On December 7, 2020, the US House of Representatives by a vote of 386-3 passed House Resolution 512, which calls for the worldwide repeal of blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws. It also calls for all prisoners held on blasphemy, heresy, or apostasy charges to be released.
This resolution has no legislative force, but nevertheless it is a significant symbolic statement. These are the waning days of the congressional session, but with Washington being consumed by the furor over vote-counting in the presidential election, it is assuring to see House members give some attention to other matters.
The issue is a vital one. When the bill was first introduced, on July 26, 2019, US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Chair Tony Perkins and Vice Chair Gayle Manchin issued the following official statement:
We applaud Representatives Raskin and Meadows for advocating for the repeal of these laws, which still exist in at least 70 countries around the world. Blasphemy laws, as is noted in the resolution, lead to religious intolerance, discrimination and violence. Charges can be based on false accusations and are often brought for sectarian or political purposes… Such laws are weaponized to target marginalized religious communities.
Despite its lack of force, this is more than a vote in favor of apple pie, a free pass for an anodyne statement on a noncontroversial subject. In fact, many in the West have been starting to defend blasphemy laws, although usually by calling them something else, such as “hate speech.” Of late, many opinion formers, even in the United States, have questioned the expansive protections of free speech given in the First Amendment, and suggested that politically or religiously unpopular views be censored. Even USCIRF’s own October 21, 2020, hearing on “Combatting Online Hate Speech and Disinformation Targeting Religious Communities” lacked robust defenses of free speech, and some panelists urged speech restrictions.
One manifestation of this shift has been the opprobrium heaped on French President Emmanuel Macron after his robust defense of free speech following the butchering of teacher Samuel Paty. Paty had been brutally murdered following his guarded showing of Charlie Hebdo cartoons to his class. Macron averred that the French “will not give up our cartoons.” For this, he was verbally attacked by the leaders of Pakistan and Turkey, which was to be expected. But attacks have come from elsewhere, including American media.
When asked about France’s response, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, after a nod to freedom of expression, urged that “freedom of expression is not without limits… We owe it to ourselves to act with respect for others and to seek not to arbitrarily or unnecessarily injure those with whom we are sharing a society and a planet.” Here unwanted speech is described as an injury. Similar sentiments have appeared in, inter alia, the New York Times. Macron himself has directly responded to this.
To be sure, much of the criticism has been of France’s proposed controls on religious organizations and homeschooling, matters that are indeed troubling. But it is also clear that defenses of free speech and freedom of religion are weakening in the West, especially where some in the media have projected America’s own race concerns onto very different foreign and cultural contexts.
Given that much of this weakening is on the left, it is heartening that Resolution 512 was originally introduced by Congressman Jamie Raskin, a Democrat, was passed by a House that is majority Democratic, and had a broad range of co-sponsors from across the political spectrum.
The resolution also takes a global view, recognizing that accusations and punishments for religiously offensive speech go far beyond the West. Such accusations are used to punish Baha’is and Christians in Iran, Shi’a in Egypt, converts in India, religious minorities in Pakistan, and Ahmadiyya throughout much of the world. These victims number in the tens of millions. As Nina Shea and I documented in our book Silenced, restrictions on blasphemy and insulting religion are also a major means of silencing Muslim reformers—those who challenge locally hegemonic ideas or state-enforced Islam, usually in order to defend an idea of Islam and of politics that is more open in theology and in law.
Resolution 512 highlights these elements and notes that “blasphemy charges are often based on false accusations, are used for sectarian or political purposes, and foster religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence.” And it adds that “an international group of experts convened by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recommended in 2012 that ‘[s]tates that have blasphemy laws should repeal the[m] as such laws have a stifling impact on the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief and healthy dialogue and debate about religion.’”
One small bright spot near the end of a dark year.