The push to abolish blasphemy laws is proceeding apace in many western countries. This is a trend that must be welcomed as a victory for freedom of thought and expression, and for the campaigners who have been pushing for reform, both in countries
like Malta and Denmark where the laws were sometimes employed, and countries like Canada and New Zealand where they had been out of use for decades or longer. In an interconnected world, it is important that bad laws, no matter how seemingly inactive,
should be actively abolished, both because of the risk they may be reactivated, as Ireland saw, but also because they set a dangerous precedent in a world where at least 69 states still have blasphemy or quasi- blasphemy laws on the books.
Victories for freedom of thought and expression
Since the publication of last year's Freedom of Thought Report, three more countries have abolished the crime of blasphemy, in all cases as part of reforms designed to remove laws considered anachronistic or contrary to twenty-first
century human rights standards.
In December 2018, the Canadian Senate voted for repeal, as part of a bill intended to remove outdated legislation. Under Section 296 of the Canadian Criminal Code, dating back to 1892 the crime of blasphemous libel was in principle
punishable by a prison term up to two years. Despite a good faith provision protecting opinion delivered in decent language, the law had historically been used to prosecute satire and criticism.
Then, in March 2019, the New Zealand parliament voted to repeal blasphemous libel, again as part of a package of measures to remove anachronistic laws under the Crimes Amendment Bill. The move follows decades of campaigning by
Humanist NZ, a national partner in the End Blasphemy Laws campaign. In their submission to a public consultation on the bill to remove Section 123 of the criminal code, Humanist NZ argued for repeal of blasphemy on the grounds that it was detrimental to
the country's capacity to challenge rights violations committed under so-called blasphemy laws abroad, an argument that was taken up by Justice Minister Andrew Little in favour of repeal. Later arguing for the repeal, Little declared that blasphemy law
was out of place with New Zealand's position as a bastion of human rights.
And similarly, in June 2019, once again as part of a wide-ranging overhaul of the Criminal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedures, Greece dropped the two articles outlawing blasphemy. There were some words of criticism from leaders
of the Greek Orthodox church, however wider public reaction was minimal, and the move was welcomed by the Humanist Union of Greece, which had lobbied on the move for many years, as well as other campaigners for free expression.
Cultures of taboo and regression in law
The divide between countries respecting secular freedom and those which do not is growing however.
It was welcome and celebrated news in October 2018 that a Pakistani Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was finally pardoned from blasphemy allegations dating back to 2009, and was freed and fled to Canada in May 2019. However, the fate of
dozens or hundreds of others accused of blasphemy in the country is more obscure and deeply troubling. One relatively well-known case, Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer accused of blasphemously discussing the life of Muhammad on a closed Facebook group, remain
in prison in solitary confinement. His first defence lawyer quit after receiving death threats, his second defence lawyer was murdered. Others have been disappeared and then charged with blasphemy in connection with accusations that they merely joined
atheist groups online. Extrajudicially, blasphemy accusations lead to mob attacks and murder. Despite occasional attempts to argue for reform, all critical discussion of Pakistan's blasphemy laws stands to be criticized by Islamists as itself an act of
blasphemy, leading to the condemnation and sometimes the assassination of those who even suggest reform of the law.
Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, a number of accused apostates or blasphemers, some of whom were previously sentenced to death, including Ahmad Al Shamri, Ashraf Fayadh, Waleed Abu al-Khair, and Raif Badawi, have disappeared into the prison
While the blasphemy situation in Pakistan is perennially horrific, and the situation for apostates and blasphemers in Saudi and other states enforcing conservative taboos is nothing to be emulated, a number of other countries have
actually increased penalties for such crimes in the past year alone.
