Blasphemy, right to freedom of expression and our most sacred beliefs

AFP/GETTY IMAGES Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl accused of blasphemy sits in helicopter after her release from jail in Rawalpindi … Continued


Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl accused of blasphemy sits in helicopter after her release from jail in Rawalpindi on Sept. 8, 2012.

In his recent speech at the U.N. General Assembly, amid global protests and calls to ban perceived insults against religion, President Obama gave a stirring defense of the right to freedom of expression. “Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. … In a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities,” he said

Muslim leaders are using the controversy over a YouTube video to renew their push at the United Nations for a “defamation of religions” resolution—a global blasphemy code. Speaking for the 56-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Pakistan’s ambassador Zamir Akram said the video, like Koran-burnings and anti-Islamic cartoons, is “flagrant incitement to violence” that should not be protected by law. The Arab League is also calling for the international community to criminalize blasphemy.

While it might be tempting to treat a non-binding U.N. measure as benign or irrelevant, that would be a mistake. The “defamation of religions” resolution would validate the national blasphemy laws that have led to persecution and violence in many countries and lead to their proliferation.

Proponents of blasphemy laws promote them in the name of protecting religion. In fact, as our report— Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions” — reveals such laws are a grave threat to religious freedom. Analyzing more than a hundred cases in 18 countries, we found that governments and members of majority faiths have used these laws to stifle dissent and persecute religious minorities.

Insults—or perceived insults—against religions or religious symbols can cause real offense. But laws designed to curb such slurs only intensify the sense of grievance and put the issue in the realm of politics, often with deadly consequences. Rather than provide a peaceful mechanism to resolve conflicts, blasphemy laws tend to inflame passions and encourage violence, in the way that Jim Crow laws in the United States gave license to lynch mobs.

The cautionary example is Pakistan, where charges of blasphemy have led repeatedly to bloodshed. Its draconian laws are products of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s military rule in the 1970s and 1980s. To build support from fundamentalists, he embraced a program of Islamization and increased the severity of the blasphemy law that had existed since the country’s formation in 1947. Since 1985, Pakistan’s courts have handled more than 4,000 blasphemy cases.

The case of Rimsha Masih—the mentally impaired 14-year-old Christian girl arrested after a neighbor accused her of burning the Koran—made international headlines, yet it is more representative than extraordinary. Consider Fanish Masih, the 19-year-old Christian found dead in jail after being arrested for allegedly washing pages of the Koran down a drain. Or Muhammad Amjad, a mentally impaired Muslim charged with blasphemy after a cleric hostile to his family claimed he’d burned the Koran.

In Rimsha Masih’s case, a mob surrounded a police station and demanded that she be charged with a crime; that, too, is not uncommon. Where there is a charge of blasphemy, there is often a mob, like the one in the village of Bahmani that attacked Christians, burned churches, and destroyed homes after a man publicly accused another of defaming Muhammad. Increasingly, when accused blasphemers stand trial, vigilantes are called to arms over the mosque loudspeakers and urged to take the law into their own hands if the court does not hand down a guilty verdict.

Violence victimizes not just alleged blasphemers and religious minorities but also those who defend them. Two prominent Pakistani politicians who spoke out against the blasphemy laws—Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab Province, and Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti—were assassinated. Taseer’s daughter, Shehrbano Taseer, a journalist for Newsweek Pakistan, is carrying on her father’s dangerous work. Last October, when she came to New York to receive our human rights award, she said blasphemy laws are “instruments of repression and terror” that “ruin the lives of people every day.” Taseer reports that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are most often used to settle personal vendettas and land disputes.

Taking the recent media coverage about “Muslim rage” at face value, you might believe that “hyper-sensitive” and “childlike” Muslims are poised to take to the streets whenever they see their religion disparaged. In fact, however, if you trace the roots of the furor over alleged blasphemy, you often find people or groups making a play for money, power or revenge. The charges against Rimsha Masih, for example, grew out of an effort to expel Christians from the neighborhood—a successful effort, it turned out, as hundreds fled for safety following her arrest.

Similarly, the recent protests in the Middle East did not organically arise in response to the video, which, after all, had been available on the Internet for weeks prior to the protests. The initial instigator was Khaled Abdallah, a host on Al-Nas TV, a Saudi financed, pro-Salafi satellite television channel. As clips of the video rolled, Abdallah railed against the United States and Christians and called for protests on Sept. 11, 2012.

