When a Coptic Christian in Egypt was accused of insulting Islam on Facebook two weeks ago, a mob swiftly gathered to attack and set fire to the homes of several Christians in the community in retaliation. This horrific incident is just one example of how blasphemy accusations lead to violence against individuals around the world.
Blasphemy laws, which prohibit insulting religion, exist in many countries, and are used to justify violence against those who express beliefs that differ from the majority. As blasphemy laws continue to violate basic human rights around the world, it is time for free countries to take a stronger stand against these laws.
This past summer, a Sharia court in Nigeria sentenced a 13-year-old boy to 10 years in prison on a blasphemy charge. The boy had been accused of using foul language about Allah when quarreling with a friend.
However, it is not just Muslim-dominated countries that retain blasphemy laws. Scotland has been entrenched in political debates this year about whether its blasphemy law ought to be updated to target hate speech. A proposed update to the law would criminalize speaking, publishing, or distributing content thought to be hateful towards minority communities.
It was just two years ago that the European Court of Human Rights refused to overturn the conviction of an Austrian woman charged with blasphemy for allegedly derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed’s life. Even in Western countries that rarely enforce their blasphemy laws, there is no guarantee that such laws will not be used. Ireland and Greece are among a few Western countries to recently repeal their blasphemy laws.
In addition to the social hostilities they often enflame, blasphemy laws are harmful because they allow the government to limit both free speech and religious freedom. When “blasphemy” is legally forbidden, it promotes the idea that some religious believers’ fragile feelings are more important than the ability of other religious believers or non-believers to express their faith.
Yet, current trends indicate governments are tightening their religious restrictions. A study by the Pew Research Center released in November found that government restrictions on religion around the world have reached their highest point in the past 11 years. And at least 70 countries still have blasphemy laws on the books today, according to a recent report by Family Research Council.
Faced with the global scourge of blasphemy laws, what can the U.S. government do?
1. Congress can pass a resolution calling for the repeal of blasphemy laws around the world.
While lacking the force of law, resolutions can still send a strong message that Congress either supports or condemns the behavior of other countries. Opinions expressed by the U.S. government can carry a lot of weight for countries looking to modernize and secure positive relationships with the West. H.Res.512, which passed in the House of Representatives last week, is a good example of a resolution that calls for the global repeal of blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws. The Senate can follow up by passing its own version of the resolution.
2. The State Department should utilize its diplomatic efforts to advocate for an end to blasphemy laws in countries that maintain them.
The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 established mechanisms to incorporate the promotion of religious freedom into American foreign policy. In standing with the United States’ interest in advancing religious freedom and other human rights, American diplomats at all levels who work in countries that have blasphemy laws should raise this issue in discussions with their counterparts.
3. The State Department can prioritize the repeal of blasphemy laws through the Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance it helped launch earlier this year.
The alliance is intended to be what U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback has called the “activist club of nations” who are serious about promoting religious freedom as a fundamental human right. This venue ought to be maximized to build a coalition of countries to join in calling for the repeal of blasphemy laws.
As blasphemy laws continue to harm individuals around the globe, free societies should not look the other way. By defending the fundamental rights to freedom of speech and religion, free countries can appropriately leverage their influence to affirm the freedoms they cherish for all people.