Dec 7, 2021
The Incorrigible Violence of Blasphemy Laws
Changing laws in the Arabian Peninsula
A mixed palette colors the outlook of the Arabian Peninsula in the wake of new laws being considered and enacted. The competing impulses and incentives of (relative) liberalization and fundamentalism are clashing in the case of the UAE.
In the Emirates, January will see a bevy of new laws go into effect. These include “decriminalizing premarital sexual relations and alcohol consumption, and cancelling provisions for leniency when dealing with so-called ‘honor killings,’” according to Dawn. These are good changes, if not exactly earth-shattering, apparently aimed at making the country more palatable for foreign money.
If that’s what it takes, so be it—but with changes this incremental, referring to this even as “relative” liberalization may be a mistake. Perhaps they will make fine strategic concessions to the human rights crowd, removing the wind from the sails of true reform. We will see.
Still, making the exercise of fundamental freedoms less miserable is desirable. Let us hope for more in this vein.
Add to the tally two more needless and senseless cases of destruction where the sole culprit is the existence of blasphemy laws.
In Egypt, lawyer Ahmed Abdo Maher, a longtime public commentator on Islam whose views have often been cause for controversy in the country, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. Accused of “defaming Islam” for some public statements questioning the conventional wisdom of religious scholars, he was charged with “contempt of religion” under Egypt’s de-facto blasphemy law.
In Pakistan, a blasphemy suspect accused of desecrating the Qur’an became the target for an angry mob last week. The assailants sought to lynch the accused, who was in police custody. They failed in this goal, but in the meantime the mob, reportedly numbering in the thousands, “burned a police station and four police posts.”
These incidents of mob violence in blasphemy cases are especially common in Pakistan, and there are many reasons for this. But this is, as they say, a feature and not a bug of blasphemy laws in Islamic countries: they exist not to punish a serious crime, as the act of blaspheming takes no victim. They exist to enforce religious orthodoxy and punish the deviant. At their core, their purpose is to satisfy a violent impulse—only the deferred violence of formal criminal prosecution is sometimes not visceral enough for the fanatic.
The ever-secularizing West
A point often belabored in this brief is that North America and Europe are becoming less religious, a tendency that to some extent is appearing the world over, especially with youth. It is worth remembering that this decline comes in several forms, not just mass apostasy. Fewer people in the West are religious now than probably any other time in history, both because they have been leaving religion entirely and because they have simply been divesting from it.
This is something one can see in almost any religious organization. Take, for example, professed rates of religious devotion among American Mormons, which has seen a significant decline in the last 20 years.
In Poland, too, the number of people who are religious at all fell in tandem with rates of religious practice, the latter of which saw a much, much steeper drop. Though most of them may still believe, fewer than half of Polish are now “engaged in regular religious practice (at least once a week).” The usual fault lines—urban vs. rural, college educated vs. not, and even male vs. female—predict the degree of the swing in the given populations.
There is much to be uneasy about in the world today, but people continuing to put less stock in false, irrational, and often harmful myths is a welcome bright spot.
Check out this story about Afghan women who have fled the country and now seek a “new life” in the United States. In addition to its value as a wisp of light amid boundless darkness, it is also a poignant reminder of the pricelessness of our secular rights as humans.