The world isn’t safe for blasphemers. That much has long been clear.
One incident from this year’s review of blasphemy arrests and attacks will, of course, stand out: The horrific act of violence against Salman Rushdie, committed by a 24-year-old man from New Jersey who was not even alive when Rushdie published The Satanic Verses and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini retaliated by issuing a fatwa.
As I wrote at the time, the attack brought to the surface some of the sneering disdain that’s often popular in the aftermath of blasphemy-related attacks, like those on Rushdie, Charlie Hebdo, and Samuel Paty. Unfortunately, the idea persists that blasphemers simply get what’s coming to them.
Some of the uglier commentary after the attack on Rushdie included the suggestion that people who “don’t want to be stabbed” should “refrain from doing things that would make it likely someone stabs them” and an Emirati royal’s admonishment that if you “[p]lay a stupid game” then “you will win a stupid prize.” (Given that she blocked me on Twitter, I take it she did not appreciate my response to her comments.)
But Rushdie was not alone in facing derision and attacks for his alleged blasphemy. Over this past year, many others have faced violence from mobs and imprisonment and harassment from the state. Dozens of countries maintain laws criminalizing blasphemy. Seven of them issue death sentences to so-called blasphemers. And so often, these laws and norms are wielded to punish religious minorities, dissidents, scholars, students, secularists, and people who are unlucky enough to have said — or simply be accused of saying — the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Pakistan: Christian man Zafar Bhatti was sentenced to death for blasphemy. Bhatti had already languished in prison for a decade at the time of his sentencing, and was reportedly tortured and coerced into confessing that he’d sent blasphemous text messages.
Weeks later, Aneeqa Ateeq, who said she is a devout Muslim, was also sentenced to death for sending blasphemous messages over WhatsApp and Facebook. Ateeq claimed that the man who accused her of blasphemy intentionally dragged her into a contentious religious debate to create evidence of blasphemy against her. He wanted revenge, she said, because she would not be “friendly” with him.
Indonesia: Muslim cleric Muhammad Yahya Waloni was convicted of posting hate speech “that could cause interreligious divisions.” In a speech posted to YouTube, he’d called the Bible “a work of fiction.”
Pakistan: Hindu teacher Nautan Lal was sentenced to life in prison three years after his arrest. He was arrested after a student’s video accusing him of blasphemy went viral. Days later, a man who reportedly suffered from mental illness was stoned to death by a crowd after a custodian accused him of burning a Quran inside a mosque.
Saudi Arabia: The good news is that liberal blogger Raif Badawi was finally released after ten long years in prison that included public flogging as punishment. But his release was only a partial victory. He remains in Saudi Arabia under a ten year travel ban, and cannot see his family, who fled to Canada years earlier.
Pakistan: Safoora Bibi, a teacher at a girls school, was brutally murdered by a colleague and two students after one of them claimed their relative had a dream about the victim committing blasphemy. They slit her throat outside the entrance to the school.
Nigeria: Mubarak Bala, president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, was sentenced to 24 years in prison. He pled guilty, likely hoping that doing so would grant him leniency from the court. He will spend over two decades in prison because he posted Facebook comments perceived as anti-Islam.
Malaysia: Malaysian writer Uthaya Sankar SB was arrested under “improper use of network facilities or network service” and blasphemy-related charges after allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammad in a Facebook post.
Nigeria: In a particularly horrifying crime, college student Deborah Samuel was beaten to death and burned by a mob after she told her peers in a Whatsapp voice note to stop sending “nonsense religious posts” to their class group chat. Her murder was filmed and uploaded to social media. Days later, a pastor was injured in a riot in another blasphemy case related to Samuel’s murder.
Oman: Two Omani activists were sentenced to three and five year prison terms over blasphemous messages posted to Whatsapp and social media. One of the activists was accused of saying that “religions are patriarchal.” She was charged with “insulting monotheistic religions.”
Pakistan: A high court upheld the death sentences handed down to two Christian brothers accused of posting blasphemy online back in 2011.
Morocco: The Moroccan Cinematographic Centre announced that no theaters in the country would be granted permission to screen British film The Lady Of Heaven because of its “blatant falsification of established facts in Islamic history.”
India: Tailor Kanhaiya Lal Teli was attacked in his shop and stabbed to death over a Facebook post his murderers deemed blasphemous.
Malaysia: A woman was arrested and charged with creating “disharmony on grounds of religion” over comments she made at an open mic night. Her partner was charged with “improper use of network facilities” for sharing a video of the performance online, and the club owner found himself under arrest as well.
Pakistan: Christian mechanic Ashfaq Masih was sentenced to death five years after first being arrested on blasphemy charges. He was accused of “disrespecting” the Prophet Muhammad after a dispute with a customer about payment.
Turkey: The Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office announced an investigation into Spotify because users were creating playlists with titles that were “insulting religious values and state officials.” The offending titles included “Songs Recep Tayyip Erdogan listens to when drinking raki” and “Songs God listened to when throwing Adam out of heaven.”
Weeks later, President Erdogan asserted that people “who insult the sacred values of our nation will not be able to get away from being held accountable before the law,” likely referring to musician Gülşen, who mocked religious schools during a concert and was subsequently arrested.
United States: Author Salman Rushdie was attacked and repeatedly stabbed on stage in Chautauqua, New York, at an event about exiled writers. According to the most recent update on Rushdie’s condition, he has lost sight in one of his eyes and the use of one of his hands.
Saudi Arabia: Authorities warned students in Saudi Arabia that they would not only fail their courses, but they would be sent to court for blasphemy if their schoolwork “included an insult to the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), or to his companions, or a contempt for Islam.”
Poland: Zbigniew Ziobro, justice minister and leader of United Poland, submitted a proposed law to parliament advocating that anyone who “publicly insults or ridicules the church” be jailed for up to two years. “In order to fully implement freedom of religion,” he said, “it is necessary to amend the criminal code, which today insufficiently guarantees the protection of believers.” Freedom of religion, apparently, requires the censorship of some people’s religious freedom.
Pakistan: A woman was beaten by a crowd, which attempted to set her on fire, and ultimately arrested after being accused of burning a Quran.
Poland: Artist Krzysztof Soroka was convicted and fined for hurting “religious feelings” after attending an abortion protest and holding a painting showing “a cross with a Jesus statue being pushed into a vulva by a cleric’s hand.” The Catholic legal organization that brought forth the case said, “This is an important precedent, it shows that people shouldn’t do this.”
Nigeria: Musician Yahaya Sharif-Aminu is currently challenging the law that resulted in his 2020 death sentence for blasphemy in his song lyrics. His appeal gives the Nigerian Supreme Court the opportunity to right some of the many wrongs committed against accused blasphemers in the country in recent years.
Nigeria: Islamic cleric Abduljabbar Nasiru Kabar was sentenced to death by hanging for blasphemy.
Indonesia: Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, this year ends on a sour note. In addition banning sex outside marriage and defamation against the president, Indonesia’s new criminal code expands the provisions of the country’s blasphemy law, including a new rule against “persuad[ing] someone to be a nonbeliever.”
Thanks again to Ken White of Popehat for letting me take over his annual blasphemy series. See any major stories I missed? Let me know in the comments. Here’s hoping for a better 2023.
Note: This post was edited on 12/16 to include the death sentence against Abduljabbar Nasiru Kabar.
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You might add Brazil, where a bill is passing in congress for making illegal editing the Bible. Although it does not specify which version is the one not to be changed.