The existence of blasphemy laws violate our basic human rights
Blasphemy laws are in the news again. A few weeks ago, Denmark shockingly decided to prosecute a man accused of burning the Quran, a decision that has frightened liberals and angered conservatives. Atheist bloggers continue to face threats to their lives in various parts of the world, with an atheist recently killed in South India. But topping the list currently is Pakistan and Bangladesh, and both countries appear to have completely lost control over areas where mobs have taken to quickly lynching or murdering those ‘suspected’ of blasphemy. In addition to demanding that Facebook curb ‘blasphemous’ content, the Pakistani government has also been actively demanding its cooperation in hunting atheists and humanists down. The summary accusations of blasphemy and lynchings however continue, and a week ago, a student from Abdul Wali Khan University was beaten, stamped on and savaged by a crowd for his views on social media. Ironically and tragically, his views were not even against Islam, but ostensibly in support of Ahmadis, a marginalised sect of Muslims in Pakistan and for these views, which his torturers claimed ‘propagated’ the Ahmadi faith, he was brutally murdered. Subsequent investigations have found the student may not even have said anything blasphemous. The student’s death has received the customary hand wringing and empty platitudes of politicians, who, nevertheless, have not made any commitments towards legislative or policy changes that could alter the violent climate in Pakistan right now.
Farook Hameed – killed in Coimbatore, India Photo Courtesy of A. Joseph
Journalism student Mashal Khan – shot and brutally lynched on AWKU University, Pakistan.
Photo Courtesy: Express Tribune Pakistan
The mob violence that is annihilating atheists or secularists over the world seems to continue unabated, and the rest of the world is watching helplessly. But more malignant is the existence, and broad ranging exercise of blasphemy laws. While civil rights activists have tried to champion freedom of speech, it suffers a death-blow under freedom of religion. Everyone has heard the classical responses to criticism against this concept – it is the ‘right’ of a State to determine its laws. States that obviously identify as a theocracy, or have a particular state religion have the right to protect the religious sentiments of the majority, and so on and so forth. This idea of ‘religious sentiments’ is a curious little concept, but we will return to that later. Hence, religious countries have resisted all attempts to remove or soften their blasphemy laws and have comfortably accused countries of cultural paternalism and neo-colonial imposition when other countries object, and triumphantly wave their right to freedom o religion as the ultimate counterpoint. The problem with this tactic, though, is that it is not an effective argument at all.
As is well-known, there exist certain international treaties that aim to ensure and safeguard fundamental human rights all over the world. The most popular one, arising from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1966. Article 18 deals with freedom of religion, and states that, “(1) Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching and (2) No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.” Interestingly, neither in the Covenant, nor in any other national or international text of relevance to most such countries, especially Pakistan, is religion defined. More importantly, in the Covenant, and in most updated versions of fundamental rights, the right to freedom of religion is always clubbed with the right to freedom of thought and conscience.
This is an important and crucial distinction. Historically, the right to freedom of religion evolved when civil rights charters acknowledged that religion is a matter of private belief, and that the State should not be controlling it. It simultaneously absorbed strength when societies began to tolerate the idea of different beliefs, on the basis that it is equally important to the person who holds them and to therefore punish them for it was especially cruel. Religion therefore was viewed as being intricately connected with one’s conscience. Similarly, religion, conscience and thought are treated as equivalent concepts because all three ideas are deemed to be important to an individual for the same reason – in that it allows him / her to build their lives around a specific set of beliefs and values. The right to freedom of religion is also, like many other rights, a right viewed as indispensable to the concept of human autonomy. This includes, by definition, the right to disbelieve in any specific religion as religion is ultimately the expression of belief and normative standards and any human being is free to agree or disagree with said standards.
This is not a radical argument but rather an intuitive conclusion derived from the elements that make up the ‘right to freedom of religion’. Freedom of religion is important because it is one way of exercising our autonomy as human beings interested in making our own choices and shaping our own lives. Religious devotees create lives for themselves around certain kinds of beliefs and values. They will probably join a community of like-minded people, they typically have ideas about their relationship to God that orient them in their daily life. Just like the right to make choices about risk taking, vocation, travel, education etc, right to religious autonomy is simply one part of right of person-hood. Moreover, within the set of religious choices, the ‘right’ attaches value to the act of choosing, not to particular outcomes. A decision to reject a religion, or to defend a lesser known religion is entitled to the same protection as a decision to follow a particular religion. Thus, individual choice in matters of religion should remain free: individual decisions are to be protected whether they operate for or against the validity of any or all religious views.
