Execution for a Facebook post?
Why blasphemy is a capital offence in some Muslim countries

The Prophet Muhammad never executed anyone for apostasy, nor encouraged his followers to do so. Nor is criminalising sacrilege based on Islam’s main sacred text, the Koran. In this essay, Ahmet Kuru exposes the political motivations for criminalising blasphemy and apostasy

Junaid Hafeez, a university lecturer in Pakistan, had been imprisoned for six years when he was sentenced to death in December 2019. The charge: blasphemy, specifically insulting Prophet Muhammad on Facebook.

According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Pakistan has the world’s second strictest blasphemy laws after Iran. Hafeez, whose death sentence is under appeal, is one of about 1,500 Pakistanis charged with blasphemy, or sacrilegious speech, over the last three decades. No executions have taken place.

Since 1990, however, 70 people have been murdered by mobs and vigilantes who accused them of insulting Islam. Several people who defended the accused have also been killed, including one of Hafeez’s lawyers and two high-level politicians who publicly opposed the death sentence of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman convicted for verbally insulting Prophet Muhammad. Though Bibi was acquitted in 2019, she fled Pakistan.

Blasphemy and apostasy

Of 71 countries that criminalise blasphemy, 32 are majority Muslim. Punishment and enforcement of these laws varies. In Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania and Saudi Arabia, blasphemy is punishable by death. Among non-Muslim-majority cases, the harshest blasphemy laws are in Italy, where the maximum penalty is three years in prison.

Pakistani lecturer Junaid Hafeez (photo: Asad Jamal)
Junaid Hafeez was a lecturer in English literature at Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan, Pakistan. Appointed in 2011, he soon found himself targeted by an Islamist student group who objected to what they considered Hafeez's "liberal" teaching. On 13 March, 2013 Hafeez was arrested – accused of using a fake Facebook profile to insult the Prophet Muhammad in a closed group called "So-Called Liberals of Pakistan". Imprisoned without trial for six years, much of that time spent in solitary confinement, the academic was finally sentenced to death in December 2019

Half of the world’s 49 Muslim-majority countries have additional laws banning apostasy, meaning people may be punished for leaving Islam. All countries with apostasy laws are Muslim-majority except India. Apostasy is often charged alongside blasphemy.

This class of religious laws enjoys considerable popularity across the Islamic world. According to a 2013 Pew survey, about 75% of respondents in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and South Asia favour making Sharia, or Islamic law, the official law of the land.

Among those who support Sharia, around 25% in Southeast Asia, 50% in the Middle East and North Africa, and 75% in South Asia say they support "executing those who leave Islam" – that is, they support laws punishing apostasy with death.

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