Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Barbarism of Blasphemy Laws

An atheist blogger in Bangladesh was murdered by a gang of machete-wielding jihadists back in February. The leader of Al-Qaeda's branch in India, Asim Umar, recently made a nine-minute video bragging about his death and claiming it to be a warning against other "blasphemers." Umar mentioned several other "blasphemers" such as Islamic scholar Mohammad Shakil Auj, murdered in Pakistan last year, and two bloggers, Aniqa Naz and Rajib Haider, both killed in Bangladesh in 2013. Umar urged his followers to hunt down and murder more "blasphemers." I put "blasphemers," in quotations, because it's clear that Umar's definition of the term is, "anyone who criticizes Al Qaeda."

While Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for these attacks, it should be noted that such attacks are rarely punished by the governments of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Quite the contrary, the free-thinkers and secularists who speak out against the theocratic ideology of the jihadists are the ones who are punished. Michael De Dora, a UN representative, notes that these governments have made "blasphemy" a crime punishable by prison or death. In doing so, "they not only crush valuable dissent that could lessen extremism in the name of religion, but they perpetuate the lie that that religious criticism is impermissible, thus emboldening violent extremists."

The government of Pakistan has made empty promises to prevent the "misuse" of blasphemy laws. As Ed Brayton points out, the problem is the government uses blasphemy laws at all. The main design of blasphemy laws is the criminalization of any kind of dissent against religion. Under blasphemy laws, people are arrested and executed for advocating against extremism. They are arrested and executed for advocating secularism. They are arrested and executed for simply disagreeing with the dominant religious orthodoxy in their countries. Blasphemy laws are an attack on free speech, free expression, freedom of the press, and freedom in general. The legal culture of these countries is one of barbarism, tyranny, and hypocrisy. The murders of those bloggers, activists, and free-thinkers is the inevitable result of a government that sides with the extremists and punishes the majority rather than the other way around.

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