On January 7, 2015, three French Muslim men went into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine in Paris, France, and killed eleven people in response to the magazine’s cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Mohammed in a negative manner. Politicians have publicly questioned whether this “act of terrorism” was done by “lone wolves” and whether this action had anything to do with Islam. The leaders of the western countries knew full well that this was not a random act of terror, but part of an ongoing rollout of laws that their governments are advancing with 57 Islamic nations to curb free speech around the world to comply with Muslim blasphemy laws.
Many religions consider blasphemy to be a sin. The range of the sin could be uttering the Lord’s name in vain or it could be drawing a picture of a prophet. The Old Testament specifically prohibits using the name of God for no purpose or abusing the use of His name:
The New Testament refers to blasphemy many times, such as Matthew 12:31:
- “Therefore I say unto you, Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men;
but the blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven.”
The Quran does not specifically call against abusing the name of God, but does consider it a crime to insult Mohammed:
- “They swear by Allah that they did not say [anything against the Prophet] while they had said the word of disbelief and disbelieved after their [pretense of] Islam and planned that which they were not to attain. And they were not resentful except [for the fact] that Allah and His Messenger had enriched them of His bounty. So if they repent, it is better for them; but if they turn away, Allah will punish them with a painful punishment in this world and the Hereafter. And there will not be for them on earth any protector or helper.” (Quran 9:74)
In Judeo-Christian tradition, the punishment for the sin of blasphemy is considered to come from God and meted out either in this world or the world to come according to divine justice. In Islam, the punishment should be delivered by man in this world according to many Islamic scholars.
Western countries do not have laws against blasphemy. While insulting a religion may be considered rude, it is protected by the laws of free speech. (An editorial by David Brooks covers that nuance in the link below).
Countries that are governed by Islamic law (Sharia) have strict laws against blasphemy. The punishment ranges from fines to prison sentences to death. Here is a review of some of those countries:
- Algeria: An individual who insults the prophet and the messengers of God, or denigrates the creed or prophets of Islam through writing, drawing, declaration, or any other means, will receive three to five years in prison.
- Bahrain: Article 309 of the Bahrain Penal Code of 1976 penalizes individuals who insult any religious sects with a term of imprisonment not exceeding one year.
- Egypt: A person ridiculing or insulting a heavenly religion or a sect following it, or damaging national unity” is punishable with six months to five years’ imprisonment.
- Indonesia: Blasphemy is addressed in Article 156(a) of the Penal Code. The Code imposes a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment.
- Iraq: Article 372 of Iraq’s Penal Code of 1969 provides that any individual who insults the creed of a religious sect or its practices, or publicly insults a symbol or person that is an object of sanctification, worship, or reverence for a religious sect, may be punished with a term of imprisonment not exceeding three years.
- Jordan: Jordan explicitly criminalizes blasphemy. Article 273 of Jordan’s Penal Code of 1960 punishes any individual who insults the Prophet Mohamed with a term of imprisonment of one to three years.
- Kuwait: Law 19 of 2012 on National Unity was issued to amend article 111 of the Penal Code by imposing harsher penalties and criminalizing any publications and broadcasting content that could be considered offensive to religious “sects” or groups, including through social media. The new law punishes such crimes with a fine ranging from US$36,000 to US$720,000 and a maximum of seven years in prison.
- Lebanon: The Lebanese Penal Code punishes individuals who perform acts that are considered blasphemous to the name of God. It also imposes penalties against individuals who publicly insult the religious proceedings of any religion.
- Libya: Whoever publicly abuses the Islamic religion—that being the official religion of the State under the Libyan Constitution—with verbal terms not befitting for the Divine Being, the Messenger, or the Prophets, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.
- Oman: Article 209 of Oman’s Penal Code punishes with a term of imprisonment of between ten days and three years, or a fine between five to five hundred Omani Riyals (approximately US$13 to $1,300) an individual who commits the following acts: (1) publicly blasphemes God or the prophet Mohamed, (2) commits an affront to religions and faiths by spoken or written word, or (3) breaches the peace of a lawful religious gathering.
- Pakistan: Converts from Islam and atheists may be vulnerable to Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which prescribes life imprisonment for desecrating or defiling the Quran and the death sentence to anyone for using derogatory remarks towards the Prophet Mohammed.
- Syria: Article 462 states that individuals who publicly defame religious proceedings are punishable with a term of two years’ imprisonment.
