Ar­chaic blas­phemy laws are too of­ten abused

Pro­hi­bi­tions on impi­ety en­cour­age the per­se­cu­tion of mi­nori­ties

Financial Times USA - - LETTERS -

Since bi­b­li­cal times the charge of blas­phemy has been ac­com­pa­nied by a strong whiff of po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion. Many Euro­pean countries still have out­dated blas­phemy laws on their books, but this ne­bu­lous con­cept is now most of­ten used by Mus­lim­ma­jor­ity na­tions as a tool to sup­press crit­ics and mi­nori­ties.

In ul­tra-con­ser­va­tive Saudi Ara­bia, where un­fair tri­als can lead to ex­e­cu­tion, new laws in­tro­duced in 2014 de­fine athe­ism as ter­ror­ism — con­ve­niently out­law­ing crit­i­cism of the gov­ern­ment and its un­der­stand­ing of Is­lam. But per­haps a more wor­ry­ing de­vel­op­ment is the grow­ing ten­dency for tra­di­tion­ally tol­er­ant Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity countries across South and South­east Asia to em­ploy out­dated and vague blas­phemy laws in the per­se­cu­tion of po­lit­i­cal ri­vals.

The lat­est ex­am­ple is the former Jakarta gover­nor Ba­suki Tja­haja Pur­nama, known as Ahok, sen­tenced to prison last week for blas­phemy. An in­cum­bent with a good record, Ahok had been ex­pected to be re-elected.

But be­ing an eth­nic Chi­nese Chris­tian in In­done­sia, a nearly 90 per cent Mus­lim na­tion, opened him to abuse of its blas­phemy laws. Last year Ahok faced huge street protests from con­ser­va­tive Is­lamic groups after deny­ing ri­vals’ claims that a well- known Ko­ranic verse for­bade Mus­lim vot­ers to back a non-Mus­lim leader. He lost April’s elec­tion to a Mus­lim ri­val.

Even many con­ser­va­tive Mus­lims in In­done­sia do not be­lieve Ahok in­sulted Is­lam. They worry that the po­lit­i­cal abuse of this law could lead to a flare-up of the eth­nic and re­li­gious vi­o­lence that has punc­tu­ated In­done­sia’s his­tory since in­de­pen­dence in 1945.

More broadly, this case is seen as symp­to­matic of the rise of rad­i­cal­ism in Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity na­tions across South­east Asia. The in­creas­ing use of blas­phemy charges also en­cour­ages vig­i­lan­tism by ex­trem­ists. In 2011, the pop­u­lar gover­nor of Pun­jab, Sal­man Taseer, was gunned down by his body­guard as ret­ri­bu­tion for his long-run­ning cam­paign to abol­ish Pak­istan’s blas­phemy laws.

As the gover­nor him­self pointed out be­fore his as­sas­si­na­tion, these pro­hi­bi­tions are am­bigu­ous and im­pos­si­ble to de­bate openly. Those who re­but charges against them are of­ten ac­cused of fur­ther blas­phemy, as are those who try to de­fend al­leged blas­phe­mers.

After Ahok’s sen­tenc­ing, the In­done­sian gov­ern­ment moved to ban one of the hard­line Is­lamic groups that protested against him. This hasty move could eas­ily back­fire by forc­ing the group to go un­der­ground and aban­don its of­fi­cial pol­icy of non-vi­o­lence.

A far bet­ter re­sponse would be to abol­ish the an­ti­quated and un­just laws against blas­phemy. Euro­pean countries that retain such laws should lead the way by for­mally abol­ish­ing them, as the UK­did in 2008.

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