What did the terrorist attacks against the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and the kosher supermarket in Paris share with the flogging of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi in Jeddah last month? Each was an assault on freedom of conscience, religion, or belief. Moreover, in the Charlie Hebdo and Badawi cases, those responsible denied their victims the right to speak freely about religion because, in their view, such critics are blasphemers who insult religion and must be punished.
People naturally should try to do their utmost to honor and uphold each other’s inherent dignity as fellow human beings and respect their most cherished beliefs. But when this laudable idea is rejected by a demand that perceived transgressors be silenced by force — including even murder and torture — rather than engaged through debate and discussion, the line has been crossed from freedom to coercion.
As the Badawi case illustrates, it is not just private individuals and groups which cross that line. Governments also label and punish certain speech by enforcing blasphemy laws, some of which carry the death penalty. In so doing, they embolden citizens to commit bloodshed against alleged blasphemers.
In the face of this assault on human rights and dignity, the world community must confront these abusive laws and the horrific acts they unleash, pressing offending nations to repeal these statutes and release people imprisoned because of them.
As Badawi can attest, one such nation is Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom enthrones its own interpretation of Sunni Islam and bans the public expression of any other religious belief. Dissenters may be charged with offenses ranging from apostasy to blasphemy.
Badawi founded and edited the Free Saudi Liberals website, a forum for the free expression of diverse political and religious views. The government arrested him in June 2012, charging him with apostasy and “insulting Islam.” While in January 2013, a Saudi court dropped the apostasy charge, it sentenced him in July 2013 to 600 lashes and seven years in prison on other charges and ordered that his web site be shut down. Last May, an appeals court increased the sentence to 10 years and the number of lashes to 1,000, or 50 lashes weekly for 20 consecutive weeks. Badawi’s latest flogging has been postponed and the Saudi high court is reviewing his case.
While Saudi Arabia punishes dissenters from its interpretation of Sunni Islam, Iran does likewise to those it deems to threaten its own brand of Shi’a Islam. Muslims, including Shi’a dissenters, and non-Muslims including Baha’is and Christians, who have been jailed, tortured, and executed for “insulting Islam” or “waging war against God.”
But when it comes to the application of blasphemy provisions, no nation is more zealous than Pakistan. While these laws largely target Muslims and carry the death penalty or life in prison, they disproportionately impact religious minority communities. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, on which we serve, knows of at least 17 Pakistanis on death row and 19 more serving life sentences for blasphemy, with many more awaiting trial.
Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes also fan the flames of skyrocketing sectarian violence and provide extremist groups and vigilantes fuel to unleash terror, especially against minorities, with impunity.
No Pakistanis are safe from these laws, not even government officials. In 2011, Shabbaz Bhatti — Pakistan’s minority religious affairs minister and a Christian, and Salmaan Taseer — the governor of Punjab province and a Muslim, were assassinated for opposing these laws. Reacting to mere allegations of blasphemy, mobs recently lynched a Christian man and his pregnant wife, while a policeman used an axe to kill a Shi’a in custody.
Clearly, the world community must respond to these abuses.
In March 2011, the United States and like-minded countries blocked efforts at the United Nations to internationalize blasphemy prohibitions, defeating an initiative that promoted an international legal norm against the so-called “defamation of religions.” Instead, a framework that promotes tolerance, understanding, and community engagement replaced that flawed concept.
It is time to show similar resolve today by pressing nations to repeal their blasphemy laws and challenging leaders to promote cultures of tolerance and mutual respect.
It is particularly important for free nations to repeal their own codes. Several European countries, from Austria to Greece, Ireland to Poland, still have blasphemy laws on the books. Repealing them would send the right message.
Finally, the world should press for the release of Raif Badawi and other blasphemy-law victims. While many Western governments condemned Badawi’s flogging and urged that his case be reviewed, which reports suggest is now happening, none have called for his unconditional release.
Let the message be clear: Don’t quash speech that belittles or offends. Fight such speech with more speech — speech that ennobles. Honor freedom of expression and religion by repealing all blasphemy laws.
*Katrina Lantos Swett is chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). M. Zuhdi Jasser is a USCIRF Commissioner.