Blasphemy laws in Middle East leave minorities holding their tongues

Pakistan emblematic of using blasphemy laws to repress religious minorities.

A masked protester sits next to a flag of Pakistan during an anti-Indian protest  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A masked protester sits next to a flag of Pakistan during an anti-Indian protest
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ramesh Kumar Malhi, a Pakistani Hindu man, was charged last week with blasphemy after a Islamic cleric accused him of delivering medicine wrapped in verses from the Koran.
His case follows the recent arrival of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman, in Canada following her imprisonment for eight years in Pakistan on charges of blasphemy. Bibi’s case brought the issue of blasphemy laws in the Middle East back to forefront of discussion, especially as they relate to religious minorities.
Bibi, a Roman Catholic, gained international recognition when Muslim villagers accused her of insulting the Prophet Mohammad in 2009. Days later, she was dragged out of her home and beaten by a mob, after which she was taken into custody and sentenced to death.
Two of Bibi’s strongest supporters and open critics of fundamentalist Islam, Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, and Shabaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s first federal minister of minority affairs, paid for their support with their lives. They were shot and killed within two months of each other in 2011.
In January, Pakistan’s Supreme Court upheld its October 2018 decision to acquit Bibi on the grounds of lack of evidence, and she was granted asylum by Ottawa in early May, reuniting with her family which had already been in hiding there due to threats from religious extremists.
According to Zohra Yusuf, a council member at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Bibi’s case sharply divided Pakistani society.
“Religious parties demonstrated violently for her execution, while rights groups campaigned for her acquittal and safety,” Yusuf told The Media Line. “However, her acquittal could have been a turning point for reforms, [but] this opportunity was lost as the government was more concerned about maintaining order.”
Over 1,500 people were charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy law from 1987 to 2017, according to the Center for Social Justice, a Lahore-based religious minority rights group.
Although none of the accused have been executed, extrajudicial punishment was carried out in some cases, and about 70 of those charged with blasphemy were killed by vigilantes.  
In 2014, a young Christian couple, Shahzad Masih and his pregnant wife Shama, were beaten and had their bodies burned in an industrial brick kiln following allegations that the couple desecrated a Koran. The charges were later found to be false.
According to Yusuf, several efforts to reform the laws on blasphemy have failed to bear fruit.
“Any amendment would need a two-thirds majority in parliament. But legislators tend to cave in when it comes to pressure from the [hardline Islamic] religious parties, even though they have minimal political representation ” she explained.
Jeremy Barker, director of the Middle East Action Team at the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI), concurred.
“These laws are subject to influence from vocal religious majorities who threaten physical violence or exert undue pressure on the judiciary to bring [blasphemy] charges against minorities,” he told The Media Line.
Indeed, scholars at the RFI have documented a correlation between enforced blasphemy laws and greater levels of religion-inspired terrorism. In fact, according to their findings, countries that enforce blasphemy laws experience six-and-a-half times more religion-related terrorism. 
And Pakistan isn’t the sole regional enforcer of such statutes.
According to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, blasphemy laws are most common in the Middle East and North Africa, where 18 of the region’s 20 countries have criminalized blasphemy.
A 2017 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) found that countries in the Middle East with the harshest blasphemy laws include Iran, Egypt, Yemen and Qatar. Iran and Pakistan are the only countries that include the death penalty as punishment for “insulting the Prophet [Mohammad].”
In 2012, when current Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was prime minister, he told the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – an international body of 57 Muslim member states that considers itself the collective voice of the Islamic world - that it was unacceptable to “accept insults to Islam under the guise of freedom of thought.”
Pakistan and other Middle Eastern nations that were previously controlled by Britain inherited colonial law, which contained blasphemy decrees in order to maintain inter-religious stability and harmony. These laws were retained after the countries became independent.
“As [states became increasingly] Islamized, the blasphemy laws became harsher,” Elizabeth K. Cassidy, director of international law and policy at the USCIRF, told The Media Line.
Regional governments argue that the laws are meant to reduce religious intolerance, but activists maintain they are achieving the opposite of what the countries’ colonial predecessor had intended and are, by contrast, stifling dissent.
Silvia Quattrini, Middle East and North Africa programs coordinator at the London-based Minority Rights Group, told The Media Line that Egypt has the harshest blasphemy laws in North Africa, which target minority Coptic Christians and Shi’ite Muslims.
“Egypt’s blasphemy law covers a wide range of activities, and are very much used against Shi’ite Muslims… [who are] seen as a threat to [the majority] Sunni Islam,” she said.
Prominent Egyptian Muslim poet Fatima Naoot has been serving a three-year prison sentence since 2016 for criticizing on Facebook the slaughter of animals during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, which commemorates the Koran's account of Ibrahim’s (Abraham) willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael.
In 2014, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief called for the repeal of blasphemy laws, deeming them “counter-productive, since they may result in de facto censure of all inter-religious/belief and intra-religious/belief dialogue, debate, and also criticism, most of which could be constructive, healthy and needed.”
The international body added that the statutes have been “proved to be applied in a discriminatory manner.”
In their report, the USCIRF emphasized that blasphemy laws are generally inconsistent with universal human rights standards and violate freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. According to USCIRF’s Cassidy, publicly advocating against these laws is the only available measure to potentially put an end to the edicts.
“None of these [international] bodies can compel countries to amend their laws, but they can pressure them,” she asserted.
Until then, it seems religious minorities in the region will be forced to continue holding their tongues.

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