(RNS) “God is a lie.”
In some countries, uttering, scribbling or texting that statement will get you thrown in jail, beaten with a rod or possibly killed. The “crime” is blasphemy and Wednesday (Sept. 30) is “International Blasphemy Rights Day,” set aside by human rights activists to highlight the blasphemy laws on the books in 22 percent of the world’s nations, according to the Pew Research Center.
Among those countries frequently cited by human rights groups with the most aggressive laws banning free expression are China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
“Freedom of conscience is a fundamental right, and it must be valued, protected and advanced everywhere in the world,” says Michael De Dora, director of the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy — the organization behind Blasphemy Rights Day — and the center’s representative to the United Nations. The Center for Inquiry is a humanistic and First Amendment watchdog group based in Buffalo, N.Y.
Blasphemy laws have been deemed unconstitutional in the United States since 1952, but globally the picture is different.
Adding fuel to this year’s observance of International Blasphemy Day is that Saudi Arabia — with some of the world’s most aggressive blasphemy laws and a dismal record on human rights in general — is now heading the United Nations’ Human Rights Council Panel.
China, too, is a major offender. The Chinese government under President Xi Jinping — who visited the United States last week — consolidated its “authoritarian monopoly of power” in 2014, leading to “a wide-scale crackdown on religious expression,” according to the 2015 report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“There has been a sharp deterioration in freedom of expression and freedom of religion in China,” said Jeffrey Herbst, president and CEO of the Newseum, the Washington, D.C., museum of journalism and First Amendment rights. The Newseum’s recent “Freedom Week” highlighted violations of free expression globally through a series of programs. Banners on display in front of the museum, timed to Xi’s visit, read “Release human rights defenders in China” and “Chinese government should respect human rights” in Chinese.
In Pakistan, blasphemy laws are used to target religious minorities. The case of Asia Bibi, a member of the Christian minority in the Punjab province, has received international attention. After an argument with a group of Muslim women, Bibi was arrested and subsequently sentenced to death for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. In July, after she had served five years in prison, her sentence was suspended pending appeals.
Nadeem Anthony, a lawyer and council member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan who is assisting Bibi, said judges were of “the opinion that the case was not properly investigated,” meaning investigators had departed “from the basic(s) of the principles of criminal law.”
Syed Ali Zafar, a Pakistan attorney who regularly defends those accused of blasphemy, said the vast majority of his cases “are based on false accusations.” He described the system as “abused” but deemed blasphemy laws “valid” because their absence would lead to “chaos, and chaos leads to death and injury.”
Anthony does not agree. “There are so many other ways to keep peace,” he said.
Saudi Arabia, too, regularly faces strong international criticism for its record on human rights and free expression. Cases such as Raif Badawi’s have raised public concerns about the country’s place on the United Nations Human Rights Council. Badawi is facing a thousand lashes — 20 were given in January — as well as 10 years in prison and a fine of 1 million Saudi riyal for being an apostate and criticizing religious leaders.
In response to foreign policies suppressing free expression, U.S. Reps. Joseph Pitts of Pennsylvania and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas have proposed House Resolution 290, which calls for making the repeal of blasphemy laws a condition of U.S. cooperation. They urge that the label “country of particular concern” be applied to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
“Fortunately, many governments have been strong in publicly condemning blasphemy laws, whether at the U.N., in public statements or in their softer diplomacy,” CFI’s De Dora said. “The problem is many of these condemnations are just words. What we could really use is more governments using the possibility of changing or pulling out of trade and other agreements to put some force behind these words.”
(Brandon G. Withrow teaches religious studies at the University of Findlay. Follow him on Twitter at @bwithrow.)
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