The importance given to freedom of religion, and how ‘religion’ as a concept has been treated in international law is reflected in the development of the law relating to refugees as well, which considered people suffering persecution because of their religion as a group entitled to refugee status, along with people of a particular social group or political opinion. To qualify for refugee status therefore, one need not only prove persecution by virtue of something they have no control over, such as race. They are also entitled to the protection of the international community if they are made to suffer for belonging to groups that they consciously choose to identify with, such as their political opinion or religion. Irrespective of the nature or name of one’s particular religion therefore, the principle that has developed is to not punish humans for the beliefs they choose to identify with.
If freedom of religion is regarded as being inviolate because of its importance in the life of it’s adherents and their beliefs and choices, then atheism / secularism / humanism is, most definitely subject to protection under this principle. Atheism / secularism is not a lifestyle choice that some people make on a whim. Atheists / secularists hold their belief that there is no God, or that religion should be a purely private affair, as strongly and stridently as any religious person – to coerce them to accept a religion is as bad as coercing persons from any other institutionalised, organised religion to do so. As far as their conscience goes, atheists or humanists believe with utter conviction that there is no higher power, and that any attempt to say so is an affront to human suffering. Believing as they do, in the absence of a supernatural deity is as fundamental to their psyche as is Christianity/Islam/ Hinduism to it’s followers. In that sense, atheism should actually be treated on par with freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and they do have the right to practice and propagate their faith. In this particular instance, propagating may well include denouncing practices and texts that they deem incompatible with their beliefs about the non-existence of God, or about the unquestioning devotion to religious texts as the source of moral authority.
Why, you may ask. Why can’t atheists, secularists and humanists stay silent about their lack of belief? Why risk lighting the tinder box by hurting the religious sentiments of the population? As they see it, this is mere flaunting of an unpopular and controversial opinion, seemingly for no reason other than to exert a kind of intellectual superiority. You may wonder how people of different faiths are able to co-exist, but atheists and secularists are not, which leads one to believe it is something that they are guilty of.
There is a curious blindness in this view. Every religion, by virtue of its obeisance to an all-powerful, omnipotent God, implicitly denounces every other religion as false. Therefore, by the rationale of blasphemy laws, the mere existence of a group of people believing in a deity of a different name, and in a different doctrine is an insult and an accusation against every other religion. Yet, for some reason, people of other religious categories are not attacked, as frequently as atheists and secularists are. The reason this inconsistency is seemingly skipped over, is because every religion also automatically realises the weakness in their own position that their deity is the one and only supreme power. Enunciating the lack of belief in one specific religion or God therefore, has never been an activity practised by atheists or humanists alone. By practising and propagating their faith, every religion that has, at its centre, a supreme being as all-powerful and omnipotent considers every other faith as charlatanism at its worst, and misguided at its best. Yet freedom to practice and propagate their faith is afforded to all religious communities. Atheists / secularists / humanists as well hold a similar kind of belief, and consider it utterly essential to their thought and conscience. Practising and propagating their belief necessarily includes the analysis and questioning of popular methods of worship. Labelling this as ‘blasphemy’, and therefore subject to the death penalty or any other kind of punishment, runs counter to the very right of freedom of religion, which is guaranteed to all citizens even in theocratic countries and in the international instruments that most nations have signed up to. By treating any expression or the logical extension of a lack of belief in a supernatural deity as self-evidently insulting to the religion of another, laws that define and attempt to punish a vague concept of ‘blasphemy’ run afoul of one of the most fundamental human rights – that of freedom of conscience, thought and religion. Ultimately, as human beings, one has the right to live and speak according to one’s conscience. Criminalising it under the vague term of blasphemy is not just archaic and regressive, it is in contrast to the right that these governments portend to protect – freedom of religion.