Blasphemy Laws Attack Free Expression—
Can Freethought Hit Back?

IStoleTheTV via Fostercom / CC 2.0

He dared to question God’s existence. His tweets did not go unnoticed.

Now, an unidentified twenty-eight-year-old Saudi man faces $5,330 in fines, ten years in prison, and 2,000 lashes. And he’s hardly the first to face severe punishment for social media activity. Consider the following:

SAUDI ARABIA, 2013: Blogger Raif Badawi was convicted of “insulting
Islam” by running the website “Liberal
Saudi Network” that supported debate on religion and politics. His original punishment was 600 lashes and seven years in prison. In 2015 the conviction was overturned and replaced with 1,000 lashes, ten years in prison, $266,631 in fines, and no chance of appeal.

INDONESIA, 2014: Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, chief editor of the Jakarta Post, posted an anti-ISIS cartoon that
was protested by conservative Muslim groups. He was summoned for questioning. Despite a retraction, police still pursued the case.

RUSSIA, 2016: YouTube blogger Ruslan Sokolovski was charged with “inciting hatred and offending religious sensibilities.” His crime? Posting a video in which he played PokemonGo in an
Orthodox Christian church.

PAKISTAN, 2016: A Christian boy, age sixteen, was arrested and jailed for liking
an “inappropriate” picture of the
Kaaba (one of the holiest sites in
Islam) on Facebook. He was reported
by a Muslim who found the picture

JORDAN, 2016: An arrest warrant was issued for nonbeliever and controversial writer Nahed Hattar, who shared an anti-Daesh cartoon on Facebook that was deemed highly offensive to Muslims. Legal action was apparently
not swift enough. Hattar was shot dead on the steps of the courthouse before he could enter.

These are merely some of the latest examples of rising attacks on electronic free speech that dares to criticize religion. Much to the dismay of human rights supporters, our electronic outlook seems starkly negative.

In 2015, the watchdog organization Freedom House reported trends across the globe towards online censorship and against electronic privacy, finding that twenty-one countries have “censored content that was considered insulting to religion” in the last year alone.

Data from Pew Research Center shows that fifty-one countries (26 percent) of the world had active blasphemy laws in 2014, substantially higher than the thirty-two countries (16 percent) that did so in 2011. In every region of the world except Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, use of blasphemy laws has expanded.

The expansion of laws placing restrictions on “blasphemy,” which is usually defined vaguely and prosecuted unequally, is an affront to human rights. Blasphemy laws are not just symbolic. They are tools of social control. Indeed, as Pew notes, “countries that have laws against blasphemy, apostasy, or defamation also are more likely to have high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion.”  When a state’s legitimacy is founded on a religion, the state has an incentive to maintain that religion at all costs.

Freedom House aptly states that Internet blasphemy laws “are often enforced selectively or arbitrarily to persecute religious minorities and serve political agendas.” Both on- and off-line, blasphemy laws are often used to settle personal grudges and are more effective when the target is a racial or religious minority.

Blasphemy laws are especially problematic for atheists. In highly religious countries, attempts to promote critical thinking and progressive values are often misinterpreted as blasphemy against the local majority religion. When the stakes include incarceration, mob retribution, and death, it takes a strong heart to think free.

These religious laws do not exist in a vacuum; they are moral standard-bearers. As David Saperstein, US ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, writes for the
Department of State’s DipNote blog:

[T]hese 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.

There is cause for hope, and Saperstein is a big reason for it. In 2015, when he was sworn in, he 
inherited a position that had been
vacant for fourteen months and ineffective for seven years. In his short time in office, Saperstein oversaw a budget increase from $3 million to $20 million for programs that promote religious freedom in other nations. He has unequivocally condemned religious suppression abroad, and his activism has helped lead to Secretary John Kerry’s recognition of the ISIS-led genocide against Christians in Iraq and Syria.

And in June 2016 this year, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning “all human rights
violations and abuses….committed against persons for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms on the Internet” and any measures to “intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online.”

Rep. Joseph Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Sheila Lee (TX-18) have introduced House Resolution 290, calling on President Obama and the State Department to support the repeal of blasphemy laws worldwide. Despite its urgency, the bill awaits action from the House Committee on Foreign
Affairs. The American Humanist Association has engaged in extensive efforts, both on the Hill and through its membership network, to promote this vital piece of legislation.

If passed, House Resolution 290 might finally push our government to enact the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s recommendations of adding several countries (including Pakistan and its 1,400-plus cases of blasphemy) to the list of sanctioned “countries of particular interest.” If nations can punish “blasphemers” without repercussion, then they will continue their unjust actions.

Assuming you have the freedom to do so, take a moment to encourage your representatives to support the worldwide freedom to believe as well as the freedom not to believe. A minute for you might just save someone else 2,000 lashes.