A Global Mandate
Muslim countries have sought to enforce the ban on blasphemy beyond their borders to cover the entire world. In 2008, the United Nations General Assembly voted 85-50 (with 42 abstentions) to make blasphemy a crime. The measure was originally introduced by Pakistan in 1999 and has continued to be brought up by the 57 Muslim countries that make up the OIC, Organization of Islamic Conference. When the vote was brought up again in 2010, the margin of passage was smaller, 76-64 with 42 abstentions.
In 2011, the OIC attempted to push forward an alternate version of the resolution to overcome the objections of the United States and other western countries that felt the law trampled on basic rights of free speech. The US’s Obama Administration worked hard at developing Resolution 16/18, which sought to criminalize the act of stereotyping or discriminating against people based on religion, rather than the pillorying of the religion itself.
The terms “stereotyping” and “incitement to … hostility or violence” that are used throughout the resolution have been called “vague” and “problematic”. The mandate of “[a]dopting measures to criminalize incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief” is confusing as to whether it bans the direct call to incite violence, or for doing anything that could incite violence. For example, if the cartoons made in Charlie Hebdo did not call for violence against a group, but the negative stereotyping could incite people to violence, would that be considered illegal? Would it be considered illegal if the stereotyping brought violence against the targeted group only, or even if it brought violence against Charlie Hebdo themselves for publishing the piece? If each instance was considered illegal, it would likely have direct and significant negative impact on the freedom of speech and press for everyone.
According to many Muslim clerics, Islamic law mandates that Muslims take actions against people who slander the prophet Mohammed. As seen above, Sharia law has put such laws into effect in several Islamic countries, and the 57 OIC member countries have been aggressively advancing the case for blasphemy laws everywhere.
While Resolution 16/18 passed without a vote in 2011, most westerners do not know of its existence and consider the freedom of speech, thought, expression and press to be basic fundamental rights that they have in their countries. It is possible that the journalists at Charlie Hebdo did not know about Resolution 16/18. They knew that their articles and pictures upset many people of different faiths; that was the essence of why they made them, and they considered it their right to do so under the country’s freedoms of speech and press. They experienced the wrath of Muslims when their offices were firebombed in 2011 after posting a caricature of Mohammed. However, did they consider those cartoons illegal because it lampooned Mohammed which could have incited people to violence?
The French Muslims who came to the offices of Charlie Hebdo to kill the staff may or may not have known about Resolution 16/18. They did know that their prophet was insulted and no action by the French government was being taken against the perpetrators. Any Muslim who believes that blasphemers should be punished are obligated to take action. They took matters into their own hands, shouting while they shot the journalists “Hey! We avenged the Prophet Muhammad! We killed Charlie Hebdo.” They viewed their actions as targeted vigilante justice against evil perpetrators, not terrorism.
If France and the western world are concerned about terrorism that strikes at random individuals, they should put “Paris Est Juif” on the Arc de Triomphe instead of “Charlie” in support of the innocent Jews who were massacred while shopping for their Sabbath meals.
If France and the western world are concerned about the loss of their treasured freedoms, they should speak to their governments about the essence of Resolution 16/18 that they have advanced at the United Nations, and its implication on their freedom of speech. At the moment, the governments are ducking from their complicit role, pointing their fingers at “terrorism” instead of “blasphemy”, and denying the role of Islam in any of this.
Blasphemy in Quran article with eleven citations: http://www.deoband.net/blogs/blasphemy-in-islam-the-quran-curses-and-hadith-prescribes-punishment
David Brooks editorial on Charlie Hebdo: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/09/opinion/david-brooks-i-am-not-charlie-hebdo.html?_r=0
Country laws on blasphemy: http://www.loc.gov/law/help/apostasy/index.php
Recent death sentence in Pakistan for blasphemy: http://cnsnews.com/news/article/patrick-goodenough/pakistani-court-upholds-blasphemy-death-sentence-against-christian
2010 UN vote on basphemy: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/25/blasphemy-resolution-pass_n_788305.html
Excellent Freedom House article on blasphemy laws: https://freedomhouse.org/blog/trouble-blasphemy-laws#.VLM1Z8mVnEY
UN Resolution 16/18: http://iheu.org/resolution-adopted-united-nations-human-rights-council-1618/
US report on adopting Resolution 16/18: https://geneva.usmission.gov/2012/04/19/implementation1618/
French President Hollande: “these fanatics have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.”
Related First One Through article:
Press pushes free speech to advance the new blood libel: https://firstonethrough.wordpress.com/2014/06/23/eyal-gilad-naftali-klinghoffer-the-new-blood-libel/