2020: Another Year of Blasphemy

Last year ended on a dark note for blasphemers. Junaid Hafeez, who spent years in solitary confinement after being arrested for blasphemy in 2013, was sentenced to death in December over his social media posts. Hafeez was a university lecturer in Pakistan when he was arrested; before that, he earned a Master’s degree in the U.S. at Jackson State University while studying on a Fulbright scholarship.

2020 has proven no better. Samuel Paty, a school teacher killed in October after showing his pupils a cartoon of Muhammad during a lesson on free expression, caught global attention from those shocked by his murder as well as those seeking to make excuses for violence against blasphemers. Paty’s murder was horrifying, but not unprecedented. It wasn’t even the only blasphemy-inspired murder this year. 

Dozens of countries around the world maintain blasphemy laws — some punishable with the death penalty — and occasionally vigilantes act as executioners. This past year, alleged blasphemers around the world were victimized by vigilantes, governments, and sometimes both.  

January

Ireland: Some rare good news here. After a 2018 vote to remove blasphemy from Ireland’s constitution, the offense was officially cut in early 2020. Even if a county’s blasphemy law is rarely or never applied, it’s still important that it be revoked to 1) remove the threat that it could be used in the future and 2) reaffirm that these laws should not exist anywhere.

Brazil: In early January, a Brazilian judge demanded Netflix censor a Christmas film after a petition from a Brazilian Catholic organization claiming the movie insulted the “honor of millions of Catholics.” The film depicted Jesus as a gay man. Weeks before, on Christmas Eve, the company responsible for the film, Porta dos Fundos, was firebombed. Fortunately, Brazil’s Supreme Court then rejected the censorship order, writing: “It is not to be assumed that a humorous satire has the magic power to undermine the values ​​of the Christian faith, whose existence goes back more than two thousand years.”

Pakistan: Pakistan’s government delayed the release of the award-winning film “Zindagi Tamasha” over accusations that it was blasphemous, warning the filmmakers that it required further review by religious scholars. Actor and director Sarmad Khoosat reported receiving death threats over the film.

February

Spain: Actor Willy Toledo was acquitted of blasphemy. He was on trial over a Facebook post in which he defended three women who were — get this — charged with blasphemy. From the ruling: “From the tenor of the published remarks and their context, the lack of education, bad taste and foul language used by the accused is evident. But they are not in themselves a commission of the crime of offence against religious sentiment.”

March

Somalia: In March, Professor Mahmoud Jama Ahmed went into hiding after a prominent imam called for his death. Last year, Ahmed was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for blasphemy over a Facebook post but received a presidential pardon and was released after spending over 300 days in prison.

April

Indonesia: On April 14, a man posted a video on Instagram of himself mocking an Islamic song and drinking wine. The next day he was arrested and charged with blasphemy, and he issued an apology: “I apologize, I know I was wrong and I regret singing the song. I apologize to Islam for having done wrong, especially as it is my religion.”

Myanmar: Artist Zayar Hnaung, who says he is Buddhist, was charged with blasphemy over a street mural he created about Covid-19. The mural depicted the virus as a skeleton in robes, leading some social media users to accuse the artist of depicting it as a Buddhist monk. According to Hnaung, the mural was intended to spread awareness of the pandemic.  

Scotland: On April 24, Scotland stated its blasphemy law would be repealed. 

Nigeria: In late April, President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria Mubarak Bala was arrested over an allegedly blasphemous Facebook post. As of November, he still has not received a trial and “had also been denied access to his wife and baby based on security reports that they could be attacked by fanatics.”

May

Morocco: Moroccan actor Rafik Boubker was arrested and charged with blasphemy for drunkenly insulting Islam and praising alcohol in a video posted to Instagram.

Tunisia: Blogger and atheist Emna Charqui was arrested after sharing a satirical Facebook post about Covid-19 that mimicked the Quran. Charqui’s post provoked a backlash, and she was charged with “inciting hatred between religions.” In July, she was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison.

Pakistan: An Ahmadi Muslim woman was arrested on blasphemy charges after entering into a dispute with a mosque over her donation.

June

Pakistan: Professor Sajid Soomro was arrested on blasphemy charges in June. Human Rights Commission of Pakistan co-chairperson Asad Butt claimed the arrest was politically-motivated; “He attended the funeral of a Sindhi nationalist which did not go down well in some powerful circles who might want to teach him a lesson. We believe that if somebody has different political views then he or she should be engaged in dialogue, but using blasphemy as a tool to silence voices could become very catastrophic.” Another professor, Arfana Mallah, said she received death threats for publicly supporting Soomro.

July

Pakistan: U.S. citizen Tahir Ahmad Naseem was shot dead in court on July 29. Naseem, first accused of blasphemy in 2018, was on trial over reports that he had been referring to himself as a prophet. Lawyers and police officers reportedly took selfies with Faisal Khan, Naseem’s 15-year-old murderer. 