Religious extremists tried to take advantage of the controversy over the video to press their demands on weak transitional governments in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, arguing that banning offensive speech equates with standing up for Islam and against a hostile United States.

There will always be another video, book, or cartoon just waiting to be exploited by politically savvy demagogues. That’s why attempts to suppress this video are not only inimical to free speech principles; they’re impractical. Efforts to suppress offensive material on the Internet inevitably backfire by calling more attention to it.

What, then, should the United States do? It should forcefully condemn hateful material, as the president did in his U.N. speech, calling the video “crude and disgusting.” And, in addition to working to defeat the “defamation of religions” resolution at the U.N., it should oppose blasphemy laws already in place at the national level. In its bilateral dealings, not just with Pakistan but also other allies—Indonesia, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, India, Malaysia, Tunisia, Egypt, and Nigeria—the U.S. government should treat the abuse of blasphemy laws as the life and death matter that it too often is.

Elisa Massimino is president and CEO of Human Rights First

Written by


    There are blasphemy laws on the books here in the U.S., in Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania – rarely used, but they are there and someone sooner or later will use them, constitutional or not.

  • Rongoklunk

    To think … it wasn’t that long ago when blasphemy meant torture and/or being burnt alive – back when Christianity ruled the western world. Religion was a stern taskmaster and allowed only one way of thinking; THEIR WAY. Other ways of thinking were forbidden. Think about that. Why would they kill rather then let folks think for themselves? Because freely thinking about things may lead us to the realization that there is no god except the ones people make up. And that would bring down the church and throw a million clergymen out of work. It’s inevitable that one day that’ll happen. The trend is towards nonbelief, and there’s no stopping it now.

  • bloggersvilleusa

    There is no such thing as a right to freedom of expression where defamation is concerned. The notion that we should carve out some sort of exception to defamation to allow group libels is abhorrent and leads to group libels such as the 72-virgins-for-suicide-bombers myth and the myth of the Jewish sacrifice of Christian babies at Passover to be made into matzoh. Both are classic examples of group defamation that should be prosecutable in any court rather than defended as “free speech” or “freedom of expression”. Similarly, attacks on the dead are especially onerous as there can be no direct response from the target. The reason for defamation laws is to prevent people from having to resort to violence. When defamatory statements are made about religious leaders who are beloved by a group, civilized society has the choice to punish those who make such statements through the legal process or otherwise to face the violent consequences. In relation to other forms of defamation, society has sensibly made the choice to punish through the legal process and it is time to reform the system to permit punishment of public cowards who defame the dead when there is a reasonable apprehension that violence will otherwise likely follow. That’s not suppression of free speech, that’s just plain common sense.


    Yes it is suppression of free speech, and your post reeks of religious fascism.

  • Rongoklunk

    If there really is a god, I’m sure He’ll handle blasphemers when they dead and lining up at Heaven’s gate hoping to get in. Let Him handle it. He’s God.
    And if there isn’t a God then blasphemy is a victimless crime and should be written out of any law. It would make no sense. It reminds me that Religious folks hunted and killed thousands of witches, when in fact there never were any actual witches. Like Mark Twain said it’s hard to know whether to laugh or to cry at such horror. Imagine it. Thousands of women and girls killed for nothing at all; just somebody’s superstitious and stupid religious beliefs. The mob never had it so good. And Christendom must have been Hell.

  • bloggersvilleusa

    ” … your post reeks of religious fascism.”

    LOL! Your post reeks of secularist fascism.

  • Kingofkings1

    There is no such thing as limitless free expression. Everyone has limits. For example, those who are drawing the caricatures offensive to segments of society wouldn’t normally create offensive caricatures of things their own group holds to be sacred, or universally wouldn’t draw offensive caricatures of their mothers, fathers, or close family members. Second, media also plays a role in this matter. Things offensive to jews and blacks, if presented by KKK to a local newspaper or a national TV outlet wouldn’t normally get brodcasted due to their “offensiveness”. The problem has been that for decades,the west is utilizing a “soft” crusade to denigrate islam and islamic nations. That should be discarded just as the call to crusade with arms has been discarded

  • ThomasBaum


    Do you think/believe that the god of islam is too small and petty that what mere humans say about this god should not be allowed to be freely said?

