The term blasphemy law is an immediate turn-off for most people, implying intolerance for freedom of speech and religion, mostly in an Islamic context. Not surprisingly, in recent times, Muslim countries have become notorious for their blasphemy laws, punishing everyone who has a different view of religion than their own. We hear almost on a daily basis of Christians and other minority groups within Muslims being punished under blasphemy laws in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and even moderate Indonesia for the slightest of assumed offences.
It goes without saying that American Muslims, myself included, consider freedom of expression an important value that is not just American but also Islamic. The Prophet Muhammad himself refused to penalize people who spoke against him, but sadly as a community of Muslims we seem to have lost that sense of fairness and tolerance early Islam was famous for. These days, laws penalizing blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion are common- and considered based in Islamic tradition although nothing is further than the truth. These laws are especially abhorrent when used by a majority religion to persecute and subjugate a minority, and almost every Muslim country in the world exploits its minorities with legal injustice. But even in the rare cases when Muslims themselves are punished under such laws, that is when the laws favor the minority, they ultimately hurt society. Take the case of the Egyptian Muslim cleric sentenced to 11 years in prison for burning the Bible. For most people, including myself, the sentence seemed at first glance to be well-deserved and welcoming; a statement that the Egyptian government is making an effort to be more impartial and inclusive. Unfortunately complicit agreement of such laws, regardless of who they favor, ultimately hurt everyone, as they tend to perpetuate mistrust across religious groups, encourage views of ‘them versus us’, stifle creativity and free expression, and allow a misuse of power.
While blasphemy laws are seen as a solely Muslim phenomenon, reality is very different. According to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, nearly half of the countries and territories in the world (47%) in 2011 had laws or policies that penalized blasphemy, apostasy (abandoning one’s faith) or defamation (disparagement or criticism of particular religions or religion in general). Surprisingly for some, 8 European countries had blasphemy laws, while 36 of that continent’s 45 countries (80%) had laws against the defamation of religion. Russia recently made international headlines with its recent “legally indefinable” anti-blasphemy law while Greece has invoked its laws against insulting religion twice in the last couple of years.
In contrast, in the United States constitutional protection like the First Amendment ensure that everyone has the right to be offensive to another’s religion without fear of repercussion. As I explained in previous articles, freedom of speech can sometimes get ugly and lead to serious consequences. But these few instances aside, freedom of religion is a tremendous freedom that allows creativity, individuality, responsibility and respect to shine in this great nation of ours like no other. As a result, many Americans, especially youth, feel protected to the extent of complacency, regarding the unrest of other nations far removed from their world view.
Exactly for that reason, learning about blasphemy laws and other religious impediments to freedom is extremely important for Americans. Firstly, in the global village of the twenty first century, events occurring in one corner of the world are quick to affect people living in another corner. We watch those events on television or read about them online, and it positively or negatively affects our attitudes and ultimately our actions. So when we see offensive laws being enacted by a Muslim government abroad, we assume that Islam encourages or condones such laws. The truth, however, is that just as the actions of so-called fundamentalist Christians don’t define Christianity, and hardline Jewish behavior in Israel doesn’t reflect the teachings of the Jewish faith, similarly Muslim extremists don’t speak for Islam and so-called Sharia laws of many Muslim countries are actually opposed to the peaceful teachings of Islam. Without this crucial understanding, we in America, risk losing the essence of our freedoms as we view minority groups through the lens of extremist actions.
Secondly, intolerant laws in other countries – whether the blasphemy laws in the Middle East, anti-Ahmadi laws of Pakistan or the Islamophobic laws of France – affect all Americans because understanding these complex issues means the possibility of raising our collective voice against such injustices. A recent book The Wrong Kind of Muslim written by American Muslim author Qasim Rashid explains the value of learning about legally mandated religious intolerance in an interview:
To counter this trend, we need to do three things. Support victims of terrorism by giving them voice and ensure they are being heard. Next, we do this by combating ignorance with education. That means taking the silenced voices of those millions who are suffering and conveying that message to the world. We cannot cure a disease unless we first admit the illness exists. Finally, we must combat the fear of change with compassion and service to humanity.
Our role as Americans, whether Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Atheists or anything else, is to uphold the values of religious tolerance and freedom of expression not only in our own country but everywhere in the world. Can we set aside our complacency and rise to the challenge?