Blasphemy in Bahrain
Unbelief Brief
March 27, 2023
Members of a "cultural society" in Bahrain are on trial for free expression. Plus, a positive response to the recent Qur'an damage incident from the UK Home Office.

Blasphemy in Bahrain

Three men who are members of a “cultural society” in Bahrain are on trial for—no surprise—blasphemy.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Al-Tajdeed Society of which the men are members is “a group that advocates open discussion and questioning about religion and Islamic jurisprudence.” This is unacceptable, for obvious reasons, to an authoritarian and theocratic state like Bahrain.

An anonymous member of the group told Human Rights Watch: “We are a cultural society, we are a research society, and we are researching the basics of our culture… We simply have different views, and we are receiving all this pressure to stop our broadcasting and our studies,” casting the case as a matter of free expression in opposition to state repression. Meanwhile, the public prosecutor has claimed that the men have “violated the freedom of belief”—by professing the wrong beliefs.

The trial is, according to the most recent reporting, ongoing.

An update on the UK blasphemy controversy

After a Qur’an was damaged at a UK school earlier this month, police recorded a “non-crime hate incident” (NCHI) in connection with the event. The precedent that mere damage to a religious text would be grounds for attention from the police would be troubling indeed. Fortunately, in this case, UK authorities have taken action to protect freedom of conscience and expression.

As Humanists UK reports, the Home Office’s guidance now reads (emphasis added):

Fundamentally, offending someone is not, in and of itself, a criminal offence. To constitute an offence under hate crime legislation, the speech or behaviour in question must be threatening, abusive or insulting and be intended to, or likely to, stir up hatred. Similarly, unless the speech in question meets the Additional Threshold Test set out in this code, offending someone is not, in and of itself, enough to warrant the recording of an NCHI involving personal data.

This is a very important distinction in protecting those who express possibly offensive ideas about religion from state intrusion into their personal lives. And, hopefully, it will ensure that a repeat of this most recent incident does not occur. 

Imran Khan evades arrest

Since being ousted from power, former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has been the target of numerous legal attacks. He appears to have gotten out of at least one of them, as an arrest warrant against him has been discarded by the courts.

Notably, however, one of the various accusations with which he has been pelted in first incident reports (FIRs) stands out: blasphemy. To say nothing of his innocence or guilt in the other matters, one would surely have a hard time pinning this on Khan, who, as Prime Minister, did everything in his power to keep the country’s mill of blasphemy sacrifices churning. 

It is not uncommon to lob accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan to settle unrelated disputes. It often works. Khan has a major advantage: the fact that he is still a powerful and prominent politician. Other victims do not, and too often, they suffer for it—a suffering that Khan’s own government dutifully perpetuated. It seems unlikely karma will come for him. 

This is, taken in isolation, a good thing—no one should be arrested or convicted for blasphemy under any circumstances. But the people of Pakistan will continue to suffocate under the boot of those oppressive laws.

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