On the Hill: AHA Speaks at Congressional Briefing on Religious Freedom in India

I was honored to be invited by our friends at the Indian American Muslim Council to speak about blasphemy laws at last week’s briefing about religious freedom in India. This event follows the American Humanist Association’s recent briefings in both the House and the Senate opposing blasphemy laws and promoting two resolutions the AHA helped get introduced: H. Res. 349 and S. Res. 647, both of which oppose blasphemy laws.

At the briefing I noted that religious freedom in India is an incredibly complex issue. Compared to neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh, where rigorous blasphemy, apostasy, and anti-religious incitement laws are enforced, India is a relative haven of religious freedom with a constitution that calls for a secular government and civic society. But on the global scale, India still comes up short regarding standards of international religious freedom, as several laws and policies restrict religious freedom rights and have led to the arrest and prosecution of individuals deemed to have offended religious sentiments.

Perhaps the most destructive of these policies is Indian Penal Code Section 295(A), which states:

Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representations, or otherwise insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.

A relic of British imperialism and colonial law, this section of the penal code  is essentially a blasphemy or anti-incitement law and is inconsistent with the pluralistic and democratic values that India typically embraces. Laws that restrict religious freedom not only infringe on the rights of Indian citizens, but can serve as a catalyst for vigilante violence. That violence has been obvious in India in the recent lynchings by Hindu nationalists of people, typically Muslims, suspected of smuggling or killing cows.

This is not to say that Hindus are the sole perpetrators of religious violence in India, as shown by the 2016 riots in West Bengal over blasphemous remarks about the prophet Mohammed. These protests led to thirty police officers being injured by Muslim rioters. It’s important to recognize that the primary victims of religiously motivated violence and oppression in India are religious minorities, such as Muslims and Sikhs.

As a way to help solve this problem, I asked the assembled congressional staff to support the previously mentioned anti-blasphemy law resolutions, H. Res. 349 and S. Res. 647.

These resolutions are supported by a wide array of religious and non-religious advocacy organizations and have bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate.

The resolutions do several important things. They call on the president and the Department of State to make the repeal of blasphemy, heresy, or apostasy laws a priority in the bilateral relationships of the United States with all countries that have such laws; and designate countries that enforce such laws as “countries of particular concern for religious freedom” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

The resolutions also urge the governments of countries that enforce such laws to amend or repeal them and to release people who have been prosecuted, imprisoned, and persecuted on charges of blasphemy, heresy, or apostasy and to ensure their safety.

Finally, the resolutions encourage the president and the State Department to oppose any efforts by international or multilateral forums to create an international anti-blasphemy norm, and any attempts to expand the international norm on incitement to include blasphemy or defamation of religions.

Congressional support for these resolutions and for international religious freedom in general are steadily growing, and the AHA will keep advocating on Capitol Hill and before international bodies to ensure the religious rights of all human beings, be they atheists or theists.

We will continue to express to Congress that as humanists, we firmly believe that the religious beliefs of our fellow human beings deserved to be respected, just as any sincerely held belief should be respected. But we are also firmly dedicated to the principle that religious freedom requires the ability to disagree with religious beliefs, and to publicly state that disagreement, without fear of governmental oppression or societal violence.