In Defense of Blasphemy

Today, Saudi Arabia will flog a blogger for blasphemy. We may not be able to stop terrorists from killing, but can we pressure states?


As you go about your business today and think once or twice (as I hope you will) of Charb and his colleagues in Paris, spare another thought for Raif Badawi. He is, or was, a blogger in Saudi Arabia. Not the most agreeable place to ply the trade, as he learned in 2012 when he was arrested and charged with using his web site, “Free Saudi Liberals,” to engage in electronic insult of Islam. I read on Jonathan Turley’s blog that today, Friday, he will receive the first dose of his sentence in the form of 50 lashes.

Badawi’s crime was to run a web site that “violates Islamic values and propagates liberal thought.” Interesting that those who sat in judgment of him found those two sets of beliefs to be incompatible. He was originally sentenced to seven years and 600 lashes. A huge international outcry ensued. He was retried, and sure enough his sentence was adjusted. It was increased—to 10 years and 1,000 lashes. But give the Kingdom credit for its sense of mercy: The lashes will be administered only 50 at a time.

Like Nick Kristof, I have been gratified to see that my Twitter feed has been bursting to the rafters with tweets from Muslims and Arabs condemning the Paris attacks in the strongest possible terms. Gratified but not surprised. Anyone who’s paid attention has known for some time now that there are millions of Muslims and Arabs (obviously, not all Muslims are Arabs, and vice versa) who espouse and fight for liberal secular values. I know some. They’re some of the most courageous people I’ve ever met.

It’s high time—and if this tragedy has prodded Western culture to turn this particular corner, then that’s one good thing that will have come of it—that we stop demanding of Muslims and Arabs that they denounce acts of terrorism just because they’re Muslims and Arabs. The people I saw on Twitter have no more to do with the Kouachi brothers than I have to do with whoever it was that bombed the NAACP headquarters in Colorado Springs, an act that no one has asked me to denounce simply because I’m white. Groups like CAIR and leading intellectuals and imams have been denouncing acts like these for years. It’s just that they don’t often make the news when they do it. So let’s please just grow out of that one.

But human beings are one thing, and regimes are another. And surely at least part of the reason that terrorists think it’s okay to kill people who blaspheme the Prophet is that too many Arab or Muslim states say it’s okay. It would be nice to see a concerted international effort to change these laws grow out of this week’s calamity.

Have a look at this telling research from Pew on blasphemy and apostasy laws around the world. We do see that a few European countries have them on the books: Germany, Poland, Italy, Ireland, a couple more. In these countries, the punishment is typically a fine. Maybe in theory a short stint in the cooler, but in reality the laws in these countries are rarely enforced, and in some countries there hasn’t been a prosecution in years or decades.

But look at the Middle East. According to Pew, 14 of the 20 countries in the Middle East and North Africa have blasphemy laws. It’s by far the highest percentage of states in all the world’s regions as Pew breaks them down. As this list shows, punishments typically run to a short-ish jail sentence and/or a moderately hefty fine. But it can get worse: In Egypt in 2012, seven Egyptian Christians found guilty of making a movie that defamed Mohammed were sentenced to death.

The most notorious states are Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where death is an acceptable legal remedy. In 2009, a Pakistani Christian woman got into a religious argument with some Muslim women with whom she was harvesting berries. Asia Bibi, as she is known, was arrested and sentenced to death. The governor of Punjab province, a Muslim man, called publicly for leniency for her. One of his bodyguards killed him. The bodyguard is venerated by many as a hero, but at least he was tried for murder, and pled guilty.

We aren’t going to be able to stop fundamentalist terrorists from killing “apostates.” But can we start by trying to pressure states and regimes, so that at least the idea that killing or maiming a person who makes irreligious utterances no longer has state sanction? If states were to alter their conceptions of sharia law so that blasphemy and apostasy were lesser crimes, or preferably not crimes at all, then over time, opinions would change for the better and the terrorists would be more isolated.

But let’s walk the walk in the West. Let’s start with Germany and Ireland and the others having the simple courage to get their dusty laws off their books, after which the reactionaries won’t be able to shout “hypocrisy!” at us. And then let’s press these dark regimes to change, remembering that yes, we are Charlie, but today we are Raif Badawi too.