Blasphemy laws ban the expression of doubts or criticisms regarding a specific faith tradition and its symbols. These laws harm those who may not subscribe to any set of religious beliefs, but also dissidents of all religious sects, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and a number of other religious minorities. Frequently, blasphemy laws include harsh punishment statutes, including imprisonment, torture and execution.
These laws are significantly more pervasive than the average citizen recognizes. As of July 2017, 71 countries had some form of blasphemy laws on the books. This includes countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and over a third of recognized United Nations member states. The legal punishments for these laws can range from small monetary fines to imprisonment or death. The common perception is that these laws affect faith communities in the Middle East. While there are blasphemy and apostasy laws in effect across that region, they are found in every geographic area around the world.
These laws enable mob violence against community members who are accused of blasphemous conduct. Since 1990, at least 62 people have been murdered without appropriate judicial action as a result of accusations of blasphemy. In Bangladesh alone, attackers killed five and injured three allegedly anti-Islam or secularist writers and publishers. In 2017, the mayor of Jakarta, Indonesia, was put on trial for his Christian faith, a minority religious community in Indonesia, which is predominantly Muslim. He was sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemous conduct. In Pakistan in 2014, a young Christian couple was beaten and burned to death by a mob after being accused of desecrating the Quran.
While these laws are dangerous, nations are beginning to take action against some legislation. Citizens of Ireland will have the chance to vote in a national referendum later this month in an effort to repeal the blasphemy laws currently in place. While blasphemy laws in a number of states are not enforced, they provide precedence for other states to keep or enforce similar laws. It sends a terrible example to the rest of the world as international allegiances attempt to move towards a more concrete and shared understanding of religious freedom.
Two nearly identical resolutions were introduced in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. House Resolution 290 was introduced during the 114th Congress by Representatives Joseph Pitts (R-PA) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX). It was reintroduced as House Resolution 349: Calling for the Global Repeal of Blasphemy, Heresy, and Apostasy Laws in the 115th Congress by Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD). Senate Resolution 647: A Resolution Calling for the Global Repeal of Blasphemy, Heresy, and Apostasy Laws. was also introduced during the 115th Congress, on September 25, 2018, by Senators James Lankford (R-OK) and Chris Coons (D-DE). Every iteration of these resolutions has had bipartisan support, but none have yet to pass fully through their respective chambers. The resolutions prescribe specific actions that the executive branch can and should take in order to take a firm stand against dangerous international blasphemy legislation. They are supported by members of both political parties, as well as by a number of religious and non-religious non-governmental institutions. Groups as diverse as International Christian Concern, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Secular Coalition for America, the Hindu-American Foundation, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community support the resolutions as a means to protect people of all religious and nonreligious stripes.
Both resolutions 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 assorted resolutions also urge the governments of countries that enforce such laws to amend or repeal such laws and have prosecuted, imprisoned, and persecuted people on charges of blasphemy, heresy, or apostasy to release such people unconditionally and 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.
These resolutions, if passed, will continue to establish America as a beacon of religious freedom. America has long led the way on issues of religious liberty as a nation founded on the very principle. Our country voted in favor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the first time it came before the member states of the United Nations, affirming the national commitment to freedom of religion, freedom to change that religion, and freedom to manifest that religion through practice and teaching. Early Americans drew connections between freedom of religious expression, inherent human freedoms, and economic and communal growth. It’s critical that, in order for America to further establish an international reputation as a proponent of religious freedom and liberty, these companion resolutions pass in both the House and the Senate. This action will send a strong message to the global community that we, as leaders of the free world, will not stand for religious bullying, persecution, and violence in any form.
Picture Source: Reuters