Legislation that seeks to criminalize those who insult or defame religions, or commit blasphemy often leads to human rights abuses. These laws prohibit injuring religious feelings or insulting religious figures, or more broadly, the sacred.
Those who support the concept of blasphemy laws argue that such prohibitions are necessary to fight discrimination on religious ground, to protect religion from defamation, and to protect freedom of religion. The impact of these laws in practice tells a different story. Accusations of blasphemy have resulted in arrests and arbitrary detentions and have sparked assaults, murders and mob violence. Blasphemy laws can promote intolerance through governmental restrictions on freedom of expression, thought, and religion, resulting in devastating consequences, particularly for religious minorities and political dissidents. Allegations of blasphemy serve as a pretext for religious extremists to polarize society and to foment public disorder.
Blasphemy laws can be found in different places within the legal framework of particular countries, from constitutions, to criminal codes, to media laws. From a practical point of view, these laws can be vaguely worded and poorly implemented and therefore subject to abuse by state authorities, religious leaders or individual citizens.
Blasphemy laws (and the international concept of prohibiting “defamation of religions”) are inconsistent with universal human rights standards, which protect groups and individuals from discrimination based on race, religion, gender, political opinion and other criteria. International standards do not serve to protect abstract ideas, belief systems or religions. There is no internationally protected right against feeling offended.
As a reference tool, Human Rights First and the Cardozo Human Rights and Genocide Clinic have mapped out and created a compendium of blasphemy laws around the world. This compilation aims to contribute to advocacy efforts to confront abuses created by blasphemy laws.. We hope to provide a useful tool for human rights defenders, governments, civil society, academics, internet companies and social media providers and legal experts.
The religious framework of the state can be the reason for the existence of blasphemy laws. In countries with a state religion , individuals have been punished for violating “public morals” for offending or insulting this religion. For this reason the compilation includes constitutional articles (usually the first or second) of states with an official religion.
TWO CATEGORIES OF LAWS
We have compiled blasphemy laws. The list is not exhaustive, but is an ongoing project that we hope to update periodically.
The research is divided into two separate documents:
(1) Laws that pay a specific reference to sanctioning insult, blasphemy or defamation of religion. These “blasphemy laws” in the narrow sense seek to punish individuals for offending, insulting, or denigrating religious doctrines, deities, symbols or the sacred, and more broadly, for wounding or outraging religious feelings. These laws use precise reference to the prohibition of insulting religion.
(2) Related laws that don’t specifically reference blasphemy but which can be used to prosecute for that offense. These laws do not specifically address blasphemy or the insult to religion, but despite that have still been used by the state to punish individuals who have allegedly committed blasphemy. For example, some governments provide for a state religion and have laws that prohibit the “violation of public morals,” which are used in some contexts to prosecute blasphemy offenses.
We began by examining a sampling of laws from 26 countries discussed in the Human Rights First report “Blasphemy Laws Exposed.” We then compared our research to similar research publications from Freedom House, the Pew Research Center, The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University and the Venice Commission Report on Blasphemy of March 2010. Freedom House’s report focused narrowly on seven countries, all of which are included in this research. Reports published by the Pew Research Center used a broader definition of laws criminalizing defamation of religion to include laws against hate speech aimed at religious groups and therefore, they identified more countries of interest than Human Rights First has. Unlike Human Rights First, Freedom House and the Pew Research Center, the Berkley Center focused on sixteen countries that have national blasphemy laws, regardless of whether or not these laws have been used recently. The scope, definitions and motivations for each of these reports varied significantly. It soon became clear that there was no universally held definition of “defamation of religion” or “blasphemy” nor was there a readily available compendium of such laws.
We examined all relevant constitutional basis and legislation, including civil and penal codes of the countries included here. Some countries have proven more challenging than others to research. For example, the transitional political background in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, have required us to seek out the most recent constitutional drafts and provisions by closely monitoring news articles and reports by human rights organizations.
Given that the majority of the countries listed in the compendium are non-English speaking countries, we relied on a mixture of primary and secondary sources. For certain countries, we were able to find official translations of a country’s constitution and laws on the government’s website, or through UNHCR’s RefWorld. Other primary sources included compilations by reputable organizations such as the International Constitutional Law Project, International Relations and Security Network: Primary Resources in International Affairs, and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). When an official translation was not identified, particularly for civil or penal codes, we relied on secondary sources, such as translations by independent researchers, published academics, and reports by United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Freedom House, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and Amnesty International (AI), among other human rights organizations.
Having compiled the translated constitutional articles and laws, we then had to determine whether these laws should be placed under (1) Laws that pay a specific reference to sanctioning insult, blasphemy or defamation of religion or (2) Related laws that don’t specifically reference blasphemy.
To make this determination, we closely examined the language of the laws. (1) Blasphemy laws punish individuals for making statements that can be perceived as criticisms or insults against religious doctrines, figures, deities, and symbols. Typically, the language of these laws contained the following words: offending, insulting, wounding, denigrating, or outraging religious ideologies or feelings. In comparison, (2) Related Laws do not explicitly mention religion, but rather, are laws that have been used by the state to prosecute individuals who have made statements perceived in the same way as allegedly blasphemous statements. They can also be used a pretext to persecute religious minorities or political dissidents. Typically, these laws prohibit individuals from violating public order and morality, which may be closely linked to protecting the state’s official religion.
In order to provide contextual background for individuals using this compilation, we included constitutional articles that specify a state’s official religion, and articles that privilege a specific religion over another. This is referred to as the religious framework of the State.
Some countries presented unique challenges. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the country has a Basic Law of Government but does not have a written penal code. Instead, Saudi Arabia relies on judges’ interpretation of Shari’a law to determine which actions constitute crimes and what the punishment for those crimes should be. This means that the definitions of crimes, as well as the nature and severity of punishments are varied.
Under international law, a state may declare an official religion, provided that fundamental human rights, such as the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief and freedom of expression, are respected for all without discrimination. In practice, having an official state religion often allows states to determine which types of beliefs, religious practices, or expressions are acceptable in that society- and which are not. Two caveats apply here. First, although the constitutions of Poland and Sri Lanka do not explicitly state that there is an official state religion, the Polish and Sri Lankan constitutions provide privileged status to one religion over another, the Roman Catholic Church and Buddhism, respectively. Second, Indonesia’s constitution recognizes only six official religions: Islam, Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. The Ahmadiyya sect is considered an illegitimate form of Islam and therefore, illegal. Similarly, the Baha’i faith is also considered illegal in various countries. These contextual elements were important to take into consideration.
We have not included laws that criminalize the destruction or the damage of places of worship as they are often part of hate crime legislation and not linked to anti-blasphemy laws. In the case where hate crime acts or defiling places of worship are entwined with a reference to insult of religion or wording related to blasphemy, we have included the article in this compilation (for example Brunei).
As previously noted, this compilation is an ongoing project that will be updated and corrected as necessary.