The Blasphemy Brigade

Saudi and Egyptian officials walked arm in arm with the unity marchers in Paris. But the blasphemy laws they’re happy to push at home are hypocritical, cynical, and dangerous.


On Sunday, as millions marched in France to honor those killed following last week’s terrorist atrocity on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the Saudi state minister for foreign affairs, Nizar bin Obaid Madani, joined the more than 40 world leaders gathered in Paris. The timing was awkward: On Friday, Saudi Arabia proceeded with its scheduled lashing of liberal blogger Raif Badawi, who was previously convicted of insulting Islam and was sentenced, on appeal, to 10 years imprisonment, 1,000 lashes, and a 1 million Saudi riyal fine (roughly $266,000). The lashes are to be administered over a period of 20 weeks, with Friday’s public flogging of 50 lashes being the first.

The decision to proceed with the lashing only magnified the disparity between how Riyadh reacted to the attacks in Paris and its treatment of dissenting opinions at home. Blasphemy, as distinct from incitement to violence or hate crimes motivated by bigotry, is a “thought crime” that ascribes personal and collective injury as a result of disrespectful or critical speech directed against God or religious beliefs.

Despite the medieval trappings of Saudi criminal justice, Saudi Arabia is not alone in patrolling the sacred. Prohibitions on blasphemy have taken root in several Arab countries: On Monday, Jan. 12, Egypt sentenced a 21-year-old student to three years in jail for professing his atheism via social media and for allegedly insulting Islam. The case was just one of a series of Egyptian blasphemy prosecutions in recent years that have targeted atheists, Christians, and Shiites, all with the ostensible aim of defending against potential sacrilege. In fact, the frequency of such prosecutions has increased since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and has continued apace even after the military’s ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights released a report in August 2014 that documented 36 cases of religious defamation since the Jan. 25, 2011, uprising.

These cases are not outliers. In post-Ben Ali Tunisia, amid the initial euphoria of the Arab uprisings, a television station was fined for airing a depiction of God when it screened the French-Iranian animated film Persepolis. In Libya in 2013, blasphemy charges were brought against two Libyan National Party officials for campaign posters that included cartoons discussing the role of women in society that allegedly bore a resemblance to characters included in previous controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoons; the charges were later dismissed in 2014.

Needless to say, the territorial expansion of murderous groups such as the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front in Syria and Iraq has seen the vigilant policing of blasphemy as a crime punishable by death. These prosecutions have often been justified as necessary steps to preserve social cohesion and uphold the public order. It should be no surprise, however, that such hostile attitudes toward free expression and religious liberty are often linked with much broader forms of repression.

Blasphemy and apostasy laws in the Arab world have been used opportunistically by authoritarians of all stripes, including ostensibly secular rulers, to advance control. This is a problem that will not simply be solved by addressing clerical and theological disputes, although that is a must.

It’s not only governments that have moved against blasphemy — in recent years, several high-profile incidents of perceived blasphemy have sparked mass mobilization, violent protests, and attacks. Most significantly, this was the case in the wake of the release of the farcical anti-Islam Innocence of Muslims video, which precipitated widespread global protests and violence in a number of countries. Prior to that, violent protests erupted in Afghanistan following the 2011 burning of a Quran by Florida pastor Terry Jones and the accidental burning of Qurans by the U.S. military at the Bagram Airfield in 2012. In 2006, derogatory cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published in Danish and Norwegian newspapers provoked a massive outcry, protests, and strained diplomatic relations.

In the wake of those earlier incidents, numerous Muslim-majority countries have sought to push international restrictions on blasphemy. Speaking in 2012, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby called for “the development of an international legal framework which is binding in order to confront insulting religions and ensuring that religious faith and its symbols are respected.”

During that same period following the uproar over Innocence of Muslims, then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan further elaborated on this idea, saying that “when it is in the form of a provocation, there should be international legal regulations against attacks on what people deem sacred, on religion.… Freedom of thought and belief ends where the freedom of thought and belief of others start.”

