Blasphemy Laws Don't Protect Religion, They Hurt It

Last Wednesday, I spoke on a panel at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs In DC. The conference, co-hosted by the Center's Religious Freedom Project and the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom, looked at the historical sources of blasphemy laws and their implementation in countries around the world today.

One panel addressed the correlation between blasphemy and extremism.

American Muslim organizations focus on the way forward for American Muslims- how they can understand blasphemy laws and how such laws are an anathema to the very values we hold dear as people of faith. As Muslims, we can participate in ensuring the removal of these laws in Muslim-majority countries, and removing blasphemy laws will in fact serve to protect religion, not harm it.

There is no punishment for blasphemy or apostasy in the Quran. These acts are sins which fall under God's jurisdiction, and does not fall under man's law; punishment in the area of religious belief or non-belief is left up to God. What is misunderstood or overlooked is that the primary and clearly defined goals of Sharia are to protect life, protect the freedom of expression and thought, protect religious freedom, protect property and protect family lineage (especially for inheritance rights).

Unfortunately, anti-Muslim sentiment in the US feeds into the rhetoric of extremist groups whose main claim is that Muslims are not welcome in the West.

In addition, American anti-Muslim sentiment provides false legitimacy to extremists because they are seen as the only people talking about real grievances that exist around the world. Their messaging highlights the double standard in the West, which has resulted in the absence of serious discussion about the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar and the unraveling of any real solution for Palestinians. Extremists make use of the idea that what preceded the genocide in Bosnia during the early 1990's was anti-Muslim propaganda, the same kind of propaganda that we are seeing today, that Islam is a false religion, that American Muslims are a foreign invasion, that they are not part of the endemic culture.

Unfortunately, the effect of geopolitics is that it dehumanizes the people of the regions concerned. Thus, Muslims are seen mostly through the lens of security and CVE (countering violent extremism), policies toward the Middle East reflect oil interests, and our support for Israel is driven by geopolitical interests in the region, as are our relationships with compliant rulers. The result is that geopolitical aims and policies trump the needs of the people that are most affected.

Current use of apostasy and blasphemy laws are mostly about power, and sometimes about economic issues. (For more information about the context of using religious decrees in general, see Tariq Ramadan's book on Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation). Apostasy charges are used to silence political opponents. The rationale is really about treason (or what state actors view as treasonous to their hold on power) and not about a change of religion or insulting a religion.

When there is anti-Muslim rhetoric in the US (and 25% of the US population seems to support candidates who say Islam hates America and that the US should ban Muslim immigration), we are perpetuating an image to the rest of the world that the US has a restricted and unsophisticated worldview that does not consider nuances or the needs of ordinary citizens. Legal solutions to the problem of hate speech against Muslims may not be possible, but we should have socio-political ones. Our national leaders must speak out more about anti-Muslim bias and harassment, to serve as a corrective to the dialogue of hate and ignorance.

Blasphemy laws need to be removed, but these laws do not originate in the religion of Islam. They were introduced and continue to be used as tools for authoritarian governance, and are spread among the less educated masses as a means of arousing emotions. The way forward is for our country to demonstrate even-handedness both in dealing with anti-Muslim inciteful rhetoric at home and in our policies overseas. In this way, we deligitimize proponents of blasphemy laws, while calling out the use of blasphemy laws for what they are, political despotism.