August

Poland: Three LGBT activists were charged with desecrating monuments and offending religious feelings after hanging rainbow flags on statues of Jesus and Copernicus. 

Indonesia: A 44-year-old man was sentenced to three years in prison on blasphemy charges for tearing pages out of a Quran at a mosque in February. 

Nigeria: Musician Yahaya Sharif-Aminu was sentenced to death for sharing a blasphemous song on WhatsApp. Sharif-Aminu went into hiding after posting the song; his home was burned down by protesters. Idris Ibrahim, who led the protests calling for Sharif-Aminu’s arrest, was “so happy” about the death sentence because it “will serve as a deterrent to others who feel they could insult our religion or prophet and go scot-free.” Sharif-Aminu is appealing the sentence. 

September

Pakistan: Christian man Asif Pervaiz was sentenced to death in September for sending “blasphemous” texts to his former employer. According to Pervaiz, his boss made the accusation after Pervaiz quit his job and refused to convert to Islam. 

France: In light of the upcoming trials for those accused of aiding the attackers, Charlie Hebdo reprinted the cartoons that spurred the 2015 deadly attack on its office. As a result, Charlie Hebdo’s HR manager was forced to flee her home in September after receiving death threats related to the reprint. Maria Arena, Chairwoman of the Iranian Parliament’s Human Rights Committee, issued a letter calling on France “to deal with the perpetrators of blasphemy effectively and seriously.”

Nigeria: The same judge who sentenced Yahaya Sharif-Aminu to die in August also sentenced a 13-year-old boy to 10 years in prison in September “for making derogatory statements towards Allah.” The sentencing caught global attention, inspiring Piotr Cywinski, the head of the Auschwitz Memorial in Poland, to offer to serve some of his time. 

Indonesia: For throwing a Quran, a man was sentenced to 18 months in prison on blasphemy charges. 

October

Egypt: Egypt’s National Authority for Media threatened legal action against comedian Mohammed Ashraf after he mocked broadcaster Holy Quran Radio. From its statement: “The National Authority for Media will immediately address the bodies concerned and coordinate with them to bring this person to account for the grave mistake he has made against the Holy Quran Radio that is venerated and respected by the Egyptian and Arab listeners.”

France: On October 16, Samuel Paty was decapitated in a suburb outside Paris. Weeks before, Paty had shown Muhammad cartoons to his class during a lesson on free expression. In response, some critics attempted to imply that blasphemers were partially responsible for violent reactions to their expression. The Spokesperson of the High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilization, for example, wrote that “insulting religions and sacred religious symbols provokes hatred and violent extremism leading to polarization and fragmentation of the society.” And France announced some troubling measures, purportedly counter-terrorism efforts, which in reality look to be illiberal and discriminatory limits on religious freedom. 

Pakistan: October started well at least in Pakistan. Early in the month Sawan Masih, a Christian man who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2014, was acquitted. After Masih was accused of insulting Muhammad in 2013, a mob attacked his neighborhood and over 120 homes were burned down. But the good news of Masih’s acquittal was short-lived. Weeks later, a Muslim man was sentenced to death and fined after being arrested years earlier over a neighbor’s complaint that he had blasphemed. And an elderly couple was arrested for blasphemy over allegations that they had desecrated a Quran.

Indonesia: A man was arrested for blasphemy after he posted a video on Tik Tok wrongly suggesting that a mosque was playing dance music. 

Mauritania: Eight men were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to eighteen months after being accused of “mocking God, his messenger and the Holy Book” and “creating, recording and publishing messages using an information system that affects the values of Islam.”

November

Pakistan: Weeks after Samuel Paty was slain, another man was murdered over blasphemy allegations in Pakistan. Imran Hanif, a bank manager, was shot to death by a security guard who accused him of insulting Muhammad. On that same day, a student at Kohat University of Science and Technology was violently attacked by classmates who claimed he posted blasphemous comments on Facebook. The student was expelled upon his classmates’ demands, and left in police custody. 

Singapore: Singapore’s Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said, in reference to Charlie Hebdo, “free speech stops at the boundary of giving offence to religion.” He added, “The Charlie Hebdo type of cartoons will not be allowed in Singapore whether it is about Catholicism or Protestants, Islam or Hindus. No, we will not allow… There is a fence – that fence protects religious sensitivities.”

December 

United States: On December 7, House Resolution 512 passed the House of Representatives with a vote of 386-3. The resolution “urges the governments of countries that enforce blasphemy, heresy, or apostasy laws to amend or repeal such laws, as they provide pretext and impunity for vigilante violence against religious minorities” and to release people prosecuted under these laws.

Thanks to Ken White (@Popehat) for letting me take over his annual blasphemy series; I plan to continue it in future years. See any stories I missed? Let me know.