Human rights

Battle cry “blasphemy”

Many predominantly Muslim countries have penal laws against “blasphemy”, “defamation of religion” and “apostasy”. These laws are incompatible with human rights. In practice they serve as highly effective weapons to settle personal animosities, family vendettas and land disputes. Fanatics feel justified to hound minorities, to rob, abuse and murder as they please.
A fanatic tossing a tear-gas canister towards police during anti-Asia-Bibi protests in Karachi in February 2019. Mohammed Rizwan/picture-alliance/AP Photo A fanatic tossing a tear-gas canister towards police during anti-Asia-Bibi protests in Karachi in February 2019.

Asia Bibi on death row: an illiterate woman in solitary confinement, for almost a decade – 20 % of her life in living hell. Finally, in early 2019, the Pakistani Supreme Court acquit her. That story made international headlines, but the international public is hardly aware of her ongoing suffering after being released. In May, she could leave for Canada – but her nightmare continued there: a religious fanatic posted a video demanding she be murdered. And that video-post still makes her fear for her life.

Bibi’s blasphemy charges? Fabricated nonsense, unworthy of further comment – but in Pakistan altogether normal. What is equally normal is the indifference of the international media. Bibi was the exception that proved the rule: the final stages of her ten-year-ordeal was a global media story, but the early chapters got little attention.

Tragedies like this shed light on the complexities of the ongoing blasphemy mess. Hers has dragged on for over a decade, resulting in two assassinations.

Ten years ago, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, visited Bibi on death row. Stepping out of her cell he branded Pakistani blasphemy legislation “black laws”. In 2011, he paid with his life, and so did Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minority affairs. Both were targeted because they had dared to defend Bibi and criticise the blasphemy laws.

The governor’s assassin was his body guard. In a fair trial – which is worth noting in Pakistan – Mumtaz Qadri was sentenced according to the law of the land: capital punishment. Millions of Facebook followers and masses of typically illiterate sympathisers supported the cowardly, big-mouthed killer, who basked in the lime-light of a martyr (shaheed), for whom the doors of paradise are wide open.

In late 2015, the Supreme Court confirmed his death sentence. Pakistanis held their breath. Would then President Mamnoon Hussain pardon the killer? And would Taseer’s assassination thus become the precedent for legalised murder on blasphemy pretexts? When the murderer was indeed executed on 29 February 2016, the public was taken by surprise. For over a week millions of enraged blasphemy fanatics rallied in public, paralysing the capital and other urban hubs.

The death penalty is incompatible with fundamental human rights and has been abolished throughout most of Europe, except Russia (suspended) and Belarus (in force). In the 50 states of the USA it has been suspended in 13 and abolished in 21 states. In other parts of the world capital punishment remains the law of the land, including Pakistan. In this context the President’s refusal to pardon Taseer’s assassin amounts to an unmistakable rejection of a “blasphemy shaheed” taking the law into his own hands. This is a robust rebuttal of what is effectively becoming customary law in many parts of the Muslim world.

The battle cry “Blasphemy!” continues to serve as a perfidious, but highly effective weapon for people who want to settle property disputes, family vendettas and any other personal scores. Pakistan holds the record for both vigilante killings and (often life-long) imprisonments of perceived “blasphemers”. Decades of persecuting anyone, anywhere, anytime on spurious blasphemy accusations – frequently with the blessing of the authorities – have profoundly affected cultural mores and social attitudes.

In the 21st century, several predominantly Muslim countries uphold laws against “blasphemy”, “defamation of religion” and “apostasy”. In Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Somalia both blasphemy and apostasy are punishable by death. Apostasy is also a capital offence in Malaysia, Maldives, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Sudan and Mauritania. In other Muslim countries draconic enforcement of proscriptions against apostasy and blasphemy prevails. Cruel and humiliating punishments (public floggings), severe prison sentences and other infractions of the 1984 Convention against Torture are wide spread.

Indonesian dramas

Inevitably, ostracising blasphemy results in witch hunts, absurd conflicts of interests, unmistakable hypocrisy and leads to blatant infringements of human rights. Two recent cases from Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, illustrate much of this:

  • From 2017 to 2019 the former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, served a two-year prison sentence for voicing an opinion on a verse in the Quran. An ethnic Chinese Christian, Ahok was denied the right to disagree with some Islamic scholar, who is apparently at least as authoritarian as his followers may deem him authoritative.
  • In another 2018 case, Meiliana, an ethnic Chinese Buddhist, was jailed for 18 months. Her crime? She had complained about the excessive volume of calls to prayer from a minaret in her neighbourhood. That was read as “insulting Islam”… Freedom of opinion? Freedom of expression? Entitlement of a religious-ethnic minority to protection? Such “non-Islamic” issues are sacrificed on ubiquitous altars to the voracious, insatiable idol of ostracising “blasphemy”, “defamation of religion” and “apostasy”.

This practice flies in the face of fundamental human rights, which are unnegotiable. It is insane to undermine these principles which the UN adopted in 1948. At the time, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a response to World War II, its genocidal violence and horrific war crimes. Depressingly, brutalities of this kind still occur, but when they do, human rights are always neglected and infringed upon first. Other human-rights agreements are meaningful too, for example, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Freedom of opinion and expression (ICCPR, article 19) is indispensable. Therefore article 20 prohibits hate speech. This is imperative, not least to strengthen another cardinal fundamental human right: freedom of religion or belief (article 18). This fundamental human right guarantees freedom of conscience, thought and opinion. Therefore it includes the right of the individual to change his/her religion and to convert to another religion.

Ostracising “blasphemy”, “defamation of religion” and “apostasy” exacerbates religious intolerance, extremism and violence. Criminalising such “issues” is inherently anachronistic and untenable. A sobering reality check is furnished by states that respect, protect and fulfil fundamental rights. Attuned to the 21st century they tend to have good records of political and social stability, of economic prosperity and of long-term sustainability.

The pernicious agenda of ostracising is unacceptable. It must end.

Thomas Krapf is a human-rights lawyer and policy advisor.


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