Blasphemy laws, in the sense of laws that penalise speech or acts that disrespect God or the sacred, are “astonishingly widespread”. From the harshest laws to the mildest, all of them deviate in some degree from the international norms that uphold freedom of belief and expression.
Those were the main conclusions of a report issued this week by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), reflecting several years of work by a panel of researchers. It identified 71 countries that punished blasphemy—two of which, Denmark and Malta, repealed their laws very recently—and ranked them according to severity. The countries were assessed on the basis of the harshness of their penalties, the vagueness or precision of the offence, and the degree to which the blasphemy laws underpinned discrimination against some religious groups. Pakistan and Egypt were among the countries found to be using blasphemy laws as a form of anti-minority oppression.
The five countries deemed to practise the grossest violations of international standards were all Muslim-majority lands. Top came Iran and Pakistan, both countries where “blasphemers” can face death. At the other extreme came Ireland, which introduced a new blasphemy law in 2009 on the grounds that the constitution required such legislation. There have been no convictions under the law and initial moves to prosecute Stephen Fry, a British actor, for stridently anti-theistic remarks were dropped amid general embarrassment.