In Pakistan, Asia Bibi (pictured with two of her five children), a Christian, sits on death row for blasphemy. Asia’s crime was to use the same water glass as her Muslim co-workers. You defiled our water, the Muslim women told her!
A pastor who has been tortured every day in prison since 2012 when he was first incarcerated, was sentenced to life in prison. Zafar Bhatti, 51, is falsely accused of sending blasphemous text messages from his mobile phone; but the charge was fabricated to remove him from his role as a Pastor.
Blasphemy laws are used to infringe upon human rights. They frequently lead to arbitrary arrest, detention, poor treatment in custody including torture, dubious legal procedures and poor application of justice. The definition of the offence can be in the hands of police and judicial authorities.
Governments have used blasphemy laws to silence political opponents. Individuals have fabricated blasphemy charges against others in communal disputes. Religious extremists have used blasphemy laws to attack opponents. Religious authorities have used blasphemy laws to impose orthodoxy on members of minority religious groups with the sanction of the state. And people accused of blasphemy have been subject to violence by unofficial mobs.
Many Muslims hated how quickly his church was growing; they have taken this action to undermine his work. Yet despite their actions the church grows. There have been numerous attempts to kill Bhatti. He is bullied everyday and he is not safe from inmates and prison staff alike. In 2014, he narrowly escaped assassination after a rogue prison officer, Muhammad Yousaf, went on a shooting spree to kill all inmates accused of blasphemy against Islam!
Bhatti is one of countless Christian minorities to suffer under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which has helped make that country the fourth-worst nation in the world in which to be Christian.
Asia Bibi, a Christian wife and mother, has been on death row since 2010 on the accusation that she insulted the Islamic prophet Muhammad. According to Section 295-C of Pakistan’s penal code: Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.
Because the word of a Christian infidel is not valid against the word of a Muslim, accusations of blasphemy, often with little or no evidence, routinely lead to the beating, imprisonment or killing of Christians and other minorities every month in Pakistan.
It is important to guarantee an environment in which a critical discussion about religion can be held. There is no fundamental right not to be offended in one’s religious feelings. Religions per se do not hold rights. Churches and religious groups should be open to hearing criticism, just as every group in society. Intellectual and cultural advance rely on the free exchange of ideas. Protecting any ideas from criticism does them no favor. It allows them to survive unchanged without being adapted and improved.
Shielding religion from criticism cannot be regarded as a social good. Criticism which is false can be tested and met with legitimate counter-arguments, while criticism which is true should be heard for the sake of correcting errors. In some cases, criticism helps religious thinkers improve theology. In more substantive cases, criticism is essential to shedding light on immoral or unlawful practices carried out in the name of religion.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental right for individuals. It is also vital for all societies, to enable a plurality of opinions. It is protected by all major international human rights instruments (including Article 19 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ICCPR)). The vast majority of countries are signed up to these conventions, and there is a strong claim even on the countries that are not signed up, namely that the right to speak freely is a basic moral right which states should uphold and protect.
While freedom of thought and belief, including religious belief, must be protected, it is equally important to guarantee an environment in which a critical discussion about religion can be held. There is no fundamental right not to be offended in one’s religious feelings. Religions per se do not hold rights. Churches and religious groups should be open to hearing criticism, just as every group in society. Intellectual and cultural advance rely on the free exchange of ideas. Protecting any ideas from criticism does them no favor: it allows them to survive unchanged without being adapted and improved.
Hundreds of innocent people have been charged with blasphemy in Pakistan over the last few years; in all the cases, the charges of blasphemy appear to have been arbitrarily brought, founded solely on the individuals’ minority religious beliefs. The available evidence in all these cases suggests that charges were brought as a measure to intimidate and punish members of minority religious communities. Hostility towards religious minority groups appeared in many cases to be compounded by personal enmity, professional or economic rivalry or a desire to gain political advantage. All individuals now facing charges of blasphemy, or convicted on such charges, are prisoners of conscience, detained solely for their real or imputed religious beliefs in violation of their right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Other Christians accused of blasphemy never get the chance for even a mock trial and are dealt pseudo-justice at the hands of angry mobs — such as the young Christian couple burned alive on a spurious accusation of blasphemy in November 2014. Since 1990 alone, two hundred people have been extra-judicially murdered on false charges of blasphemy in Pakistan.
Last month, three burqa-wearing sisters shot and killed a man accused of committing blasphemy in 2004. “We couldn’t kill him at the time because we were too young then,” they explained.
Also last month, a 23-year-old college student was killed and another seriously injured by a vigilante mob for allegedly publishing blasphemous content online. The incident occurred on campus; the mob was yelling Allahu Akbar throughout.
