The Impact of Blasphemy Laws Abroad

Arsalan Suleman
Acting U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation 
Senate Human Rights Caucus, Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC
May 26, 2016

As Prepared.

Thank you, Susan [Hayward], for your introduction. Before I begin, I would like to thank the Senate Human Rights Caucus and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for co-hosting this briefing and convening my distinguished fellow panelists on the important topic of blasphemy laws and their impact abroad.

I will focus my remarks on three areas:

(1) Outlining the serious challenges posed by blasphemy laws globally, including for the protection of universal human rights and also for promoting stability and security;

(2) Sharing the U.S. Department of State’s approach to dealing with this global challenge; and

(3) Suggesting additional actions for consideration by the U.S. government and other interested parties.

First, blasphemy laws enforced in various parts of the world violate the fundamental freedoms of expression and religion or belief, weaken broader protections for human rights, and undermine social stability and prosperity.

By prohibiting expression or acts deemed to be blasphemous or offensive or insulting to religion or religious sensibilites, blasphemy laws on their face are inconsistent with the fundamental freedoms of expression and religion or belief that are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Blasphemy laws empower the state to be the arbiter of religious truth or orthodoxy, which almost always reflects the views of the majority. When enforced, the end result is that individuals with different beliefs are prevented from fully expressing or carrying out their peaceful religious practice.

The enforcement of blasphemy laws also undermines other human rights, such as non-discrimination and fair trial protections. State enforcement of blasphemy laws is often arbitrary and sometimes used as a tool by governments and non-government actors to target members of marginalized groups including religious minorities and political dissidents. Laws shape societal norms and expectations, and the enforcement, and sometimes mere existence, of blasphemy laws has had a pernicious effect on the rule of law in some countries. Mere accusations of blasphemy have sparked vigilante mob violence and targeted killings in various situations. When government fails to deter such actions, and does not vigorously hold those who engage in them accountable, it breeds an atmosphere of impunity that destabilizes communities and leaves minorities ever more vulnerable.

In this way, enforcement of blasphemy laws, or sometimes their mere existence, can exacerbate divisions within society, undermining social stability and prosperity. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center Study on Religion and Public Life, countries with the most restrictions on the exercise of religious freedom, including blasphemy laws, also have the highest level of religious hostilities. Other recent studies have highlighted the correlation between blasphemy laws and higher rates of violent extremism within societies. The recent killings of secularist bloggers in Bangladesh illustrate the challenges many countries face in addressing extremist violence motivated by accusations of blasphemy.

Blasphemy laws are a global concern. Many of us are familiar with deeply troubling cases of application of blasphemy laws, or instances of murder or mob violence motivated by accusations of blasphemy, in countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bangladesh, and Sudan. But blasphemy laws are not limited just to those countries or their regions of the world. According to the Pew study mentioned above, nearly half of the world’s countries have laws and policies that punish blasphemy, apostasy, or defamation. Countries like Russia, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Indonesia, Singapore, and Greece, to name a few, also have blasphemy laws. Indeed, while in the United States, Supreme Court precedent holds blasphemy laws unconstitutional, there remain six states – Massachusettes, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wyoming – that still have blasphemy laws on the books.

Second, the U.S. Department of State has a multifaceted approach to addressing blasphemy laws globally, which includes our human rights reports, bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, and civil society engagement.

The United States is absolutely clear in its opposition to blasphemy laws globally, and we convey that view through various channels of engagement.

Human rights reports

As members of the Caucus know, the U.S. State Department submits an annual Human Rights Report which includes reporting on violations of the right to freedom of expression, including through blasphemy laws. The Department also submits an annual International Religious Freedom Report which describes the status of religious freedom in every country. The report covers, among other things, government policies limiting the exercise of religious freedom, including blasphemy laws, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. My dedicated colleagues in the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, led by Ambassador-at-large David Saperstein, do a tremendous job day in and day out on promoting religious freedom globally.

Bilateral diplomacy

The U.S. State Department regularly engages countries with blasphemy laws, advising them on the negative effects of such laws, and encouraging our counterparts to repeal them. Furthermore, we encourage governments to hold accountable those who commit acts of violence motivated by accusations of blasphemy. For example, the United States regularly expresses its concern directly to Pakistani authorities about blasphemy laws and the state of religious freedom in Pakistan, more broadly. In my own engagements abroad with the OIC and countries that have blasphemy laws, I have made a concerted effort to raise our concerns with government officials, religious leaders, academics, and civil society leaders from all backgrounds.

