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The Islamic World Has a Blasphemy Problem
How have such bad laws gotten on the books in Muslim countries? It's complicated.
JAKARTA, Indonesia — This month, Jakarta’s embattled former governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, was sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy against Islam, based on his flip quotation of a Quran verse that addresses whether Muslims can elect non-Muslim leaders. The presiding judge declared that Ahok did not express enough remorse for his indiscretion.
The verdict shocked liberal Indonesians but probably more than it should have. Blasphemy charges have steadily risen in the last decade in Indonesia and have a near 100 percent conviction rate. Meanwhile, across the Muslim world, there has been an uptick in blasphemy charges and prosecutions in recent years. Blasphemy has been spiritedly revived in Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011. In 2001, there was only one blasphemy trial in Pakistan, but now there are dozens each year. There has been a steady drip of attacks and murders of bloggers and writers in Bangladesh in the last five years, along with a deadly mass protest in 2013 demanding the death penalty for blasphemy.
The question of how blasphemy came to monopolize the political conversation in many Muslim-majority countries including Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, is clearly a question about Islam. But, contrary to what liberal intellectuals in these countries often think, the answer has to do with a lot more than just religion.
About 30 of the some 50 countries that currently outlaw blasphemy, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, are majority Muslim. Beyond the expected theocracies like Saudi Arabia, this includes states with aspirations to democracy and modernity like Turkey, Malaysia, Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia, which is officially secular but home to a population that is about 87 percent Muslim.
The use of the charge ranges from the nominal to the horrifying. Since 2016, the Egyptian poet Fatima Naoot has been serving a three-year prison sentence for criticizing the slaughter of animals during Eid al-Fitr on Facebook. A Malaysian man was charged with blasphemy for posing questions to his religion teachers. Even the mere accusation of blasphemy poses the threat of violence: In 2015, an Afghan woman was beaten and murdered by a mob in Kabul after arguing with a mullah, and last month, a Pakistani university student was killed by a mob over allegations, later discredited, of posting blasphemous content on social media.
The Quran itself says little about the charge. “There is one verse that says if you hear God’s word being mocked, don’t sit with those people — that’s all! Don’t sit with them,” said Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish intellectual currently at Wellesley College’s Freedom Project. “It doesn’t say go and punish them or even silence them.” But advocates of blasphemy laws point to verses in the hadith, the reported sayings and habits of the Prophet Mohammed that play a critical role in Islamic theology and jurisprudence, as theological grounds for punishment.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a 57-country alliance based in Saudi Arabia, has long campaigned for a global blasphemy law as protection from a broadly defined “Islamophobia,” sometimes butting heads with the United Nations. “We will protect the sanctity of [the] Holy Prophet at every cost,” said a Pakistani hard-liner, calling for the execution of a Catholic woman accused of blasphemy.
Such arguments echo the basis for blasphemy trials in pre-modern Muslim states — just as injunctions in Leviticus and elsewhere did in medieval Europe. But whereas medieval blasphemy laws were gradually abandoned or allowed to fall into disuse as Christian states secularized, Islamic countries, especially Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, have kept them on the books — and in the courts.
“As far back as the 1750s, the Saudi polity really was based on religion and specifically Wahhabism [the puritanical, literalist strain of Islam founded in 18th-century Arabia],” said Kamran Bokhari, a senior analyst at Geopolitical Futures. Due to a pact between the Saudi royal family and the preacher Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in 1744, Wahhabism is effectively the state religion of Saudi Arabia. “Wahhabism is, truly, all about blasphemy. What is true Islam and what is not,” Bokhari said. “Really, to them, most Muslims who don’t subscribe to their exacting views are committing blasphemy in some way or another.”
Modern Islamic countries, meanwhile, have accrued their blasphemy laws not as a medieval inheritance but through one of two major routes: as leftovers of European colonialism or as products of the 20th-century “Arabization” of the Muslim world in the model of the Gulf states.
The British Empire left blasphemy statutes in most of its colonies. For instance, anti-blasphemy laws were codified in British India in 1860, and Pakistan inherited them upon partition in 1947. The idea of such laws in the first place was to ostensibly maintain, through state power, inter-religious stability and (relative) harmony in staggeringly diverse colonial possessions. The rebellion of 1857 in colonial India provoked sweeping legal reforms to restore order, which came to include the 1860 blasphemy law. (The rebellion started as a mutiny of both Hindu and Muslim troops over perceived religious insults.) A desire to maintain interfaith stability remains the motive for the federal blasphemy law in places like Malaysia, a multiethnic former British colony. Egypt, although never fully colonized, used similar reasoning to add anti-blasphemy provisions to its penal code in 1981, to protect minorities during a period of deadly anti-Christian riots. (The law has since been perverted, in typical form, to disproportionately arrest minorities.)
