In January of this year, a 30-year-old Indonesian civil servant, Alexander Aan, posted the statement "God doesn't exist" on the Facebook page of an atheist group. In response, he was attacked and beaten by an angry mob and then, when a reasonable person might expect his attackers to be punished, instead he himself was arrested under blasphemy charges that could see him locked up for five years in prison. Muslim extremists have called for him to be beheaded.
In 2011, three Ahmadiyah sect members were beaten to death in a mob attack, while police either fled or stood by. Those convicted received light sentences of between three and six months while one of the Ahmadiyah survivors, a man who almost lost his hand in the violence, was sentenced to six months in prison for defending himself and his friends.
I don't bring these cases up to pick on Indonesia. Indonesia is a country rated overall as Free in Freedom House's annual survey of political rights and civil liberties. It is one of over a dozen countries that not only has laws outlawing religious defamation or blasphemy on the books, but where such laws are used to highly negative ends. And it is by no means the worst in terms of the repercussions of such laws on the human rights of religious minorities or a range of other fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression.
Pakistan, the only country where blasphemy can carry the death penalty, is frequently in the news, both because of the impact of its own domestic blasphemy laws and because of its many attempts to create a global blasphemy law through the auspices of the United Nations. Just last year, the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, and the Minister of Minorities, Shabaz Bhatti, were both assassinated mainly due to their public objections to Pakistan's law. The killings came on the heels of a death sentence handed down to a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, for supposedly making blasphemous comments to neighbors. Indonesia and Pakistan are two of seven countries that we examined in detail a year and a half ago in a special report called Policing Belief: The Impact of Blasphemy Laws on Human Rights. We produced the report because there seemed to be a plethora of evidence that, far from protecting religious sensibilities and promoting greater tolerance and respect, blasphemy laws seem to provoke hatred and attacks on minority and vulnerable populations.
I will talk briefly about the findings of the report in a minute, but I think it is important to note that it was written at a time when serious and passionate debates were taking place at the United Nations--not about whether such laws should be abolished in countries where they were practiced, but rather about whether all states should be called upon to enact similar laws as part of international law.
This campaign to create a global blasphemy law began in 1999 when Pakistan, on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)), began introducing resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council and later at the UN General Assembly, arguing that Islam must be shielded by law from unfair associations with terrorism and human rights abuses. So this is an issue that pre-dated the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but it is a debate that has been amplified by the response of the United States and other countries to those attacks. It has also been exacerbated by the increasingly vocal reactions of cultural and political leaders, mainly in Europe, against what they see as attempts by primarily Muslim immigrants to threaten their secular traditions and sensibilities.
Not only have political parties espousing anti-immigrant, and particularly anti-Muslim, views in Europe gained in popularity and representation in recent years, but legal policies have been enacted, which most members of the human rights community see as unnecessarily and unfairly restricting the rights of Muslims fully to practice their religious beliefs. …