Charlie Hebdo (again)
Last month I wrote about Charlie Hebdo’s reprinted cartoons and the cycle of justifying violence against people who blaspheme or engage in religiously offensive speech. Since then, there have been more unfortunate developments in that story: the Chairwoman of the Iranian Parliament’s Human Rights Committee called for France to apologize for the magazine and "to deal with the perpetrators of blasphemy effectively and seriously”; a Charlie Hebdo staff member was forced to flee her home after receiving death threats; and a man stabbed two people with a meat cleaver outside Charlie Hebdo’s former office, admitting that he had attempted to target the magazine.
Disturbing as this is, it’s just a drop in the bucket of recent blasphemy news.
In August, 22-year old Nigerian musician Yahaya Sharif Aminu was sentenced to death by hanging for circulating a blasphemous song on WhatsApp — the song allegedly “praised an imam from the Tijaniya Muslim brotherhood to the extent it elevated him above the Prophet Muhammad.” His family home was also burned down by a mob.
And last month, news broke that a 13 year old boy had been sentenced to ten years in prison “for making derogatory statements towards Allah” — by the same judge who had sentenced Yahaya Sharif Aminu to death. The sentence has received widespread condemnation from human rights activists, and even led Piotr Cywinski, the head of the Auschwitz Memorial in Poland, to volunteer to serve part of the child’s sentence. In response to his offer, Cywinski said he heard from dozens of people around the world also volunteering to serve part of the sentence.
About a month apart, judges in Pakistan sentenced a man to death for blasphemy and reversed another man’s death sentence for blasphemy.
On September 8, a Lahore court sentenced a Christian man to death for the crime of allegedly sending “blasphemous” messages to his former boss. Asif Pervaiz had been in custody for about seven years before the sentence. According to Pervaiz, his former boss accused him of blasphemy after he had quit and refused to convert to Islam. He’ll now sit on death row.
But this month, Sawan Masih, another Christian man who had also been arrested in 2013, was acquitted. Masih spent over six years on death row after being accused of insulting Muhammad. The accusations against him spurred one of the most severe examples of blasphemy-related mob violence in Pakistan: over 120 homes, along with a church, were burned down in Masih’s neighborhood. Four years later, all of the 115 suspects on trial for arson were acquitted.
While Masih’s acquittal is undeniably good news, he will likely now face the same struggles as other acquitted victims of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, who are never able to return to their previous lives out of fear for their family’s safety.
Indonesia continues to use its blasphemy laws to punish minor acts of religious offense. Last week, police arrested a man who jokingly posted a Tik Tok video suggesting a mosque was playing dance music. And in September, an Indonesian court sentenced a man to 18 months in prison for throwing a Quran. Weeks before, the same court sentenced a man to three years for desecrating a Quran.
Blasphemy laws remain one of the greatest threats to freedom of expression, conscience, and faith, and should be abolished. That’s not going to happen any time soon, but holding true to the principle that violence — whether from mobs or the state — can never be justified in response to religiously offensive speech would be a good start.
Great digest of important international stories. kutgw!