    The sad thing is that many “Christians” seem to think/believe that God is also small and petty and seek to deny human beings their God-given gift of free will.

  • itsthedax

    Any blasphemy law is based on the premise that your desire to not be offended, by something you’ve decided to consider offensive, outweighs my right of free speech.

    For that simple reason, these laws are never justified.

  • OldUncleTom

    Blasphemy laws have, throughout history, been tools of the State for using religion to exert control of the people. Convincing an illiterate Islamic population of the truth of that statement is, however, another matter.

    Personally, I think the God of Abraham, Who is worshiped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, is probably tough enough to withstand the occasional bad film or cartoon from time to time, but my life as an American includes far more than just my faith, my tribe, and my pride. In Islamic countries where people also have something to live for, radicalism tends to be a great deal less prevalent. We will notice that Bin Laden was very rich, but he always sent OTHERS to die.

  • KentL1

    I agree. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

  • ThomasBaum


    You wrote, “The Christians and muslims are NOT worshipping the same God.”

    You are correct in saying this considering that the very core of Christianity is that God became Incarnate in the person of Jesus and the god of islam not only denies this but vehemently denies this and gets rather perturbed if anyone says this or calls God their Father which Jesus clearly taught us to not only do but to take to heart.

    However, irregardless of anyone’s beliefs or lack thereof, , Jesus took EVERYONE’S sins upon Himself and God’s Plan is for ALL, ultimately, to be with God in God’s Kingdom.

    This includes everyone including those that take a detour, seeing as Jesus won the “keys” to the detours in doing what He did.

  • aby

    Blasphemy laws had been historically used as another weapon to marginalise , demean and convert Christians and Jews living under Muslim rule. This practice along with the Jizia; the exorbitant taxes levied against the “people of the book”, have diminished and still diminishing their presence in their lands that were conquered by the Muslims.

  • persiflage

    Blasphemy laws are based on religious primitivism, pure and simple. The archaic religious orientation to divine male divinities with a decidedly authoritarian view of humanity gives rise to all kinds of human rights abuses.
    Alleged religious apostates and women suffer the most severely, although children can be persecuted as well – as we’ve recently witnesses by way of Pakistan’s religous madness.

    Barbaric honor killings, female circumcision, multiple wives (essentially human property) are directly correlated with societies that take blasphemy laws seriously. The USA still has some of these idiotic laws on the books in various states, and while they are largely a vestigial leftover from bygone days, a real effort ought to be made to strike these Old Testament injunctions from our civil codes once and for all.

  • Rongoklunk

    Folks have been expecting the second coming for ever. A guy has to be totally indoctrinated into religious nonsense to believe such twaddle. It’s never going to happen. And Jesus – if he ever actually existed, is dead, dead, dead. And nobody ever came back from being dead. It defies commonsense.

  • tony55398

    The freedom of expression should not be restricted just because some faction might throw a tantrum. Islam is its own worst enemy by restrictions and hatred of Christianity, thereby showing its true self, ultimately it will destroy itself and Christ the true savior will rule, many Muslims would accept Christ now except they fear those who would kill them for converting.


    Pro life vs pro death huh-agree!


    Jesus was the champion of womens rights-see Bible!


    Time Magazine interview with Einstein in his 50s:

    To what extent are you influenced by Christianity? “As a child I received
    instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled
    by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”
    You accept the historical existence of Jesus? “Unquestionably! No one can
    read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality
    pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life!”


    Religion can be hell, Christiandom is love, God is love! It was the “religious” that killed Jesus! Loving God and loving others-what a horrible world view huh?

  • edbyronadams

    “Efforts to suppress offensive material on the Internet inevitably backfire by calling more attention to it.”

    I disagree with this assertion. Pornography proliferates and is offensive, not for it sexual content as much as for the way women are portrayed. We have pretty much abandoned any attempts at suppression.

  • edbyronadams

    Furthermore the threats of violence work. Despite an obvious lack of new material in Hollywood, go find a real film that deals with Muhammad.

  • aby

    Islam survived till now mainly because of the draconian apostacy and blasphemy laws. That is why all of the public ex-Muslims live outside the Muslim societies. Even some living in the West have huge bounties on their heads. Salman Rushdie and Ayan Hirsi Ali are among the more famous ones.

  • persiflage

    Einstein believed in the god of Spinoza – mother nature. Maybe he was a pantheist, but he was no theist.