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Religious Rights

by Jacob Mchangama

Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide, by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea (Oxford, 480 pp., $35)

This book is indispensable for anyone seeking to understand the degree to which the freedoms of religion and expression are being violated in Muslim-majority countries, and why this development has serious consequences for the West. The book’s first part discusses the blasphemy and apostasy laws in Muslim-majority countries, the second focuses on Muslim attempts to globalize these laws, and the third presents criticisms of these laws written by prominent Muslim intellectuals.

The first part is the most shocking and informative. While most people are aware that freedoms of expression and religion are restricted in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Nina Shea and Paul Marshall’s detailed account demonstrates the pervasiveness of religious repression throughout Muslim-majority countries. In chapter after chapter, the authors show how even purportedly secular Muslim-majority countries oppress citizens if they challenge religious dogma. Punishments may range from death sentences, as in Iran and Pakistan (though such sentences are rarely carried out), to reeducation camps, as in Malaysia. Arguably worse than this legal repression is the mob violence — often instigated by senior religious figures and tolerated by the police — which shows that religious fundamentalism is not limited to governments but has strong support in segments of the general population.

Some, no doubt, will speculate as to the authors’ motives in so meticulously detailing the often brutal oppression in many Muslim countries, as well as the attempt by radical Muslims to export these practices to the West. Might not the authors be bigoted “Islamophobes”? The answer, emphatically, is no. Shea and Marshall’s defense of these fundamental freedoms is as compassionate as it is compelling. One senses in this book genuine compassion for, and solidarity with, the hundreds of thousands of victims in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and elsewhere, most of whom are Muslims (even if religious minorities such as Christians are often disproportionately targeted). The authors adopt an unapologetic, universalist insistence that freedom of expression and religion is a principle that can and should guide Muslim-majority countries, even if the current prospect for this is bleak.

The universalism of this defense of freedom is bolstered by the inclusion of contributions by Muslim authors, including the late Abdurrahman Wahid (a former president of Indonesia) and the late Egyptian scholar Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd — both of whom argue that Islam does not require worldly punishments for blasphemy or apostasy. The book also introduces the reader to a host of other Muslim voices who have challenged the increasing religious intolerance in Muslim-majority countries. How many Westerners know that there are ayatollahs in Iran who, based on the Koran, do not preach the destruction of Israel and hatred against infidels but rather the separation of religion and politics and freedom of expression and religion? This, Shea and Marshall tell us, is the message of Ayatollah Seyyed Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi, who has been held at the infamous Evin Prison since 2006.

Another of the book’s strengths is the authors’ insistence on letting the facts speak for themselves. Silenced contains none of the conspiracy theories and doomsday prophecies about an impending Muslim takeover of the West that all too often dominate writings on the dangers of Islamic radicalism. This is not to say that Shea and Marshall promote the idea that the “real Islam” is a peaceful and tolerant religion that has simply been hijacked by a fringe of fundamentalists. The many incidents of mob attacks and vigilante violence by private citizens clearly demonstrate that many ordinary Muslims do hold extremely intolerant views on freedom of religion and expression that are incompatible with pluralism and freedom, and that these views are based on their understanding of Islam — an understanding that seems to be in the ascendancy in most Muslim-majority countries.

Silenced is also a forceful empirical rebuttal of the fallacious argument that blasphemy and hate-speech laws are needed to foster social harmony between the adherents of different religions: Nowhere are interreligious harmony and genuine tolerance less widespread that in those Muslim-majority countries where blasphemy and apostasy laws are most frequently being enforced. The authors make abundantly clear the need to resist the ongoing attempts to turn Islamic blasphemy laws into international law through human-rights language — an international campaign that has been waged primarily by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Considering the systematic repression of minorities and the denial of basic human rights in many Muslim-majority countries, it defies belief that the OIC has been able to dominate the agenda of the U.N.’s Human Rights Council with its insistence that “defamation of religion” should be prohibited under human-rights law. This demand is based on the premise that Muslims suffer systematic repression and discrimination in the West. While there are certainly Muslims who have been subjected to unfair suspicion under the anti-terror measures, it is indisputable that Muslims in the West enjoy far greater freedoms than religious minorities and, indeed, Muslims in Muslim-majority countries. This is all the more remarkable when one takes into account the fact that many Western societies face the threat of terrorism and radicalization from Islamists, many of them homegrown. Yet rarely if ever do Western governments call out the naked and shameless hypocrisy of the OIC: Until recently, the plight of religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries has been underreported, and absent from the agenda of human-rights violations at the international level. This book is a highly welcome corrective to this imbalance.

While the “defamation of religion” agenda has been defeated at the U.N. (for now), Shea and Marshall are right to point out that the campaign to limit criticism of Islam under human-rights law is far from over. The OIC has now shifted its focus to existing hate-speech prohibitions in international human-rights law and European criminal codes. In this, it is being aided by numerous Western human-rights experts and politicians, and even by human-rights courts that insist that multicultural societies require the policing of “intolerant” speech.

Which brings me to a minor shortcoming of the book: Shea and Marshall’s treatment of European hate-speech laws. While Muslim organizations frequently invoke these laws to silence debate, they were not adopted at the insistence of Muslims, nor are critics of Islam the only victims of them. Numerous groups claiming to represent Jews, Christians, gays, the disabled, and ethnic minorities routinely invoke such laws, whose protections seem to be the ultimate recognition for groups in an era of identity politics. It is therefore difficult to fault Muslims for the precarious legal protection of controversial speech in Europe (although the coordinated campaigns by Muslim groups to invoke blasphemy and hate-speech laws has certainly increased dramatically the pressure to enforce such laws).

The fact that laws aimed at protecting democracy against totalitarian ideologies have become a tool for repressing political and religious debate should also serve as a warning to those European politicians and intellectuals who argue that the threat to Western freedom from radical Islam requires restrictions on the freedoms of religion and expression of Muslims. One cannot credibly fight a battle for freedom of expression and conscience by denying these freedoms to others. Moreover, once such restrictions are in place they will inevitably be used for other purposes when new political majorities assume power.

Where the threat against free speech from Islamic radicalism in Europe is unique is in the widespread use of intimidation through threats and actual violence and, in a few instances, even killings of those who are critical of Islam — a development well documented by Shea and Marshall. While most of those convicted under hate-speech laws are let off with a fine, the danger of violence has prompted many to abstain from speaking out, or to resort to anonymity. The physical threats and attacks are all the more serious because of their arbitrariness: It is impossible to know when a self-appointed defender of the prophet is sufficiently offended to take matters into his own hands.

This reviewer once insisted that a book chapter he wrote on free speech be accompanied by the (in)famous cartoon of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban, and no violence ensued. But in September 2011, Sweden’s intelligence service asked an art festival to cancel an appearance by cartoonist Lars Vilks, who had been attacked several times, since his security could not be guaranteed. A few years ago, such a development would have occasioned huge numbers of headlines in Scandinavian media; but the ubiquity of such intimidation has almost become routine, and raises few eyebrows: a chilling indictment of our times.

Silenced is an uncomfortable but essential contribution to a most important debate that many would prefer to sit out. Its sober, balanced, and detailed account of the threat from Islamic blasphemy laws — whether in Pakistan, at the U.N., or in Europe — lucidly demonstrates that we do so at our own peril.

– Mr. Mchangama is director of legal affairs at the Danish think tank CEPOS and external lecturer in international human-rights law at the University of Copenhagen.

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