 in Pakistan, three Muslim leaders worked to quell a mob in Lahore after a group of people accused a Christian man of blasphemy for allegedly burning pages of the Quran. The imam of a nearby mosque heard about the rising tensions and immediately went to the scene to calm the crowd. He was joined by two other prominent Muslim leaders, and they physically stood between the angry mob and the Christian community until the crowd dissipated. Civil society sources have shared stories of many similar incidents in Pakistan.
Despite these challenges, my colleagues and I in the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom regularly engage with other countries to call attention to particular cases and press governments to provide physical security and due process protections for individuals accused of blasphemy. We also, through our programmatic work, support those who have fallen victim to blasphemy allegations and charges. Based on recommendations put forth in UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, the United States has conducted workshops in several countries, bringing in experts to share best practices for building religiously tolerant societies. Our efforts also include grants funding that supports grassroots efforts to reform and repeal blasphemy laws globally.
The task is daunting, but worthwhile because the repeal of blasphemy laws will ultimately, bring about a more free and prosperous world.
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