The Organization of the Islamic Conference, which includes 57 member states, has promoted the notion of defamation of religion as a cognizable legal concept, and many of its member states have sought to mainstream the idea through a series of successful but nonbinding resolutions at the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. Human Rights Council. Despite a renewed push in 2012, such efforts have never gained significant legal traction and have not in any way begun the process of establishing international norms on this issue. International human rights law remains quite clear on the impermissibility of such discriminatory measures.

While the vast majority of blasphemy prosecutions and protests have taken place in Muslim-majority countries, the scope of blasphemy legislation is, in fact, quite startling. In 2011, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life found that nearly half the countries in the world have laws or policies that penalize blasphemy, apostasy, or defamation. A shocking number of European countries — eight, including Denmark, Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands — maintain some form of anti-blasphemy laws, while all countries prohibiting apostasy are Muslim-majority.

Prohibitions on defamation, on the other hand, are much more common. Thirty-six of Europe’s 45 countries have laws on the books that make it illegal, with the majority pinpointing religious hate speech. In contrast, the vast majority of Arab states within this category penalize defamation of religions, not hate speech (which is directed at individuals). The United States does not criminalize any of these categories, and blasphemy bans are unconstitutional (such statutes remain on the books in six states, however, but are very rarely invoked and are never enforced). Instead, American jurisprudence has established a high bar for criminalizing speech, hinging on whether it “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

As a general matter, restrictions on blasphemy are problematic on two levels. First, such infringements on expression and belief represent a fundamental chilling of free thought and inquiry. Second, and more practically, in authoritarian settings blasphemy is chronically abused by the states that pursue such crimes. In this sense, blasphemy is used as a vehicle to suppress minority rights and to punish nonconformist religious ideas. The stigmatization and criminalization of blasphemy also creates a permissive environment for vigilante responses and violence against offending parties and individuals and heightens religious animus.

Separate and apart from discriminatory application, the mere existence of this body of law justifies the logic of the Charlie Hebdo attackers — merely diverging as to the manner and form of punishment. While officials from Saudi Arabia and Egypt might walk hand in hand with the good citizens of Paris, saying that they deplore these horrific vigilante murders, they clearly do agree on the proscribing of the underlying behavior in question.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has premised much of his and his government’s legitimacy on his efforts to combat Egypt’s and the region’s proliferating Islamist militant groups. He has gone so far as to argue for the necessity of a religious revolution, declaring recently that it was “inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world.”

This revolution, however, is intended only to produce a more quietist version of state-enforced religion — and one in which Egypt’s institutions will press forward with blasphemy and defamation prosecutions. These prosecutions are reflective of a public discourse that is becoming more Islamic and of efforts to inoculate the regime from religiously based critiques. But they are also part of a much broader approach in which the state has established its prerogative to limit individual rights and dissent in order to preserve social cohesion and stability.

Perhaps most ironic here is that the nature of current state administration is in many ways the vindication of Sisi’s Islamist foes, who have succeeded in altering the country’s social mores and legal practices. While members of the Muslim Brotherhood may languish in jail and suffer the heavy burden of repression, they and their Islamist fellow travelers have ultimately triumphed in shifting the constitutional and jurisprudential foundations of the state, which have become increasingly interlinked with religion.

Blasphemy prosecutions are simply one more tool for those more concerned with spurious notions of public order than with individual liberties. As Egypt’s recent trajectory makes clear, such narrow conceptions of what is appropriate to say out loud offer only stifled thought that will undermine any possibilities for the establishment of an open society, enhance religious discrimination, and reinforce authoritarian impulses. For much of the Arab world and beyond, blasphemy prosecutions will bolster current efforts to preserve the status quo — but only by helping to freeze in place the region’s unattractive social order. While such efforts may further legitimate the wider range of repressive measures employed to preserve regime survival, they will also serve to legitimate the very intolerance that bred and nurtured last week’s tragic violence.

Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

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