Over the past few years, an increasing number of countries have passed laws penalizing blasphemy: that could be any speech or activity which may be perceived to be insulting to, or even just lacking sufficient reverence for, another’s religion, or God, or religious officials or artifacts.
On the face of it, this may not sound like a bad idea. However, enforcement of blasphemy laws 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.
“Blasphemy laws empower the state to be the arbiter of religious truth or orthodoxy, which almost always reflects the views of the majority,” said Acting Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Arsalan Suleman. “When enforced, the end result is that individuals with different beliefs are prevented from fully expressing or carrying out their peaceful religious practice.”
A country’s laws and their enforcement shape societal norms and expectations. So when a government passes and enforces blasphemy laws, it may exacerbate divisions within society, thus undermining social stability. It is therefore no surprise that research has shown that countries with the most restrictions on the exercise of religious freedom, including blasphemy laws, also have the highest level of religious hostilities.
Indeed, a number of studies have shown a correlation between blasphemy laws and higher rates of violent extremism within societies. In some instances, even the barest accusation of blasphemy has resulted in mob violence and killings.
“The United States is absolutely clear in its opposition to blasphemy laws globally, and we convey that view through various channels of engagement,” said Special Envoy Suleman.
The United States advises on the negative effects of such laws, and encourages countries that have them, to repeal them. We urge governments to hold accountable those who commit violence motivated by accusations of blasphemy. We work with civil society to improve the religious freedom environment and encourage other countries to do the same. And we helped craft UN Resolution 16/18, which calls on all member states to foster religious freedom and pluralism.
Blasphemy laws are a global concern. We call on the international community to reject blasphemy laws and continue to uphold the human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.