Multilateral diplomacy

U.S. opposition to blasphemy laws is a regular feature of our multilateral diplomacy as well. At the United Nations (UN), and at other international organizations, the United States regularly raises concerns regarding blasphemy laws and advocates for the highest protections for freedoms of expression and of religion or belief. In addition, last year the United States helped to form the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief (ICG). The ICG is a consortium of over 20 countries who support UDHR Art. 18, regarding the right to freedom of religion or belief, and are working to advance that right for all. Ambassador Saperstein and Knox Thames, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia, hosted a meeting of the ICG last Friday.

We have experienced challenges and progress in our multilateral engagement on this topic. For over a decade, we worked successfully to build opposition to a UN resolution sponsored by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) aimed at prohibiting “defamation of religions,” or speech deemed insulting or offensive to religion. Some states were using this resolution to justify their own blasphemy laws and other restrictions on speech, and we adamantly opposed that resolution for the same reasons (listed above) that we oppose blasphemy laws.

In 2011, working with the OIC and several other delegations, we achieved a breakthrough in eliminating the “defamation of religions” resolution from the UN. By focusing on our shared concerns about violence, intolerance, and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief, we were able to craft a consensus resolution – UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 – that addresses the underlying causes of religious intolerance in a manner that protects the freedoms of religion or belief and expression. That resolution provides a list of positive actions – like enforcing anti-discrimination laws, having officials speak out against intolerance, engaging in interfaith dialogue, and training government officials to engage effectively with religious communities – that states should take to address this issue.

Further to that, given our deep concerns over violence against religious minorities in various parts of the world, we organized an effort with the EU, the OIC, and other delegations to launch an implementation process for Resolution 16/18 so that those positive actions would be translated into real action on the ground to help protect individuals from discrimination or violence on the basis of their religion or belief. That effort began in 2011 with a high-level meeting in Istanbul and an experts meeting in Washington, DC. A separate experts meeting has been held each year since then – with 5 total thus far – in different cities around the world to focus on best practices for promoting implementation of the actions called for in the resolution. Hosts have been secured for the meetings this year and next.

In parallel to that Istanbul Process series of meetings, the United States also launched a series of bilateral workshops to discuss and share best practices for implementation of the resolution. These sessions have been extremely helpful in depoliticizing the issue and sharing with experts on the ground tools to combat religious intolerance without resorting to blasphemy bans or other restrictions on human rights. The workshops feature experts from the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security engaging with their counterparts from interested countries on ways to best protect religious freedom domestically. So far we have had successful workshops in Bosnia, Greece, Indonesia, and Spain, and several more are being planned.

Civil society engagement

We also actively engage civil society globally to help protect and promote universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, including specifically on blasphemy law issues. This includes working with human rights defenders, affected communities, and religious leaders.

Our engagement with religious leaders on this issue has been a source for optimism. Many religious leaders, both domestically and globally, have been working to protect the religious freedom of members of religious minority groups, including as it relates to blasphemy laws. For example, in January 2016, a group of over 300 Islamic scholars, religious and interfaith leaders, and international observers gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco on the topic of protecting religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries. That group of Islamic scholars issued a declaration, called the Marrakesh Declaration, which provides a framework grounded in Islamic history and law for constitutional, citizenship-based societies with equal rights, including religious liberty, for all. Such initiatives provide human rights advocates around the world with a powerful tool from within the Islamic tradition for advancing religious freedom in Muslim-majority countries.

Efforts by civil society are critical in supporting grassroots efforts to reform and repeal blasphemy laws globally. The United States strongly supports their efforts and engages with governments around to world to ensure that civil society has the necessary space to freely operate.

Third, I would like to share some additional suggested actions for consideration on the issue of blasphemy laws.

Bilaterally the U.S. government should continue to encourage countries – especially allies – with blasphemy laws on the books to repeal them. As noted earlier, a number of our allies in Europe still have such laws, and their repeal can also enhance global efforts for repeal in other regions. Beyond opposition to the laws, we could also increase emphasis on government actions to deter false accusations of blasphemy, as well as encourage specially trained rapid response police forces skilled at mediation and rescue when tensions mount and mob violence seems imminent.

Multilaterally, the U.S. should continue to promote implementation of UN Resolution 16/18. It is important to continue having expert-focused meetings to discuss best practices for implementing each step of Resolution 16/18, and to preserve the international consensus on this topic. Governments need to follow through and implement the experts’ findings and recommendations as appropriate. That implementation should focus on all aspects of the comprehensive action plan, not just one prong. And the United States should continue its bilateral workshop efforts to ensure a deeper exchange on this important issue.

The U.S. should also continue to work with civil society to improve the religious freedom environment and encourage other countries to do the same. Civil society plays a critical role in promoting freedom of expression and of religion or belief, and civil society efforts to reform or repeal blasphemy laws should receive appropriate support.

Thank you again for convening this important discussion. I look forward to hearing my colleagues’ remarks and your questions on this important issue.