Consortium of:

Blasphemy Law: International Norms and Practices


  September 28th 2020

On August 25, 2020, ICRS, in cooperation with CRCS, YLBHI, KOMNAS HAM RI, Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), Human Rights Working Group (HRWG) and several other institutions, organized the third part of online seminar series on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) entitled ‘Blasphemy Law: International Norms and Practices’. There were three speakers for this online seminar: Ahmed Shaheed (UN Special Rapperteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief), Nazela Ghanea (University of Oxford, UK), and Heiner Bielefeldt (University of Erlangen, Germany). Desi Hanara ,from ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, served as moderator for this third session of the conference.

Ahmed Shaheed’s presentation centered on four main topics: normative standards on blasphemy laws, the case against blasphemy laws, Indonesia’s blasphemy laws and human rights obligations, and a viable alternative to blasphemy laws. Ahmed Shaheed mentioned that nearly 70 countries have blasphemy laws which are framed as laws to regulate defamation of religion, apostasy, public order, counter extremism, and even hate speech. There are also a range of penalties related to blasphemy in those countries, including loss of employment, loss of property rights, loss of citizenship, loss of family rights, incarceration , and even the death penalty. In Europe, the trend is to repeal blasphemy laws and reframe them as hate speech laws or minority rights protection. Moreover, Ahmed Shaheed explained that the normative standards of blasphemy laws is the prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system. However, this is incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20, paragraph 2, of the covenant in which it is mentioned that ‘Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law’.

Furthermore, Shaheed argued that in many places, blasphemy laws often violate freedom of religious or belief, freedom of expression, equality before the law, and non-discrimination. It has also become a slippery slope to repression and vigilantism. About blasphemy laws and human rights obligations in Indonesia, Shaheed explained that there are some steps which need to be taken. These include a national audit of good practices and deficits, promoting human rights education, strengthening the gender equality rights perspective, strengthening grassroots cooperation in society, and building good relations between state and religion. Lastly, about the viable alternatives to blasphemy laws, Shaheed suggested ‘hate speech’ laws that comply with the ‘Rabat Plan of Action’ could serve as alternatives.

The second speaker, Nazela Ghanea, started her presentation by asking, “Why are we still struggling with blasphemy law in domestic and international level?” According to Ghanea, it is because, there are many paradoxes and problems related to blasphemy laws because of the  encounter with multiple issues such as human rights, minority rights, freedom of expression, hate speech and incitements, among others. Ghanea also argued that global society has faced and is now facing many cases related to religion, including the Christchurch attacks, attacks against Christians in the Middle East, the rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, Danish Cartoons, Charlie Hebdo, controversies around blasphemy laws, and the rising populism and ethnic nationalism. The issues have led the international community to the realization of the need to come together to have common strategies. Blasphemy laws on one hand are a simple solution for those problems but, on the other hand, these laws are also the source of problems because they potentially injure the human rights of minority groups accused of blasphemy. Ghanea reminded participants that, historically, the top priorities for the UN in 1946 were problems of discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, language, or religion and the protection of minorities. These were the two focus areas of the Commission on Human Rights. However, in 1999, the issue of ‘defamation of religions’ was proposed by the commission. This has sparked a dilemma and division in the consensus, because it limits the freedom of expression related to the idea that people should not defame religion. Ghanea argued that we cannot totally protect freedom of religion and belief if we limit freedom of expression. Related to that issue, the roadblock was between the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and Human Rights Commission (HRC). Luckily, the consensus then developed through a series of meetings, such as those held in Istanbul  (2011), Washington (2011), London (2012), Geneva (2013), Doha (2014), Jeddah (2015) and The Hague (2019). Therefore, many states have established national mechanisms to address religious (in)tolerance. States also have taken a wide range of steps to promote interfaith dialogue, speaking out against acts of provocation, promoting interfaith and intercultural dialogue at different levels, and sharing and discussing other best practices used in various regions.

Lastly, the third speaker was Prof. Heiner Bielefeldt. In his presentation, Bielefeldt mentioned that as adherents of religion people will have religious feelings and from time to time there will be personal experiences in which people feel offended by others. These kinds of experiences include perceived blasphemy offenses. However, Bielefeldt argued that whether the experience of blasphemy is clear, he does not believe in blasphemy laws. Bielefeldt takes an example from Donald Trump, the President of the United States, who on one occasion held the Bible up, pretending to defend faith solely for political gains or political marketing. Bielefeldt argued that this kind of action could be understood as blasphemy. By this example, Bielefeldt explained that the way of perceiving what is blasphemy is really complicated. However blasphemy laws are a different issue. We should be careful, especially if it is related with freedom of expression or freedom of religion and belief. In order to overcome that dilemma, Bielefeldt quoted Asma Jilani Jahangir from Pakistan who said that there is no right to be free from criticism. Bielefeldt also argued that all rights are interrelated. Freedom of religion and belief can only be promoted in conjunction with freedom of expression. Regarding blasphemy laws, he suggested that we need to develop alternative ways in overcoming the problem of blasphemy besides applying law which then injures the freedom of religion and belief and expression of others. The feeling of being offended and blasphemed may be experienced from time to time, but applying laws which sacrifice other freedoms is not a satisfactory solution. Interreligious communication and building interreligious relations may become one of the solutions. Human rights also should redefine social order and social harmony, because real harmony must give breathing space for all members of society. Real harmony should respect all.