Legal aid for blasphemy
IAA is strongly committed to helping atheists facing punishment for simply being atheists. A member of our advisory board, Mubarak Bala is currently under arrest by the Nigerian police for insulting the Islamic ‘Prophet’ Muhammad. At the time of writing, he’s been imprisoned for over a month with no trial and no access to lawyers or family. IAA, and other organizations, is working hard to raise money for Mubarak’s defence and release. Sadly Mubarak’s case is one of many.
The harshest on blasphemers is Pakistan. Desecrating the Quran could lead to life in prison, insulting Muhammad can carry the death penalty. Those accused of blasphemy often don’t make it to court, or at least to verdict. It’s estimated that more than 40 people accused of blasphemy were killed before their trials ended. The rate of blasphemy prosecutions has increased dramatically in Pakistan since 1986 when the existing law was supplemented with a new provision. Prior to 1986 there were 14 cases of blasphemy. There have been at least 1500 cases since.
A close second to Pakistan is Iran. The charge there is “Mofsed-e-filarz” which translates in English to “Spreading Corruption on Earth”. This charge can also be applied to criminal or political crimes. It basically covers anything the Islamic Theocracy deems unacceptable. Sentences range from a few months in jail, to execution. Like in Pakistan, in some cases, the ‘execution’ is not carried out by the state and is not subject to jurisprudence. It is reported that up to 18 people were killed in a single year by the same group of vigilantes. Their defence was that the people they killed were ‘morally corrupt’. The supreme court of Iran acquitted them.
Muslim majority countries that have anti-blasphemy laws are Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, the Maldives, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Turkey, the UAE and Western Sahara. Other countries with anti-blasphemy laws are India, Singapore, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Nigeria.
The news isn’t all bad. Blasphemy isn’t a criminal offence in Australia, It’s been abolished recently in several countries, including Denmark (2017), Netherlands (2014), Norway (2014), Canada (2018), New Zealand (2019). As mentioned, France abolished blasphemy laws in 1881, England, and Wales did it in 1970. Although some states have articles mentioning blasphemy, the United States has no blasphemy laws at the federal level. In 1952 the Supreme Court ruled that banning a movie because it was ‘sacreligious’ would violate the First Amendment. This effectively means that blasphemy laws in the USA would be unconstitutional. There are some positives here, and it’s a good thing to see that the world, as a whole, is moving away from blasphemy laws.
But there’s a lot more to do.
The cases above, and the list of countries where blasphemy is a crime, highlight what a major issue blasphemy laws are across the world, both from the state and from religious groups. There’s a clear need for governments around the world to continually work towards a society where citizens can share their views on religion without fear of prosecution, or vigilante ‘justice’. It’s incumbent on governments and secular and atheist organizations to reinforce these values so religious groups are aware they are not above criticism, and they are not entitled to punish people for simply thinking differently to the way they do. Until we see a world where people can freely express critical views of religion, and people can leave religion without fear of reprisals, the IAA will continue to work to help people facing prosecution or harm from these irrational and antiquated laws.
With this in mind, IAA maintains a Legal Aid fund for atheists who are in legal trouble because of blasphemy or their atheism. We are committed to helping atheists across the globe be free to express themselves without fear of prosecution. If this is a cause you believe in, consider donating to the fund here.
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the majority of countries have either abolished blasphemy laws or no longer recognize the laws as criminal offences, there are countries where atheists can face prison, violence or even death. Countries, where blasphemy laws remain and are enforced, are almost all Muslim-majority. In Pakistan and Iran, for instance, blasphemers can be sentenced to death.
One doesn’t need to specifically criticize a religion to be considered blasphemous. In 2016 an Egyptian court sentenced an atheist, Mustafa Abdel-Nabi, to three years imprisonment (in absentia) for simply posting about atheism on Facebook.
It’s a real and terrifying problem that is being faced by atheists in these countries. People who have done nothing wrong facing years in prison, or even death, not because they’ve caused harm, not because they’ve stolen or raped, but because they just don’t believe what other people do.
Blasphemy prosecutions aren’t limited Islamic countries, or the middle east. Germany, a progressive country, with a secular government, prosecuted a blasphemer as recently as 2016, Greece imprisoned someone over a Facebook post in 2012, Austria handed out a suspended sentence to a cartoonist in 2005.
The issue isn’t limited to prosecutions by the state, either. In early 2020 a school-girl in France, a country that abolished blasphemy laws in 1881, was forced into hiding when she received death threats, and her name and school address were published, because she had made ‘anti-Islamic’ comments on Instagram. This is after the tragic events in 2015 that saw 12 people murdered in the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, by two brothers who were members of an Islamic terrorist group.