Pakistan Leads the World in Blasphemy Prisoners

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March 27, 2014

Pakistan Leads the World in Blasphemy Prisoners

By: Knox Thames and Elizabeth Cassidy for the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs

There is a global rise in the use of blasphemy laws. More than simply placing roadblocks to free speech, these laws are inherently problematic, leading to human rights abuses and the destabilization of societies. The United States and other countries valuing the intertwined freedoms of religion and expression should make clear their objections to these laws and work to see their repeal.

Many countries have laws that punish expression deemed blasphemous, defamatory of religion, or contemptuous or insulting to religion or religious symbols, figures, or feelings. The U.S. Commission on International Religious freedom (USCIRF), where we work, recently released a policy brief highlighting the broad use of these laws. The brief also named individuals sentenced to jail for merely expressing a religious belief differing from that of the majority or official religion of the state.

The study also found that Pakistan sits apart from all others in its use of its draconian law.

Blasphemy is defined as “the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God.” In many countries, laws criminalize these acts, as well as any expression deemed contemptuous of sacred things. While such expression might be insensitive or hurtful to many, laws banning blasphemy are not the answer. They inappropriately position governments as arbiters of truth or religious rightness, empowering officials to enforce particular views against individuals, minorities, and dissenters.

Blasphemy laws collide with international human rights standards, as they protect beliefs at the expense of individuals, and they often violate the freedoms of religion and expression, especially when people are jailed. Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (the ICCPR) protects the individual right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the right to manifest this belief through various acts, such as worship, observance, practice and teaching. Limitations are permitted only to protect “public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” Article 19 of the ICCPR protects the individual right to freedom of expression, which may only be limited to protect the rights or reputations of others, national security, public order, or public health or morals. Speech can never justify the jailing of individuals.

In addition, blasphemy laws are easily abused or manipulated through false accusations. While promoted on behalf of religious harmony, these laws produce the opposite effect, encouraging extremists to impose their notions of truth on others. This can exacerbate intolerance, discrimination, and violence. In contexts where an authoritarian government supports an established religious creed, blasphemy accusations often are used to silence critics or democratic rivals under the guise of enforcing piety.

States as diverse as Bangladesh, Greece, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have all arrested individuals for activities considered blasphemous. Additionally, new legislation is moving forward: Tunisia’s new constitution had a blasphemy provision added at the eleventh hour, Russia recently enacted a blasphemy law, the Kurdistan region of Iraq has considered laws of this type, and the Arab League is also considering a regional blasphemy law.

Yet it is Pakistan’s blasphemy law that is used at a level far exceeding that of other countries. Pakistan has the dubious distinction of having more people sentenced to jail for blasphemy than any other country in the world. The USCIRF has received reports of 14 individuals currently on death row on blasphemy convictions and 19 others serving life sentences. Countless other Pakistanis have been arrested for this same “crime” and await sentencing.

Pakistan’s frequently invoked blasphemy law carries the death penalty or life in prison. There are no procedural safeguards, making the law ripe for abuse. While the death penalty for blasphemy has never been carried out, individuals accused of blasphemy have been murdered in vigilante violence. Mere allegations often serve as an accelerant in combustible situations, resulting in mob attacks or violence that undermines Pakistan’s stability and empowers extremists. Despite the law’s rampant abuse and lack of procedural safeguards, Pakistan’s Federal Sharia Court recently ruled that the death penalty should be the sole penalty for blasphemy.

In conclusion, this trend of greater usage of blasphemy laws will surely lead to increased violations of the freedoms of religion and expression. Governments will jail people and extremists may kill others in the defense of undefined notions of religious sentiment. Blasphemy laws fail to produce social harmony and are inherently problematic. If the goal is to build respect for different faiths and viewpoints, governments should protect freedom of conscience for all while promoting tolerance and interfaith understanding.

Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Elizabeth Cassidy is a Deputy Director for Policy and Research at USCIRF. The views expressed here are their own. Knox can be followed on Twitter @thames22 and Elizabeth @EKCassidy. 

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