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February 29, 2012

Blasphemy Laws Exposed

The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions”

Updated March 2012

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For over a decade, efforts have been made in several venues at the United Nations to promote the concept that States have an obligation to adopt and enforce laws against the “defamation of religions.” Some of the countries that support these efforts already have such legislation in place in the form of blasphemy or similar laws that prohibit injuring religious sentiments or insulting religious figures and leaders. Those who support the concept of “defamation of religions” argue that prohibitions such as these are necessary to fight incitement to discrimination, hostility, and violence, as well as to protect freedom of religion. But the facts tell a very different story.

Such laws risk promoting an atmosphere of intolerance by providing a context in which governments can restrict freedom of expression, thought, and religion, and can result in devastating consequences for those holding religious views that differ from the majority religion, as well as for adherents to minority faiths. The loose and unclear language of these laws empowers majorities against dissenters and the state against individuals. Governments and individuals frequently abuse national blasphemy laws not only to stifle dissent and debate, but to harass rivals, legitimize violence, and settle petty disputes.

Accusations of blasphemy have resulted in arrests and arbitrary detentions and have sparked assaults, murders, and mob attacks. In February 2011, more than one thousand protestors stormed a District Court in Indonesia after a Christian found guilty of blasphemy received what extremists believed to be a too lenient sentence. The sentence was for five years—the maximum penalty allowed under the criminal code. That same month, more than one thousand Indonesian villagers armed with machetes and sticks stormed a house of worship of Ahmadiyya, a minority Muslim sect whose very existence is deemed blasphemous under Indonesian law. Three people were killed and six others wounded. The attackers were videotaped stoning their victims to death while police officers and villagers watched and did nothing to stop the bloodshed. The perpetrators of such violence received sentences of three to six months—and none were charged with murder. The same court found an Ahmadi victim whose hand was nearly severed during the attack guilty of disobeying police orders and sentenced him to six months in prison.

In this report, Human Rights First has documented over one hundred recent cases which demonstrate the gross abuse of national laws that criminalize the defamation of religions and enable governments to target individuals for the peaceful expression of political or religious views. These cases demonstrate how blasphemy and related laws:

  • Stifle Discussion and Dissent in the Public Sphere
  • Spark Outbreaks of Mob Violence
  • Violate Freedom of Religion, Thought, or Belief
  • Are Used as a Weapon to Settle Private Disputes

Human Rights First recognizes that some of these cases involve speech and acts that may be characterized as offensive. Nonetheless, much can and should be done to confront problems of intolerance, discrimination, and violence without restricting speech. Rather than creating new international norms that restrict freedom of expression, Human Rights First has developed specific recommendations to identify and advance steps that can be taken by governments, political leaders, and public officials, to confront the global problems of hate speech and the climate of hostility that may accompany violence—without prohibiting free expression.