Archaic blasphemy laws are too often abused
Prohibitions on impiety encourage the persecution of minorities
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 Many European countries still have outdated blasphemy laws on their books, but this nebulous concept is now most often used by Muslimmajority nations as a tool to suppress critics and minorities.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is the growing tendency for traditionally tolerant Muslim-majority countries across South and Southeast Asia to employ outdated and vague blasphemy laws in the persecution of political rivals.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.