In the 21st century, several predominantly Muslim countries uphold laws against "blasphemy", "defamation of religion" and "apostasy". In Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Somalia both blasphemy and apostasy are punishable by death. Apostasy is also a capital offence in Malaysia, Maldives, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Sudan and Mauritania. In other Muslim countries the draconian enforcement of proscriptions against apostasy and blasphemy prevails. Cruel and humiliating punishments (public floggings), severe prison sentences and other infractions of the 1984 Convention against Torture are widespread.
Inevitably, legislating against blasphemy results in witch hunts, absurd conflicts of interests, unmistakable hypocrisy and leads to blatant infringements of human rights. Two recent cases from Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, illustrate much of this:
From 2017 to 2019 the former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, served a two-year prison sentence for voicing an opinion on a verse in the Koran. An ethnic Chinese Christian, Ahok was denied the right to disagree with some Islamic scholar, who is apparently at least as authoritarian as his followers may deem him authoritative.
In another 2018 case, Meiliana, an ethnic Chinese Buddhist, was jailed for 18 months. Her crime? She had complained about the excessive volume of calls to prayer from a minaret in her neighbourhood. That was read as "insulting Islam"… Freedom of opinion? Freedom of expression? Entitlement of a religious-ethnic minority to protection? Such "non-Islamic" issues are sacrificed on ubiquitous altars to the voracious, insatiable idol of ostracising "blasphemy", "defamation of religion" and "apostasy".
A fundamental contradiction of human rights
This practice flies in the face of fundamental human rights, which are non-negotiable. It is insane to undermine these principles which the UN adopted in 1948. At the time, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a response to World War II, its genocidal violence and horrific war crimes. Depressingly, brutalities of this kind still occur, but when they do, human rights are always neglected and infringed upon first. Other human-rights agreements are meaningful too, for example, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Freedom of opinion and expression (ICCPR, article 19) is indispensable.
Therefore article 20 prohibits hate speech. This is imperative, not least to strengthen another cardinal fundamental human right: freedom of religion or belief (article 18). This fundamental human right guarantees freedom of conscience, thought and opinion. Therefore it includes the right of the individual to change his/her religion and to convert to another religion.
Prohibiting "blasphemy", "defamation of religion" and "apostasy" exacerbates religious intolerance, extremism and violence. Criminalising such "issues" is inherently anachronistic and untenable. A sobering reality check is furnished by states that respect, protect and fulfil fundamental rights. Attuned to the 21st century they tend to have good records of political and social stability, of economic prosperity and of long-term sustainability.
An end to the banning of blasphemy, sanctions against "religious slander" and intolerance when individuals change their religion is long overdue.
Thomas Krapf is a human-rights lawyer and policy advisor.