What if I told you that there are times when Christians, people of various other faiths, as well as atheists are working together for the same goal?
One such issue that brings these groups together in concert is the issue of opposition to blasphemy. Not like in saying We are not amused! to swearin’ and cussin’ but in a far darker, dangerous sense. Some of the nations that have laws against blasphemy on the books take them very seriously. They are literally a matter of life and death.
The strictest of such blasphemy laws ban any doubts or criticism of religion. Several countries, such as Pakistan, use these laws to ban criticism of Islam and any of the symbols and figures associated with it. The strictness with which these laws are enforced is bringing Pakistan and such nations under scrutiny by the United States and some other nations that respect religious freedom and human rights.
According to a Pew Research Center survey, over a quarter of the nations in the world maintain blasphemy laws on their books. The difference, however, is that in many nations that is just where those laws remain – in dusty old books. But in nations where blasphemy laws are observed “religiously,” as it were, many people find themselves running afoul of them before they even know what is happening.
Pakistan has been notorious for people – Christians and otherwise – being accused under its egregious blasphemy law and sentenced to death. In most cases, mobs of Islamists are so enraged by the very thought of blasphemy against their religion that people have been attacked without a shred of evidence. The attacks, to the point of murder, have not limited to the actual accused person, but sometimes entire villages have been burned to the ground. Christians already live in deplorable, wretched conditions just because they are Christians, without this added hell.
On October 12, 2018 an appeal for the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian wife and mother sentenced to death for blasphemy was heard by the Pakistani Supreme Court. Bibi has been in prison for over eight years, accused spuriously of blasphemy after a clash with Muslim coworkers.
At this time the Court has not adjudicated the matter one way or another. It has been suggested by many that this is because the judicial system fears the tremendous backlash that will take place if Bibi is exonerated. They also need to come up with a way to provide security for not only Bibi, but her family, and frankly, for all the Christians in Pakistan who will become targets should she be released. So her case and her life once again hang in the balance.
In 2011 controversy surrounding the blasphemy laws and the particular case of Asia Bibl resulted in the horrific murder of Salmaan Taseer, the Muslim Governor of Punjab province. Taseer publicly criticized his country’s blasphemy laws and made efforts to help Mrs. Bibi. He was killed by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, for his actions. Qadri, a follower of the Barelvi Islamic sect, shot him in the back 27 times with an AK47 when Taseer was returning from lunch.
Qadri was executed for his crime in 2016.He became a veritable cult figure to Islamists intent on preserving the laws against blasphemy. And he was even celebrated as a hero/saint at a mosque in Pikesville, Maryland last year around the anniversary of his execution.
The late Governor Taseer’s son, Shaan, has also become an outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws. In January 2017 he issued Christmas greetings to all of Pakistan’s religious minorities, especially to Asia Bibi. Soon after, police registered a case against him for alleged “hate speech,” and radical Sunnis issued a fatwa against him for hurting the feelings of Muslims.
Although Pakistan is arguably the worst case, it is not the only country where there are blasphemy laws. Such laws are in use in the Russian Federation to clamp down on voices critical of the Russian Orthodox Church. They are also active in Bangladesh they have been used against secular bloggers who have posted items questioning the validity and viability of religion.
Even several allies of the United States have laws like this that are not enforced, but still on the books. Canada does, and Ireland will hold a referendum at the end of October 2018 to decide whether or not to repeal its rarely-if-ever enforced blasphemy law. As in several other countries, they are left over from the British colonial era.
Why should this matter to us, and what can we do? Currently there are two resolutions in Congress, H. Res 349 in the House of Representatives, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and an identical S. Res 647 in the Senate, sponsored by Senator James Lankford (R-OK). These are “sense of the Congress” resolutions that encourage both the President and the Secretary of State to make the repeal of blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws a priority in the foreign policy of the United States.
Countries that enforce such laws would be designated a CPC (Country of Particular Concern) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. At present, Pakistan is only under “Special Watch,” rather than being designated a CPC.
It has been suggested that countries that strictly enforce this legislation would be the target of the designations. So that means Countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, India, Mauritania, and the like would come under greater scrutiny than, for instance, Italy, where such laws remain on the books but are seldom enforced.
There is a new push to get these bills passed through the respective legislative bodies. Passage of such legislation would send a stern message and warning to countries like Pakistan, and could encourage them to do the right thing about Asia Bibi. Failure by this Congress to pass these resolutions would mean that when the new Congress sits in January 2019 this process would have to begin all over again. For Ms Bibi’s sake we should strive to move them forward and condemn the brutal blasphemy laws NOW!
IRD Religious Liberty Director Faith J.H. McDonnell and Scott Morgan co-authored this report.