The relationship between blasphemy laws and religious extremism in the Middle East and North Africa

While an estimated 69 countries across the globe possess blasphemy laws of some kind, no geographical region has as many countries with such laws as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Furthermore, in many of these countries the penalties for committing the ‘crime’ of blasphemy are among the most severe.

In Iran, for example, anyone who insults the ‘Great Prophet … or any of the Great Prophets’ of Islam can be sentenced to death under Article 262 of the Penal Code. In Egypt, the crime of “inciting strife, ridiculing or insulting a heavenly religion or a sect following it, or damaging national unity” is punishable by up to five years imprisonment under Article 98(f) of the Penal Code.

What are blasphemy laws?

Blasphemy laws criminalise actions, often emitted in speech, writing or art deemed defamatory to a certain religion, offensive against religious figures or harmful to religious feelings. They also criminalise actions such as the disruption of religious services and the desecration of religious sites.

A survey conducted by the Global Legal Research Centre of the Law Library of the United States Congress in 2017 found that “blasphemy laws are widely dispersed around the globe; regional patterns are apparent. Such laws are more likely to exist and be actively enforced in Islamic countries.” In countries such as Pakistan these laws were established during the colonial era, but remain in effect long after independence.

The legal framework implemented in most countries in the MENA region consists of laws and regulations that can be used to protect ‘social cohesion’ and ‘national security’ depending on how these terms are interpreted by the authorities in each country. Examples include:

  • Laws that restrict access to places of worship, such as restrictions on building or restoration work, and confiscation or restrictions on what type of worship activities can or cannot be conducted.
  • Family laws restricted to recognised religious groups only, which force adherents of non-recognised groups, such as Baha’is, Ahmadis and Yazidis, to identify with one of the recognised ones.
  • Laws criminalising proselytism and apostasy.

The relationship between blasphemy laws and religious extremism

Blasphemy laws are problematic, not only because of their negative impact on the rights to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression, but also because of the strong correlation between blasphemy laws and extremism. Amjad Mahmood Khan, a prominent lecturer in law, and other scholars, including Nilay Saiya of the State University of New York, have argued that sectarianism and religious extremism are currently the principle threat to international peace and security. This is evident in many parts of the world, including in Burma, India, Nigeria and Pakistan, as well as in the MENA region.

Counter-terrorism strategies and research focusing on religious fanaticism identify several root causes to this phenomenon, including the role of blasphemy laws in creating fertile environments in which extremism can exist and breed. 

Another problem with blasphemy laws is that they are usually vaguely worded and do not provide a clear and strict definition of what could be considered blasphemous. This leaves extensive room for individual interpretations and discretion, which can give rise to discrimination in their application. They are also incompatible with international human rights standards.

The blasphemy laws integrated into penal codes in many countries in the MENA region provide an ideal tool for extremists to use to justify terrorist attacks, verbal and physical violence, and intimidation of those they disagree with – often religious minorities –  in the name of protecting their religion, sacred texts or God. Such cases are particularly common in such countries as Egypt, Iran, Sudan and Turkey.

“Terrorism and blasphemy are inextricably intertwined.”

As such, blasphemy laws present a serious threat to global security, as well as to the unity and integrity of societies in the countries where they function. In his 2015 study of blasphemy laws in Indonesia, Nigeria and Pakistan, Amjad Mahmood Khan revealed that countries that criminalise blasphemy tend to foster an environment in which terrorism is more prevalent, legitimised and insidious. He also concluded that in Pakistan, Indonesia, and Nigeria terrorism and blasphemy are inextricably intertwined– as may also be the case in other countries with blasphemy laws.

In the MENA region, blasphemy laws are systematically used by extremists not only to intimidate and target those they perceive to be blasphemous, but also to suppress intellectual debate, legitimate questioning, and freedom of expression for those who challenge narrow interpretations of their religion.  Thus blasphemy laws provide a tool for extremists to terrorise their opponents with impunity.

Politics and religion are strongly interlinked in the MENA region, a relationship that is advantageous to authoritarian regimes which seek to supress opposition to their rule. When it is blasphemous to criticise any religious establishment, all an authoritarian regime has to do to claim the same status is to link itself to that religious establishment, then any political opposition becomes blasphemous. 

This has been observed in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling party have conflated religious and national identities to propagate the view among wider society that to be Turkish is to be Sunni Muslim. It can also been observed in Iran, where the theocratic government imposes a strict interpretation of Shi’a Islam and routinely violates the rights of Baha’is, Christians, Sufi Dervishes, Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities, often by bringing members of these faith communities before revolutionary courts on the vaguely-defined charges of Moharabeh (waging war against God), or Mofsed-e-filarz (spreading corruption on Earth), both of which are capital crimes.

Environments such as these clearly embolden those with religious extremist views. At best extremist groups enjoy a culture of impunity under governments unwilling to crackdown on certain religious  expressions, and at worst they feel, often with justification, that the government is on ‘their side’ and therefore that their actions are justified. It is therefore crucial to address this issue, and to encourage countries where such laws function either to radically reform them, or abolish them altogether in order for any counter-extremism strategy to be effective.

By CSW’s Middle East and North Africa Advocacy Officer