Time to scrap the world’s remaining blasphemy laws

by Joelle Fiss and Geneva Blog BORRAR, By invitation, By invitation BORRAR, In Focus: Human rights and religion BORRAR, Istanbul process BORRAR, Religion, Resolution 16/18 BORRAR, Thematic human rights issues

Last May, Ireland woke up to the strange news that the Irish police were investigating remarks made by actor Stephen Fry, which, it was alleged, might be considered blasphemous. In a 2015 television interview, Fry had accused God of being a selfish maniac, and asked: ‘why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?’ Days later, the investigation was dropped because there was no injured party. In fact, not even the original complainant had considered himself offended by Fry’s remarks.

On the other side of the world, in Indonesia, allegations of blasphemy were also in the headlines. There, in a country that is generally perceived as religiously tolerant as it is diverse, the Governor of Jakarta, popularly known as Ahok, was accused of ‘defaming the Koran’ during his re-election campaign in September 2016. In a series of rallies organised by Islamist groups, hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in the streets of Jakarta, calling on him to resign and be prosecuted for blasphemy.

Ironically, Jakarta’s Governor, an ethnic Chinese Christian in a Muslim-majority country, had called for greater religious pluralism during his campaign. He quoted a verse of the Koran as part of a warning to voters that they should not be tricked by religious leaders who attempt to use the verse in question to justify the claim that Muslims should not be led by non-Muslims. Sadly, his quest for inter-religious understanding and tolerance backfired.

At the end of a high-profile trial that lasted for several months, on 8th May 2017 (around the same time Irish police were investigating Stephen Fry) he was sentenced to two years in prison. As soon as the verdict was announced, he was swept off in a police van to complete his sentence in a prison in east Jakarta.

While in both cases the country’s blasphemy law was invoked, on closer inspection there are important differences between the two situations.

In Ireland, the maximum penalty for committing the alleged crime of insulting God or the sacred is a fine. Even if you do insult God or a religion in Ireland, it is highly unlikely that you will be prosecuted under the country’s law.

In Indonesia, by contrast, the blasphemy provision in domestic law is used and the sanction can be as high as five years in prison. What is more, the law is not being properly applied. For example, Ahok did not deliberately intend to defame Islam or the Koran. Proof of such intent (mens rea) is explicitly required under the anti-blasphemy provision of Indonesian law. However, when trying the case, Indonesian judges overlooked the question of intent and found Ahok guilty.

No law operates in a vacuum. Political, judicial and social contexts shape the ways in which blasphemy laws are implemented in practice. For example, public attitudes towards religion impact upon a State’s political and judicial landscape. In Indonesia, religion is often used to create division and strengthen political loyalties within a given group. The protests against Ahok, led by a coalition of Islamist groups, succeeded in disrupting a fragile status quo – they broke the surface under which socio-religious tensions are increasingly present.

In Indonesia, as in some other Muslim-majority States, anti-blasphemy allegations can be and are used by hardliners to gain more power, to embolden conservative leaders and judges, and to intimidate minority religious groups. Minorities such as atheists, Ahmadiyya Muslims and Christians, as well as political dissidents and intellectuals are frequently the target of such tactics.

Contrary to European incitement laws, anti-blasphemy laws do not focus on how incitement to hatred against an individual can lead to an imminent attack against that person. Rather, they serve to protect certain religious or religious symbols or figures – not the human rights of citizens. That, for example, is case with Saudi liberal blogger, Raif Badawi, who in 2014 was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes, and who today still languishes in jail. In other States, the focus has shifted to how Islamist groups can feel ‘offended’ by the supposed crime of discussing or critiquing religion. Mobs take it upon themselves to uphold justice by attacking those they believe to be guilty of blasphemy – especially adherents of minority religious groups. This scenario has already played out in places such as Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt and Nigeria.

In the case of Ireland, Stephen Fry questioned the existence of God as an argument to debate injustice in the world. He used all the rhetorical subtleties that free societies enjoy: satire, humour, hyperbole, sarcasm and provocation. Ireland should repeal its blasphemy law in celebration of such nuances. It should repeal its blasphemy law to reaffirm the principle that debating ideas – or even criticising religions – is not equivalent to inciting hatred against an individual. It should repeal the law to act as an example to other States – as Denmark did recently by repealing its 334-year old blasphemy law. Finally, Ireland should repeal its blasphemy law in order to express its solidarity with the victims, including members of religious minority groups and political dissidents, who continue to be harassed and persecuted in the name of blasphemy.

Ms Joelle Fiss is a consultant on human rights and foreign policy. She is a member of the OSCE Panel of Experts of freedom of religion or belief and collaborating with UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed.  www.joellefiss.com

Feature photo: Participants at a Free Ahok Rally. 9 May 2017. Izzy licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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