By Koh Wei Jie, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio
Rimsha Masih, a 14-year old Pakistani girl, was arrested this August after being accused of burning pages from a Quran, the holy book of Islam. Under Pakistani law, defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran is punishable by life imprisonment. Recently, her case was thrown out by the Islamabad High Court, and she is now free. She was declared innocent because no one had actually seen her burn pages of the Quran. This fortunate development is a sliver of good news in the middle of a grim situation: blasphemy laws still exist, and they are unjust and oppressive political tools. Blasphemy laws have no place in a civilised world.
What are blasphemy laws?
Blasphemy laws restrict what people can say or write about religion. They vary widely in scope, form, and extent of enforcement. They can be classified as specific or neutral towards any one religion.
Religion-specific blasphemy laws
Some countries have blasphemy laws that single out one religion or a specific subset of a religion for protection. Section 295 of the Pakistani penal code identifies Muhammad as a sacred figure and prescribes the death penalty or life imprisonment for those who “defile” his name. Similar laws exist in Islamic states such as Afghanistan and Kuwait. However, such laws are not unique to Islamic states: an old British law, now abolished, made it illegal to blaspheme against the Church of England.
As the sanctity of a religious idea is defined only by those who subscribe to it, blunt blasphemy laws are often used as a political tool to enforce ideological hegemony. They serve as a means of stifling discussion and criticism of religion. Supporters of such laws can also use them to restrict progress in secular fields. Intellectual discourse, including medical and scientific research, can be deemed blasphemous if it is seen in any way to deviate from officially approved religious dogma.
To those who endorse blasphemy laws, it makes no difference whether there is any evidence for their religious beliefs, or even if such suppression makes logical sense. Their message is clear: shine the light of critical inquiry upon our religious beliefs, or cross our arbitrary thresholds of offense, and you will face medieval consequences
Religion-neutral blasphemy laws
Some countries enforce laws that do not specifically protect one religion, but in theory, protect all of them. Section 298A of the Malaysian penal code details how “causing, etc., disharmony, disunity, or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will, or prejudicing, etc., the maintenance of harmony or unity, on grounds of religion” is illegal.
In practice, however, such laws are ripe for abuse, most commonly in favouring the religion with the most political influence and power. For example, Sunni Islam is the official version of Islam in Malaysia, and the Malaysian government prohibits “deviant” interpretations of Islam. Religion-neutral blasphemy laws may appear more egalitarian than religion-specific blasphemy laws, but they suffer from a logical inconsistency that instead allows the state to set the terms of acceptable religious speech.
This inconsistency stems from the fact that all religions have teachings that contradict tenets of other religions. For instance, polytheistic religions are, by definition, incompatible with monotheistic religions. Even monotheistic religions have major doctrinal differences among one another—one believer’s sacred prophet and saviour can be seen as another believer’s false prophet and blasphemer.
If one follows this line of reasoning strictly, the conclusion is that all religious views, and views about religions, should not be expressed, because all religions are mutually offensive. Instead, diverse religions generally coexist peacefully by selectively ignoring doctrinal conflicts. This theoretically creates adequate space for each religion to operate with minimal conflict—a peaceful status quo.
However, the subjective and contradictory nature of religious doctrines makes any state-defined status quo arbitrary. Moreover, when those with a vested interest in controlling religious speech also have the power to control the acceptability of said speech, people have to constantly second-guess how the powers-that-be will react to what they say. This creates a climate of fear—fear that one may cross an invisible out-of-bounds marker set by the state, and fear that religious people can claim to be offended for any metaphysical reason. Intellectual discourse is thus stifled under the weight of self-censorship.
Blasphemy is not to blame
How then should we address the problem of religious disharmony? Societies have to recognise that the mere act of blasphemy against religious ideas cannot reasonably be considered a legal issue. Those who want it to be a legal issue have to prove three metaphysical claims: that their deities exist, that the act of insulting a deity is temporally harmful and wrong, and that the previous two claims apply equally to people who do not subscribe to their religion. No one has proven these claims, so it is unreasonable to have blasphemy laws, especially in secular countries.
While blasphemy can take place during a crime such as harassment, the illegality of the crime should have nothing to do with the act of blasphemy against an idea per se. Only the temporal effects of said act should matter. Even if someone decides to violently act upon feelings of offence, the blasphemer should not be blamed for causing the violence, unless, of course, he actually intended to incite violence in the first place.
Consider, for example, the fact that thunder and lightning are natural phenomena. To say so may be offensive to those who believe in Thor, but as the law is not in the business of deciding whether the Norse god of thunder exists, crimes committed by Thor-worshippers to protect his name are of their own volition.
The way forward
Blasphemy laws are tools of social control that hinder intellectual exploration and religious freedom. Although some of these laws are intended to maintain social harmony, they instead create new problems. Their proponents argue against taking social stability for granted, but what if the price of taking for granted the gifts of free intellectual discourse is much higher?
As Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant famously urged, “Sapere aude!”— dare to be wise. The appropriate response to religious offence should be to pick up the pen, not the sword. If society is to enjoy free and civilised discourse, people have to be brave enough to tolerate views that they disagree with, and have the courage to express themselves even in the face of adversity.