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The Long Reach of Blasphemy Laws


By Michael Sheetz

Despite the global publicity of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, non-Muslim Westerners make up a small fraction of the victims of blasphemy-related killings, beatings and persecution committed by Muslims, according to an expert on religious freedom who spoke at The King’s College in New York City.

“You are not Charlie! You were not shot at. You were not killed,” said Dr. Paul Marshall, during his Feb. 20 speech at the liberal arts college located in the financial district of Manhattan. “We need to set these things in a global context…the number of such accusations and attacks are increasing [and] have been exponentially for the last 25 years.”

Dr. Marshall, president of The Media Project and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, spoke on “The Aftermath of Charlie Hebdo: Blasphemy, Freedom of Religion and The Press” to bring light to the unsung majority: the millions living under abhorrent blasphemy laws of US-allied countries in the Middle East and Asia. Those attacked are Muslim and non-Muslim alike, according to Dr. Marshall, who surveyed 26 Muslim-majority countries and 14 Western countries for his book “Silenced: How Apostasy & Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide.”

Accusations or charges of blasphemy are usually vague, even when there are written laws. Dr. Marshall offered “a very partial list” of grounds for prosecution, which included apostasy, insulting a “heavenly” religion, creating confusion between or among Muslims, imitating Christians, harboring destructive thoughts or feelings, being friends with God’s enemies, fighting against God, dissenting from religious dogma, and propagation spiritual liberalism.

Intentional misinterpretation to further the agendas of radical groups often plays a role in shaping the charges. In September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a children’s picture book on the life of Muhammad as a part of a series about famous religious leaders.

“Nothing happened in the weeks following,” Dr. Marshall said. “A few Danish Muslims peacefully protested, saying that they shouldn’t do that.” But in February 2006 a small group of radical Danish imams took their own manipulated versions of the cartoons to several Middle Eastern countries. That dossier sparked political protests, boycotts, and riots, leading to the killings of dozens of people in Nigeria and Pakistan.

Yet while political influence is necessary to motivate attacks, the greatest danger is not from governments but from mobs, vigilantes, and terrorists. In Pakistan, which holds the most stringent blasphemy codes in the world, extra-legal violence is the most dangerous, with tens of thousands accused and thousands more imprisoned, Dr. Marshall said.

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