The case of Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkheitir has shaken Mauritania since 2014. Accused of blasphemy and apostasy over an article he wrote about religion and slavery, as a member of a commonly indentured caste himself, Mkheitir was reviled
by Islamist groups and leaders who repeatedly dogged his trial with rallies calling for his death. Mkheitir was imprisoned from early 2014, and handed a death sentence before the end of that year. The death penalty was subsequently commuted, and after
years of isolated imprisonment he was pardoned by the Supreme Court in 2017, but he remained in detention until finally being allowed to leave the country in 2019. The entire long episode is a story of gross injustice against an innocent man, and could
have served responsible lawmakers as a basis on which to talk about the perils of allowing extremists to incite hatred under the guise of blasphemy and apostasy allegations; could have moved the state toward just reforms. Instead, they opted for
entrenching extremist demands, actually increasing the penalties for apostay and blasphemy to a mandatory death penalty as of April 2018.
After some years of staged implementation, the kingdom of Brunei has increased penalties for various crimes against religion including aspotasy and blasphemy, as well as adultery and gay sex. These are now capital crimes. The sultan
has said that a moratorium on the death penalty will be preserved. However, indefinite prison terms are a terrifying prospect for people simply trying to live their lives and express their beliefs. The persecution of innocent people is a high price to
pay for an entirely impossible attempt to impose cultural homogeneity across a society on questions concerning religion and personal morality.
A world divided
Despite the victories in Europe, Canada and New Zealand, then, it remains the case that 69 countries outlaw blasphemy or criticism of religion under similar laws, 6 of those carrying a death penalty.
Meanwhile at least 18 countries outlaw apostasy (the mere fact, or announcing of the fact, of leaving or changing religion), 12 of those carrying a death penalty.
What's the difference between a child throwing a tantrum and religious groups asking for a ban on something that hurt religious sentiments? Absolutely nothing, except maybe the child can be cajoled into understanding that they might be wrong. Try doing
that with the religious group and you'll be facing trolls, bans, and rape, death or beheading threats. Thankfully, when it comes to the recent call for banning the streaming platform Netflix, those demanding it have taken recourse to the law and filed a
Their concern? According to Shiv Sena committee member Ramesh Solanki, who filed the complaint, Netflix original shows are promoting anti-Hindu propaganda. The shows in question include Sacred Games 2 (a Hindu godman
encouraging terrorism), Leila (depicts a dystopian society divided on the basis of caste) and comedian Hasan Minhaj's Patriot Act (claims how the Lok Sabha elections 2019 disenfranchised minorities).
Blasphemy was quietly abolished in Greece on 1 July 2019 under changes to the country's criminal code, in a huge step forward for the global campaign to end harsh blasphemy laws.
According to the Humanist Union of Greece, the crime of blasphemy will be dropped from the country's Criminal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedures from 1 July 2019. The news was welcomed by the Humanist Union of Greece after it was published on a
Greek news site.
Greece's blasphemy law was among the most restrictive in Europe, and has actively been used to prosecute people for often satirical posts deemed to insult religion. In a high-profile blasphemy case in Greece in 2012, blogger Filippos Loizos used a
play on words to portray a revered Greek Orthodox monk as a traditional pasta-based dish. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison after being found guilty of blasphemy. His conviction was later overthrown on appeal.
Greece is the 8th country to repeal its blasphemy law since 2015.
A major Lebanese music festival has cancelled a concert by the country's best-known rock band, Mashrou' Leila , to prevent bloodshed after church leaders accused the group of blasphemy.
The Maronite Catholic Eparchy of Byblos claimed last week that Mashrou' Leila's songs violate religious values and demanded the gig be pulled. Facebook users had threatened to stop the show by force, with some claiming to be God's Soldiers.
Lawmakers in Byblos urged the festival's organisers to pull the concert to respect sanctities and morals.
The Byblos festival duly cancelled explaining that it was forced to cancel the group's performance next week on security grounds. Christians had threatened to attack the concert if it went ahead.
Mashrou' Leila's lead singer is openly gay and the band tackles taboos that few other Arab musicians have explored.
The band blamed a defamatory campaign relying exclusively on fabrications that couldn't be further from the truth. The band said in a statement:
We are not on some sort of mission to arbitrarily blaspheme and disrespect people's religious symbols.
Twitter has blogged about its recent censorship rules update:
Our primary focus is on addressing the risks of offline harm, and research shows that dehumanizing language increases that risk. As a result, after months of conversations and feedback from the public, external experts and our own
teams, we're expanding our rules against hateful conduct to include language that dehumanizes others on the basis of religion.
