Remarks by Paula Schriefer

Article excerpt

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. Examples include bans on the building of minarets in Switzerland, bans on the wearing of headscarves in France, and a proposed ban on the burka in Belgium.

It was in response to these types of actions in the Western world, rather than the acts of violence or legal prosecution against minority groups in countries where blasphemy laws are already in force, that the OIC-sponsored resolutions were brought to the United Nations. The resolutions called on states to put in place laws that prevent individuals from engaging in the expression of ideas that insult religions, and particularly Islam, under the premise that such expression amounts to "incitement to hatred," which is a permissible restriction on free speech outlined under Article 20 of the ICCPR. The resolutions passed every year until 2011, when human rights groups, freedom of expression organizations, the United Nations' own system of independent experts, and an increasing number of UN member states began to oppose the premise that legal restrictions on free expression are either an effective or an acceptable means of promoting religious tolerance.

Finally, extensive discussions, advocacy efforts, and attempts to find alternatives to address religious discrimination without simultaneously decimating the fundamental right of individuals to both expression and religious freedom resulted in an alternative resolution that outlined reasonable and progressive steps to address the real issues of discrimination and violence that are directed against people because of their religious beliefs.

It is important to remember that these debates may have come to a temporary impasse, but they are by no means over. Anti-Muslim views and actual acts of discrimination continue to take place in the Western World, while religious minorities living in many of the countries that have most loudly expressed outrage at these acts of religious discrimination continue to face even greater levels of discrimination, violence, killings, and legal prosecution.

The question is: How do we move forward and achieve greater respect for human fights, particularly for those who views are in the minority and who are always therefore the most vulnerable?

It is my view, and evidence backs this up, that blasphemy laws not only do not address the real problems of discrimination and violence based on a person's religious belief, but in fact, exacerbate those problems and can in and of themselves be viewed as a form of "incitement to hatred."

Limiting the ability of individuals to raise concerns, questions, and even criticism--whether intended as constructive or not--only breeds greater intolerance. Stifling the ability of individuals to speak their minds, particularly under vague guidelines over what is acceptable, leads to self-censorship--particularly among moderates--and tends to ensure that only those with the most radical views are willing to speak out.

Moreover, the idea that the expression of opinions or beliefs on certain subjects must be protected by law justifies the notion that certain beliefs or views are so unacceptable and so out of bounds for discussion that the only people who would be willing to express them are by their nature criminal and therefore can and should be the subject of retribution. It is such a view that led a young mullah from the town from which Asia Bibi comes to say that he "wept for joy" when her death sentence was handed down. He went on to say, "We had been worried the court would award a lesser sentence, so the entire village celebrated."

It should not come as a surprise, then, that blasphemy laws do not lead to a climate of tolerance and respectful discourse, but either directly result in or exacerbate a range of human rights abuses. In the seven countries we examined in our report, which included both countries where Islam is the main religion, as well as those where Christian faiths, namely Greek Orthodoxy and Catholicism, are the majority faith, we found a number of common threads.

The first is that blasphemy laws are almost always vague, ill-defined, and lacking in clarity. Such laws are therefore overly broad in scope and can be used to classify almost any expression that deals with religion, religious figures, or religious believers as blasphemous.

Second, while blasphemy laws always have a negative impact on free speech, they have a particularly negative impact on human fights when such laws exist or are applied in weak democracies or non-democratic states--states in which governments enjoy broad executive powers, the judiciary lacks independence, discrimination is tolerated or facilitated by the government, and religious extremism and violence go unchecked. These kinds of environments are often accompanied by inadequate criminal procedures and weak rule of law, giving rise to a range of abuses, including violations of due process, arbitrary arrest and detention, and incidents of torture and ill-treatment.

Third, because of the broad scope of blasphemy laws and the fact that charges of blasphemy are very difficult to dispute, governments have frequently used these laws to silence dissidents, critics, and political opposition. For the same reasons, blasphemy laws are frequently used by ordinary individuals to settle personal disputes entirely unrelated to blasphemy.

Finally, vigilante groups have used blasphemy allegations to instigate and justify inter-religious violence. Experts have described blasphemy laws in some countries as being a form of legalized discrimination against both minorities and members of the majority religious group seen to be questioning religious doctrine and sects considered "deviant" or "heretical." Consider that Ahmadiyya and Christians make up less than 2 percent of Pakistan's population. Yet almost 50 percent of the more than 900 prosecutions for blasphemy in the past two decades have been against Christians and Ahmadiyya. At the same time, within the majority religious population, certain religious groups are banned for being "deviant" or "heretical." In Pakistan the practicing of the Ahmadiyya religion is criminalized as a form of blasphemy. In Malaysia over 50 religious groups have been deemed "deviant" by the country's department of Islamic affairs, and individuals have been arrested and convicted under blasphemy provisions for "deviancy."

All of this leads back to the question of what can and should be done to protect individuals and groups of individuals who face genuine violations of their human rights because of their religious beliefs. Here is where I think we need to focus our attention in terms of international norms and standards, and where I believe that the approach adopted by the OIC last year in the resolution replacing the old defamation of religions resolutions is a very positive step forward.

This is largely because this new approach seems to accept the premise that attempts to address these issues through legal means can only go so far, and that by and large the legal framework, at least at the international level, is already in place. As the resolution highlights, a new emphasis needs to be placed on creating a political and social culture that "fosters religious freedom and pluralism" and which, rather than calling on states to adopt laws that restrict speech, "calls on leaders to speak out against intolerance, including advocacy of religious hatred," as well as other actions that focus on positive measures to create dialogue. It is my hope that the implementation of these kinds of approaches will be taken to heart by all societies and will ultimately lead to a recognition that blasphemy laws themselves have no place in creating a world in which both religious tolerance and the fundamental freedoms of expression and belief are respected.

Paula Schriefer, Vice President of Global Programs, Freedom House.