Dispatches from the Creation Wars

New Study on Impact of Blasphemy Laws

Less than a month after the Center for Inquiry held its International Blasphemy Rights Day, a new study by Freedom House looks at the impact of blasphemy laws on human rights around the world. The study is entitled Policing Belief: The Impact of Blasphemy on Human Rights.

The study looks at case studies from seven nations — and no, they are not all Muslim. They are Algeria, Egypt, Greece, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Poland. The example of Greece is an instructive one because it shows the connection between religious establishments and blasphemy laws.

The Greek Orthodox Church is in many ways the official national church of Greece. Orthodox ministers are paid by the government and schools are required to teach Orthodox Christianity to students (though students of other faiths are allowed to opt out of those classes). It is largely the church’s influence that have kept blasphemy prosecutions going in that country. And it’s pretty damn easy to violate that law:

Greece’s main blasphemy laws are found in Section 7 of the Penal Code, entitled “Offenses Against Religious Peace.”[11] This section contains four provisions, two of which–Articles 198 and 199–specifically address blasphemy and religious insult. Article 198 punishes any public and malicious blasphemy against God with a maximum of two years in prison, and punishes the public “manifest[ation of] a lack of respect for the divinity” with up to three months’ imprisonment.[12] Article 199 is directed at established religions as opposed to God or “the divinity,” and prescribes up to two years’ imprisonment for “one who publicly and maliciously and by any means blasphemes the Greek Orthodox Church or any other religion tolerable in Greece.”[13] According to one scholar, “public” expression has been interpreted in Greek jurisprudence as “any manifestation that may be perceived by an undetermined number of people, irrespective of whether it took place in a public area or was actually perceived by anyone.”[14]

Blasphemy cases can be brought before civil and criminal courts, and in some cases civil courts have used prior restraint to prevent the public expression of a work that is deemed blasphemous. Such interim measures have been used to prevent a work of art from being exhibited and a movie from being screened, as described below. Articles 198 and 199 are somewhat different in that for the latter, a complainant is required, whereas for the former, the state initiates prosecutions on the basis of public interest, even in the absence of an offended person. This approach has been justified by the notion that religion is the “foundation of the state” of Greece, and consequently religious feelings must be protected for the good of society. The prosecutor has discretionary powers to carry out investigations into alleged blasphemy against the divinity, reportedly with no supervision or mechanism for appealing the prosecutor’s decision on whether to proceed.[15] Most state-initiated cases under Article 198 come as a result of pressure from Greek Orthodox groups. One observer has described this relationship as stemming from the “atmosphere of a ‘natural’ alliance between justice and the Church.”[16]

According to the jurisprudence on these articles, an expression or manifestation is “malicious” if it “incorporates a vilifying act aimed directly at offending a religion for the offender’s gratification.”[17] Malicious intent is difficult to prove in law, but even in cases where it appears to be absent, such as the 1988 suit over an American film, The Last Temptation of Christ, injunctions have nevertheless been issued.[18] …

Greece’s blasphemy laws are not limited to a particular religion and formally protect the Orthodox Church as well as any other “tolerable” religion from offense. In practice, however, these laws are used only to prosecute cases of perceived blasphemy against the Orthodox Church. This de facto discrimination is indicative of the special status enjoyed by the Church within the state establishment.[22]

In response to the 2008 Venice Commission survey, a Greek expert observed that “the very existence of Chapter 7 of the Greek Penal Law can be regarded as a solid material of the integration of the Orthodox religion into the penal machinery.” He added, “It should not be regarded as accidental therefore, that the Greek case law related to crimes contained in the Chapter 7 of the Code is inexistent when it comes to condemnation of blasphemous acts against ‘any other religion tolerable in Greece.’”[23]

The situation in Pakistan is similar except, of course, it is insulting Islam that brings down the wrath of law. And the punishments can be much harsher, including death — if not at the hands of the government then at the hands of Islamic extremists.

Though the PPC had always featured provisions addressing offenses to religion, the Islam-specific articles were adopted only in 1982. And the punishments for blasphemy and other religious offenses were amended during the Zia administration to include the possibility of life imprisonment and the death penalty. Most of these changes were made by presidential decree.

The drift away from pluralism in Pakistan has had severe consequences for minorities and religious freedom in general. It has created an atmosphere that encourages intolerance and violence, and the increased influence of religious extremists in the political system has compromised the ability of lower-level judges, police, and government officials to uphold pluralistic values. As one commentator pointed out, “It is…the responsibility of the elected politicians to provide the law and order without which no judiciary can work. Today, for instance, a judge in the districts dare not release the victims of blasphemy for fear of being harmed by violent mullahs.”[17] The influence of religious extremists has also prevented both elected and unelected governments from working to amend or repeal harmful laws in any substantive way. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and former military ruler Pervez Musharraf both expressed their commitment to amending the religious laws, but backtracked in the face of demonstrations by extremists and pressure from Muslim clerics.[18] Under Musharraf, who ruled from 1999 to 2008, a new amendment required police to investigate blasphemy allegations before making an arrest, but this rule is rarely observed in practice…

The blasphemy laws in Section XV of the PPC are quite expansive. In addition to prohibiting expression that is intended to wound “religious feelings,” and deliberate or malicious acts intended to “outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs,” the blasphemy laws specifically prohibit defiling the Quran and insulting the prophet Muhammad or any of his wives, family, or companions. The “misuse of epithets, descriptions, and titles, etc.” that are reserved for “holy personages or places” is also prohibited. These laws were added to the PPC between 1980 and 1986, with the most stringent amendment being adopted in 1986. Article 295(C) made it an offense punishable by life imprisonment or death to use any derogatory language about the prophet Muhammad. In 1991, the Federal Shari’a Court ruled that the punishment for this offense should be harsher, and Article 295(C) was amended to make the death penalty mandatory for individuals convicted of making derogatory remarks about the prophet.[23]

The same is true in Poland, where the blasphemy laws apply to “anyone found guilty of offending religious feelings.” As if religious feelings were different from any other kind of feelings and in need of some special protection. This is why such laws should be particularly opposed by non-believers, because their real purpose is to protect the cultural and legal hegemony of the dominant religion in any given country. And when that happens, we are the first victims.