Starting today, we will require Tweets like these to be removed from Twitter when they're reported to us:
Religious groups are viruses. They are making this country sick.
It is always one of the unintended consequences of censorship is that it often applies most to those that are supposed to be in need of protection. Eg religious groups are the ones that are most likely to be pulled up for hate directed at other
So will Twitter ban such bible quotes as:
But [Moses] made his own people go out like sheep -- Distinguishing between them and the Egyptians, as a shepherd divideth between the sheep and the goats, having set his own mark upon these sheep, by the blood of the Lamb sprinkled
on their door-posts. And they went forth as sheep, not knowing whither they went. And guided them in the wilderness -- As a shepherd guides his flock.
Polish activist Elzbieta Podlesna has been arrested for 'offending' religious beliefs for possessing copies of a poster showing the religious characters of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus with rainbow halos.
Amnesty International's Regional Europe Researcher, Barbora Cernusakova, commented:
We are extremely concerned to hear that Elzbieta Podlesna, a Polish human rights activist, was arrested and detained for several hours on spurious charges upon her return to Poland from a trip to Belgium and the Netherlands with
The posters had been posted around the town of Plock at the end of April. The posters depicted the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, one of the most highly revered icons in Poland.
Amnesty International said:
Given the lack of evidence of a crime here, we can only see that Elzbieta has been detained for her peaceful activism. Amnesty International calls on the Polish authorities to stop harassing peaceful protesters and activists in
Poland, including by arbitrarily arresting people who stand up for their rights. Restricting activists from freely expressing their views in the country is unlawful and must stop immediately.
The Siege of Tel Aviv by Hesh Kestin, a parody novel, had been pulled by its independent publisher, Dzanc Books after a Twitter lynch mob claimed the book to be Islamophobic and racist.
Kestin explained that the publisher had initially stood its ground against the Twitteridiots who attacked it, but later buckled under pressure.
The book had earlier been endorsed by some big names including Stephen King who said it was scarier than anything he ever wrote, but also that:
An irrepressible sense of humor runs through it ... it's stuff like the cross-dressing pilot (my favorite character) and any number of deliciously absurd situations (the pink jets). It's the inevitable result of an eye that sees the
funny side, even in horror. So few writers have that. This novel will cause talk and controversy. Most of all, it will be read.
The book's promotional material reads:
Iran leads five armies in a brutal victory over Israel, which ceases to exist. Within hours, its leaders are rounded up and murdered, the IDF is routed, and the country's six million Jews concentrated in Tel Aviv, which becomes a
starving ghetto. While the US and the West sit by, Israel's enemies prepare to kill off the entire population.
On the eve of genocide, Tel Aviv makes one last attempt to save itself, as an Israeli businessman, a gangster, and a cross-dressing fighter pilot put together a daring plan to counterattack. Will it succeed?
It seems to have been the promotional material that was the basis for the Twitterstorm. Writer Nathan Goldman Goldman said that as soon as he read the marketing copy of the book -- he says he has not read the book in its entirety-- he knew the racist
rhetoric it was implying.
Emmy Award-winning poet Tariq Luthun, who also engaged in the Twitter conversation, said that he doesn't know the writer's specific ideologies, but what he read in the description and the excerpt available online goes beyond Islamophobia.
Steve Gillis, co-founder of Dzanc Books, apologised.
If an error has been committed, it is not in our intent, but in the failure to consider how readers might perceive the novel. It was my own blindness, and reading the novel as a parody, which has me so troubled now.
Memories of My Body is a 2018 Indonesia drama by Garin Nugroho. Starring Muhammad Khan, Raditya Evandra and Rianto.
In Center Java Juno, a pre-teen abandoned by his father, joins a Lengger dance centre where men assume feminine appearances but the political and social upheaval in Indonesia forces him on the road, meeting remarkable people on his
Muslim groups in Indonesia are calling for a ban on the film Memories of My Body, a drama from the country's best-known art house director, Garin Nugroho. The groups claim that the film is sexually deviant and promotes LGBT values.