Ahok, the Christian governor of Jakarta, was sentenced to two years in prison on the false charge of insulting Islam and desecrating the Koran. Similarly, Iran sentences a 21-year-old man to death for insulting Islam, after confessing when police promised he would be pardoned if he came clean.
Earlier this year in Algeria, Samir Chamek, a 34-year-old Christian man, was sentenced to a year in prison after a court found him guilty of insulting Islam and its prophet over items he posted on his Facebook page. They were described as accusing the prophet Muhammad of terrorism and murder and comparing the prophet to Hitler, mentioning the persecution and massacre of the Jews. Also in Algeria, last August, a Muslim convert to Christianity was sentenced to the maximum five years in prison for saying that the light of Jesus will outshine Islam and its prophet Muhammad on social media, which the court ruled as blasphemous.
In October, in Ethiopia, four Christian girls — aged 18, 15, 14, and 14 — handed out a booklet entitled Let’s speak the truth in love. Because it challenged Islamic accusations against Christianity, local Muslims deemed the book blasphemous and rioted. They attacked a church and assaulted Christians. The girls were arrested and, after a brief court hearing on November 15, sentenced to a month in prison.
A law against blasphemy depends on some standard of what counts as blasphemy, which assumes something like a correct, inviolable standard of religion which is being blasphemed against. But even when states try to found blasphemy laws on a single religious text, it is abundantly clear that different sectarian groups within a single religion interpret all mainstream scriptures in a variety of ways, with different groups deciding that some declarations or depictions are blasphemous while others disagree, or find other declarations or depictions blasphemous.
The Pakistan Penal Code prohibits blasphemy, providing penalties ranging from a fine to death. Since 1987, three thousand people have been accused of blasphemy. Three quarters of people accused of blasphemy have been murdered before their respective trials were over, and prominent figures who opposed the blasphemy law have been assassinated. Since 1990, a hundred people have been murdered as a result of blasphemy allegations.
An accusation of blasphemy commonly subjects the accused, police, lawyers, and judges to harassment, threats, attacks, and rioting. Pakistan’s blasphemy law is overwhelmingly being used to persecute religious minorities and settle personal vendettas, but calls for change in the blasphemy laws have been strongly resisted by Islamic parties, most prominently the Barelvi school of Islam.
Muslims mobs and vigilantes often take the law into their own hands. In March, in India, a Muslim-turned-atheist was hacked to death by a four-member gang of Muslims. Last September, a Christian writer and activist was murdered outside of a courthouse in Jordan. The 56-year-old man was earlier arrested for sharing a blasphemous cartoon about the Islamic prophet Muhammad. As he was walking into court to stand trial for contempt of religion and inciting sectarian strife, a man dressed in traditional Muslim garb shot him to death.
Last August, in Nigeria, after two university students got into an argument, the Muslim student accused the Christian student of insulting Muhammad. Soon a mob of Muslims assembled and said the Christian must die. Then they savagely beat and nearly killed him. The following day, mobs of Muslims rioted and vandalized Christian campuses and churches.
Such nonstop accusations, incarcerations, murders, torture and death penalties meted out to non-Muslims on the mere accusation of blasphemy — at the hands of mobs, vigilantes, and court judges — call into question any claims of tolerance, modernity or pluralism in many Muslim-majority nations.
An evangelical Christian was arrested on charges of blasphemy and faces the death penalty. According to a complaint by a Muslim, Haji Nadeem, Shahbaz Babu desecrated the Koran by writing his name on some pages, tearing them up and then scattering them on the street in front of a mosque. Although the Muslim admits he did not see the accused in the act, Babu—whom rights activists say is “completely illiterate”—was nonetheless arrested. In a nation where the mere accusation that an infidel insulted Islam could get the non-Muslim killed by the mob, executed by the state or simply imprisoned, Babu’s defenders wonder at the notion that he “is supposed to have desecrated the Qurʾān in secret, but then left the evidence for everyone to see.” Others say that he was disliked by the mosque because several members had stopped attending it and listening to the evangelist who is popular in his region.
An imam in Lambanwali accused an elderly Christian of writing and sending to him a series of derogatory letters in which he defamed Islamic prophet Muhammad. Once the blasphemy accusation was made, police promptly stormed the Christian’s home in the night and arrested his entire family. Although the man denies the accusation—correctly pointing out that only a suicide would do what he is accused of doing in Pakistan—he “is likely to face an imprisonment of 10 years while there are assumptions that Section 295-C might be invoked in order to aggravate the punishment to death penalty,” said the report.
A blasphemy case was registered against Shaan Taseer—son of Salman Taseer, a human rights activist and defender of persecuted Christians who was assassinated by Muslims—for saying Merry Christmas! Five Christian rights activists were known for their public opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws all went missing within the same week.