Further evidence of the power of colonial legal memory can be found in non-Muslim-majority former British colonies like Singapore, which has a powerful sedition law that echoes the rhetoric of maintaining social harmony. That country’s current law evolved from the 1938 Sedition Ordinance, in what was then called the Straits Settlements, originally issued to control anti-colonial dissent.
If these colonial leftovers largely stem from an intent to preserve order, the parallel strain of theocratic blasphemy laws, which evolved in the Middle East, was explicitly designed to protect Islam. Saudi Arabia’s aforementioned blasphemy regulation is part of a sharia common law that has accrued over centuries and that protects its brand of fundamentalist Salafi Sunni Islam to the expense of all other sects and religions. All the other Arab Gulf states criminalize blasphemy as well, to varying degrees.
This is important context for how a country like Indonesia, which wasn’t in the British Empire, has become so invested in the offense in recent years. (It conceptualized blasphemy independently, by decree of its first president, Sukarno, in 1965.) Due to extensive Saudi cultural diplomacy over the past four decades, the Muslim world is being increasingly made in the image of the puritanical Gulf.
Over the last century, but particularly since the 1979 Iranian revolution and the secular nationalist rhetoric of Egypt’s former leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s posed ideological threats to Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, the desert kingdom has spent billions of dollars building mosques and schools, training preachers, giving scholarships, and funding media outlets in Muslim communities around the world. There are Saudi fingerprints all over Muslim communities in countries as far-flung as Indonesia, Somalia, and Bosnia — usually accompanied by a rising appreciation for Saudi cultural values.
Of course admiration of Middle Eastern culture in Indonesia is a factor in religious virtue-signaling and blasphemy crusades, said Andreas Harsono, an Indonesia expert at Human Rights Watch.
“Not least because it contains Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia is widely admired across Southeast Asia as the home of the ‘true Islam,’” said Din Wahid, a Salafism expert at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta.
Outside of Saudi Arabia, though, the full-throated blasphemy revival in the Muslim world is a relatively recent phenomenon, not an inherent part of Islamic culture. In the mid-20th century, a number of Muslim states like Egypt and Iraq experimented with a secular, left-wing, Marxist Arab nationalism.
“Blasphemy was just not an issue at that time,” Bokhari said. “It wasn’t really a concern until an ‘Islamist wave’ struck the region in the 1970s, after severe blows to the secular Muslim state like the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. It’s only through the rise of political Islam that blasphemy and the boundaries of acceptable discourse become prominent issues.”
There are three reasons that keep blasphemy a powerful charge in Muslim states, said Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. “First is the common close relation between Islam and the state, so that religious offenses can easily become state offenses. Second is the outrage felt by many Muslims if they think God or their beliefs have been insulted — a genuine religious element that should not be dismissed as a mere epiphenomenon masking the ‘true’ reason. And third, this outrage is then the subject of intense manipulation, which governments or others can exploit for narrower political ends, often to defeat their opponents — like Ahok in Indonesia and Raif Badawi [a dissident blogger sentenced to flogging] in Saudi Arabia.”
These threads are not mutually exclusive: Muslim-majority countries like Nigeria, Sudan, and the Maldives are all onetime British colonies that are now heavily influenced by Saudi culture. Furthermore, colonial blasphemy laws seem to have “stuck” harder to majority-Muslim states than non-Muslim ones; India, which is majority Hindu, does not have an explicit federal blasphemy law today — although religiously motivated laws are becoming more common.
Historical and political factors aside, Akyol thinks the blasphemy fixation is a symptom of a deeper unease. “I think Muslims in the modern world feel very insecure, which makes them aggressive and authoritarian,” he said. “Plus, free speech is broadly conceived as a liberal imposition.”
For instance, in 2012 Turkey’s then-prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told the OIC: “We cannot accept insults to Islam under the guise of freedom of thought.” The Malaysian prime minister has accused “human rightism, humanism, [and] secularism” of threatening Islam.
“Liberalism has become a Western conspiracy in conservative circles,” Akyol said. “But Muslims need liberalism for its own sake. No one defends religion when it’s sacrosanct. You impede your own intellectual progress.”
There seems to be little hope, at present, for any meaningful liberal shift. “In theory, Indonesians could petition that the blasphemy law be removed again, despite an earlier rejection in 2010,” Harsono said. “Or new evidence and international requests could be presented at the Constitutional Court.” Is there any precedent for such a popular initiative working? “None,” he said.
Marshall was even bleaker. “I can’t think of any good news on this issue in the Muslim world,” he said. “Except maybe that Ahok is alive and got 45 percent of the vote.”
Photo credit: TATAN SYUFLANA/AFP/Getty Images
Reporting for this piece was facilitated in part by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.