The film depicts the story of a young man from a dance troupe that performs Lengger Lanang, a folk dance from central Java that is usually performed in pairs, and in which men often take both male and female roles.
Memories of My Body premiered in the Venice Film Festival's Horizon section, where it won the prize for best film. The success was repeated at several other festivals.
The film encountered problems in Indonesia following its release on April 18. After being given a 17+ rating by the censorship board (LSF), the film was given a 40-screen release.
In less than a week, the film was banned by local officials in regions including Depok and Palembang. Others called on the powerful assembly of Muslim elders known as the Indonesian Ulema Council to move against the film. Arovah Windiani, a
spokeswoman for the council said that, from a moral perspective, the film should not be out there.
A backlash against the film was further fanned on social media. An online petition calling for Memories of My Body to be banned gained 160,000 signatures.
On Monday, the Muslim elders' council demanded that the censorship board change the film's certification to 21+, and recommended that Nugroho re-edit the film to make its meaning less ambiguous.
Nugroho has refused to revise the film and told Variety that he opposes mob justice.
With screenings banned in five provinces, the film is now playing on just three screens across the country.
In related news a religious mob has attacked dancers at an Indonesian event.
Members of a Malay youth paramilitary organisation, justified the attack by claiming the dance was vulgar. They also said that the wearing of tight shirts by male dancers from Tanjungpura University who were dancing femininely was not compatible with
A university lecturer and three students fell victim to the mob as they were celebrating World Dance Day in the Indonesian city of Pontianak last week.
New Zealand's archaic law prohibiting the publication of material which may vilify or insult Christianity has been repealed in Parliament.
Previously it was an offence in New Zealand to publish anything which may be considered blasphemous libel, meaning to condemn Christ or Christianity. The offence of blasphemous libel had not been prosecuted in New Zealand since 1922
Justice Minister Andrew Little commented:
This obsolete provision has no place in a modern society which protects freedom of expression.
Laws should be relevant to modern society and the last time a blasphemous libel case was considered, in 1998, the Solicitor-General rejected it. The view was expressed that it would be inconsistent with the freedom of expression as
protected by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.
No doubt New Zealand still has a modern day equivalent that can be used to prosecute insults or criticism of religion.
Singapore has banned Swedish death metal group Watain from performing a concert taking issue at the band's history of denigrating religions and promoting violence.
Watain is noted for its nightmarish live shows, which have included performing Satanic ceremonies on stage and dousing their fans with blood.
Censors from the Media Development Authority (IMDA) said it cancelled the concert following an assessment submitted to it by the Ministry of Home Affairs. The ministry spoke of serious concerns about the concert, given the band's history of
denigrating religions and promoting violence.
A McJesus Sculpture Has Provoked Violent Protests in Israel. The gallery is now fending off government censorship as well as the artist's own request to remove the work in solidarity with a pro-Palestinian boycott of Israel.
Jani Leinonen's McJesus (2015) has become the subject of violent protests at Israel's Haifa Museum of Art. the Rev. Archimandrite Agapious Abu Sa'ada of the Greek Melkite Catholic Archeparchy of Acre told Haaretz:
We denounce the exhibition and the injury to the holiest symbol of Christianity by an institution that is supposed to serve citizens of all religions,
Hundreds of Arab Christians were on hand Friday to protest the controversial work, while police mobilized to prevent them from entering the museum and removing the work by force. Three policemen were injured by protesters throwing stones, while
officers Officers, meanwhile, used tear gas and stun grenades to clear the crowd, according to the Independent .
The demonstration followed a letter on Thursday from Israeli culture minister Miri Regev calling for the work to be removed and threatening to revoke the museum's government funding.
McJesus was installed in September as part of the exhibition Sacred Good, which looks at religion and faith through the lens of consumerism. The museum describes the piece as a way to address the collaboration between religious systems and the
So far, the museum has refused to take the work off display, instead meeting with church leaders and officials from the Haifa Municipality and determining that the most appropriate response to is to hang a sign at the exhibition entrance warning
visitors of potentially offensive content.