Be wary of those calling for bans on blasphemy

20 July 2023, 1151 EDT

On Wednesday, protesters stormed the Swedish embassy in Baghdad, setting part of it on fire. This was in retaliation for the burning of the Quran during protests in Sweden. In response, the UN Human Rights Council called for restrictions on “anti-religious expression.” Some may welcome this as a means to limit religious strife and stop Islamophobia, but they should be wary. These calls, in addition to being ineffective, often represent political calculations more than sincere religious concern.

Blasphemy and free speech

In late June an Iraqi Christian who fled that country staged a protest outside a Stockholm mosque. During the protest he burned a copy of the Quran. This followed an incident earlier this year when a far-right protest outside the Turkish Embassy in Sweden included a burning of the Quran. Many within Sweden expressed concern, and the country faced international anger. Iraq expelled Sweden’s ambassador, while there were official complaints by Egypt, Morocco and Jordan.

Of course, the Swedish government did not burn the Quran. But the complaints focus on the fact that it allowed the protest to occur, which Swedish officials described as falling under free expression. This raises the perennial question of whether limits should be placed on free speech in order to protect religious sensibilities, shelter oppressed people from attack, or prevent the incitement of violence.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time we’ve had to debate this. In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten commissioned satirical cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad in order to protest self-censorship, setting off violent protests. In 2011, a US evangelical pastor oversaw a Quran burning; in response, protesters attacked a UN compound in Afghanistan, killing numerous workers there. And in 2015, members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula attacked the offices of Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12.

Efforts to ban blasphemy do not represent a deep-seated clash of values; they are attempts by repressive states to further control their societies.

The uncertainty over how to respond to these incidents is apparent in the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. There were marches of unity in France, and PEN America gave the magazine a freedom of expression award. Yet, many writers protested the award, while progressive outlets accused it of “punching down.”

I expect a similar debate over the latest incident. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) criticized the UN Human Rights Council’s call for restrictions on blasphemy, arguing it will not prevent violence but only give governments more power to limit freedom. [Disclosure: I am a (very minor, given my Professor salary) donor to FIRE]

The balance between hate speech and free speech is a philosophical issue I can’t really resolve, although I tend to be on the free speech side. However, it is empirically accurate that blasphemy laws do not ensure religious harmony or individual freedom. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are frequently invoked in false accusations against religious minorities. And this is not just an issue in Muslim countries; Poland has gone after heavy metal performers who fall afoul of its blasphemy laws.

The politics of blasphemy restrictions

So I would argue there is a good case to be made against restrictions on blasphemy, even as we condemn anti-Islamic acts like the desecration of holy texts. But there are other reasons to be wary of these calls for restrictions.

Over a decade ago, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) put forth a series of resolutions in the UN calling for bans on blasphemy or religious defamation. This caught my attention as I was then working with the Pew Research Center on international religious freedom, which included a study on blasphemy laws. Many presented this as a debate between pious Muslim values and Western freedom of expression. The states behind the push in the UN, however, were Egypt and Belarus–not Saudi Arabia or Iran.

I decided to look into this. I collected data on votes for these resolutions, as well as a variety of potential explanations. Repressive states and majority-Muslim states were more likely to support the resolutions, as can be expected. Interestingly, states that supported a variety of resolutions that aligned with Global South solidarity also supported them. But a consistent predictor of support was the level of government restriction on religion.

We should be wary of the motivations behind actions that would grant more power to repressive regimes.

I argued this suggests a domestic explanation for these resolutions. States that restrict religion had an incentive to both demonstrate their religious bona fides–gaining the backing of conservative religious social groups–and justify their own repressive policies. The article was published in Politics and Religion (and I’m happy to share a PDF if readers don’t have access).

I explored this dynamic further with another study that came out in the Journal of Church and State. After accounting for the propensity of states to be part of and active on the Human Rights Council, I found that states that were more active on the Council had higher scores of domestic religious repression. I argued this validated my earlier claim, that states used these international forums to gain cover for domestic repression.

Other research suggests political dynamics behind blasphemy protests. For example, Ron Hassner looked at why the Jyllands-Posten protests only broke out in certain Muslim countries. He found it had to do with the level of civil and political liberties. States that allowed for some liberties tended to experience the protests, as the governments were less able to control public anger. He argued that we need to look at the interaction between belief systems and political environment to understand these incidents.

Thus, efforts to ban blasphemy do not represent a deep-seated clash of values; they are attempts by repressive states to further control their societies.

Don’t trust the messenger

I suspect there are similar dynamics going on with the current calls for blasphemy restrictions. Many have noted the Human Rights Council’s tendency to include horribly authoritarian states. As I’ve argued, this doesn’t mean countries should withdraw from the body, as happened under the Trump Administration. But we should all be wary of the motivations behind its resolutions, especially those that would grant more power to repressive regimes.