A Global Blasphemy Law: Protecting Believers at the Expense of Free Speech

By Widelitz, Kiley | Pepperdine Policy Review, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

A Global Blasphemy Law: Protecting Believers at the Expense of Free Speech


Widelitz, Kiley, Pepperdine Policy Review


I. Introduction

In September 2012, the 14-minute trailer for Innocence of Muslims, an anti-Islamic video posted on YouTube, ignited violent demonstrations and protests that resulted in hundreds of injuries (CNN Wire Staff, 2012). The video sparked debate within member states of the United Nations over whether the United Nations should formally restrict blasphemy, speech that insults religions (Radsch, 2012). The Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which represents 57 countries and one and a half billion people, pushed for the United Nations to adopt a resolution supporting the criminalization of blasphemy. Western members of the United Nations are against this proposal. The debate surrounds not only what should be protected, but also the effects of blasphemy laws on societies, and whether blasphemy laws constrain or incite violence.

As of June 30, 2009, 44 of the 59 countries that have enacted a blasphemy law have also enforced it (Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2011). The punishment for violating these laws varies by country, but range from fines to death (Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2011). A 2009 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life indicates that out of the 50 most populous countries, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia had the highest scores in terms of government restrictions on both religion and social hostilities involving religion.1 In the State Department's 2011 Executive Summary of the International Religious Freedom Report, these three countries were highlighted for their continual and expanded use and abuse of blasphemy laws (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 2011).

The United States, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia provide a range of analysis, from lesser to greater restrictions, respectfully.2 Although several United States state legal codes still contain blasphemy laws, these laws are not enforced, as they are unconstitutional (Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2011). The United States is among the countries, whose laws of religious freedom are considered to be among the least restrictive in the world (Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2011). On the other hand, blasphemy laws in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia are used as a ruse to constrain freedom of expression, limit religious liberty, and restrict the rights of religious minorities. These laws create an environment of social hostility and intolerance. Although Indonesia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia are only three of 44 countries that enforce blasphemy laws, they share much in common with other countries that enforce blasphemy laws.3 In this comparative analysis to United States laws, it will be shown that the United Nations should follow the way of the United States and forgo any restriction on blasphemy.

II. Case Studies

A. United States

The United States is a constitutional federal republic that prides itself on its First Amendment, which protects citizens' right to free speech and religious exercise: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech " (U.S. Const. Amend. I). As of 2007, 51.3 percent of Americans identified as Protestant, 23.9 percent Roman Catholic, 1.7 percent Jewish, 1.6 percent Christian of other denominations, 0.7 percent Buddhist, 0.6 percent Muslim, and the remaining unaffiliated or non-respondents (The World Factbook, 2013d). The United States has never had an official religion.

In the United States, the legal system consists of a common law system at the federal level, state legal systems based on common law (except Louisiana, which is based on Napoleonic civil code), and judicial review of legislative acts (The World Factbook, 2013d). Blasphemy laws in certain states have not been utilized since the United States Supreme Court found them unconstitutional in the 1952 case Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (Brown, 2012). …

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