A new international coalition against blasphemy laws

A new international campaign was launched on Friday 30 January, aimed at abolishing “blasphemy laws” worldwide. The End Blasphemy Laws campaign is thought to be the first campaign focusing solely on the issue of laws against “blasphemy” including “ridicule” and “insult” to religion or “hurting religious sentiments”.

The coalition behind the campaign, led by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and the European Humanist Federation (EHF) and numerous coalition partners, currently represents around 200 Humanist and secular organizations globally, and is open to all groups who oppose “blasphemy” laws, including religious and secular communities, human rights groups, and all advocates of freedom of expression.

Sonja Eggerickx, President of the IHEU, said,

“In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings there have been renewed calls to abolish ‘blasphemy’ and related laws in almost every country where they still exist. Our organizations have worked for many years to protect this important right: to question, criticise, and yes even ridicule religion. Given this new impetus to challenge these anachronistic laws, we believe that we can work together across national boundaries to support local voices calling for the repeal of all such laws.

“The idea that it is wrong to satirize religion, lends false legitimacy to those who murder in the name of being offended. The idea that it is taboo to question or to criticise religious authorities is one reason why sexual abuse in the Catholic Church persisted so long. The idea that “insult” to religion is a crime, is why humanists like Asif Mohiuddin are jailed in Bangladesh, is why secularists like Raif Badawi are being lashed in Saudi Arabia, is why atheists and religious minorities are persecuted in places like Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, and the list goes on!”

Pierre Galand, EHF President, explained,

“Our campaign does not target laws against incitement to hatred, which are legitimate. What we are concerned about is laws which restrict freedom of expression about religion. As a first step, we want to see the remaining laws against blasphemy and religious insult in Europe repealed. There is an obvious double standard issue as the EU has taken a clear stand against blasphemy laws in the world. Now it must encourage its Members States to abolish existing blasphemy laws, as recommended by the Council of Europe.”

The campaign calls on transnational bodies and world leaders to look on “blasphemy” laws as they might look on laws restricting press freedom: as a clear restriction on free expression and indicator of wider social harm.

Meanwhile, officials in Saudi Arabia have had the opposite response to Charlie Hebdo, arguing for a United Nations resolution on “contempt of religion”, which the UN has reportedly agreed for discussion. The End Blasphemy Laws campaign website succinctly replies: “First the OIC and its member states pushed for an international ban on blasphemy, then defamation of religion, now contempt of religion. It all means the same thing. Namely, they don’t want to hear people question, criticise or mock religion. But the OIC’s envisaged ban on “contempt of religion” cannot happen without fundamentally compromising freedom of expression, and that is why we must work to oppose restrictions on criticising religion, and it is why over time, all free and democratic states will repeal their blasphemy laws.”

Organisations are being encouraged to join the coalition. primarily those with international remits, whether religious, non-religious and other human rights-based. The refusal of Asia Bibi’s appeal in Pakistan, the horrific kiln murder of the Christian couple in Islamabad, and then the Charlie Hebdo attacks and Raif Badawi case have all galvanised opposition to “blasphemy” laws and accusations.

The map on the End Blasphemy Laws website is a comprehensive compendium of current “blasphemy”-type laws and their effects (primarily on religion or belief minorities and various kinds of activist).

Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, says “States should repeal blasphemy laws, which typically have a stifling effect on open dialogue and public discourse, often particularly affecting persons belonging to religious minorities. States should repeal any criminal law provisions that penalise apostasy, blasphemy and proselytism, as they may prevent persons belonging to religious or belief minorities from fully enjoying their freedom of religion or belief.”