Blasphemy, insulting something cherished as divine, is one of the most potent religious motivations for conflict. The political uses of blasphemy laws are obvious: restriction of freedom of expression controls the ideas of a population, and therefore inhibits the ability to resist. Controlling ideas gives the desired belief legal backing and justifies suppressing freedom of expression and the persecution of those who will not conform. The issue at stake is similar to censorship and obscenity: where does freedom of expression end and defamation begin?

This past week there have been a number of cases relating to blasphemy. On the international stage, Egypt is continuing to prosecute individuals from the Coptic Christian minority for insulting Islam and the prophet Muhammad. Russia has passed a controversial law giving the state the power to fine and imprison those who would harm the opinions of religious believers. In the United Kingdom, six would-be terrorists were convicted and jailed for 18 years and nine months for plotting to attack an English Defence League (EDL) rally, citing the EDL’s blasphemy against Islam as their motivation. The most shocking event, however, was the public execution of 15 year old coffee vendor Mohammed Qatta in the Syrian city of Aleppo (some accounts report him as being as young as 14). Suspected of blasphemy, he was shot in the neck and head in front of a crowd of onlookers which included his parents and siblings.

Blasphemy has not been an offense in the United Kingdom since the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 (though it was not enforced beforehand). Elsewhere in the world laws against blasphemy are forcibly applied. Nowhere is this more obvious than in specific parts of the Islamic world, where an extreme form of Islamic political thought – Islamism – has taken hold. Writing before 9/11 Phil Marfleet noted this ‘Islamism’, which is not the view of all Muslims in politics, nor is it in all Islamic countries, and marked it as distinct from mainstream Islamic thought by envisaging radical change and political action. According to Marfleet, Islamism specifically focuses on “a number of interrelated themes: the assertion of divine [authority] over [secular] authority; the requirement for social harmony under Godly supervision; the achievement of Muslim unity; and the obligation to work actively for the assertion of Islam, usually associated with jihad.” (Marfleet, Phil. “Islamist Political Thought.” New Political Thought. Ed. Lent, Adam. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1998. 89-90. Print.)

The Islamist approach aims to remove secular authority since it only recognises divine authority. The role of government, therefore, is as a vanguard for the practical outworking of shari’a, Islamic law. Shari’a law in Islamist countries considers defamation of religion to be defamation of Islam only. To be the practical outworking of Islam it claims to be, the law must enforce Islam. Blasphemy law, therefore, becomes a tool of political repression: Pakistan, Iran and, under Morsi, Egypt have all been accused of using blasphemy laws to oppress minorities. A study conducted by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) has found that 41% of blasphemy cases in Egypt were filed against Christians, who only make up 10% of the country’s population. Only one case was brought to court for blaspheming against Christianity. It involved burning a Bible, and it was dismissed. Blasphemy law is used as a tool to oppress religious minorities in this way, since their beliefs define them blasphemers in the eyes of the law. For Islamism, blasphemy cannot be tolerated because it denies Islam, and therefore denies the source of the state’s authority. By extension, it also attacks the political structure of Islam, since Islamism is derived from Islam.

This is why Islamist states cannot tolerate blasphemy, no matter how trivial. This past week saw 23 year-old Primary School teacher and Coptic Christian Damiana Ebeid Abdel Nour fined 100,000 Egyptian pounds for blasphemy against Islam and insulting the prophet Muhammad. The evidence mostly came from children and the Islamists gathered outside the courthouse had protested when the verdict was pronounced, saying it did not go far enough. Amnesty International condemned the case, and called for charges to be dropped in a number of similar cases in the country, correctly identifying that these blasphemy charges are aimed at criminalizing criticism of or insult to religious belief.

The fear of Islamist groups or governments persecuting minority religious groups is not new. In 2009, Pakistan proposed the Defamation of Religions Resolution before the United Nations on behalf of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. While it sounded like something most would agree with, the resolution would have extended legitimacy to national laws that punish blasphemy and other criticism of religion, specifically Islam.

It is quite telling that Pakistan proposed the resolution. Pakistan has some of the strictest blasphemy laws in the world. Punishments for breaking the law can go as far as the death penalty and any attempt to change the law is strongly resisted by Islamist parties, and vigilantism is not uncommon. Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer were Christian politicians who were assassinated for their reformist ideas. Among the felonies listed among Pakistan’s penal code are damaging or defiling the Qur’an, the prophet Muhammad, sacred objects or sites (including disrupting religious services) and offending religious believers themselves, either by the written word, visual representation or innuendo.

Since Islamism derives its authority from Islam, the blasphemy threatens the legitimacy of the political structure. In this circumstance, blasphemy becomes the most effective tool of resistance. This is why freedom of expression is so precious. By controlling ideas, ‘blasphemous’ voices are silenced. Islamists themselves do not see this measure is oppressive, since Islamists see themselves as implementing the only solution to the human condition and the social ills it creates. Nevertheless, Islamism must remove its blasphemy laws if the rights of religious minorities are to be respected. Certainly liberty is subject to restraints where appropriate: someone who is convicted of an offence has their liberty restricted. But restraints must be reasonably justified. This is simply not the case in Islamist blasphemy law.

BY: Matthew Jones

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