Blasphemy Laws as a Challenge to Religious Freedom

April 20, 2016

On April 20, 2016, the Religious Freedom Project hosted a conference to explore an emerging and urgent challenge to religious freedom: blasphemy laws. Although they are ostensibly intended to protect majority religions from criticism, these laws can in fact harm the majority religion and broader society by discriminating against disfavored members of the majority, oppressing and alienating minorities, and allowing extremists to dominate the discourse about religion.
The conference drew speakers from many backgrounds, including religious leaders, political advisers, lawyers, and scholars, to debate this controversial but vital topic. Some, such as Arafat Mazhar and Ayesha Iftikhar, gave their firsthand experiences of living and working in Pakistan, where some of the most severe blasphemy laws exist. Several panelists recounted how severe penalties for blasphemy, ranging from public censure and fines to imprisonment and even death, can coerce and intimidate minority communities and majority reformers. Others panelists, such as Alberto Fernandez and Salaam Al-Marayati, explained how blasphemy laws are perceived by the international community, and sparred over whether Western governments were adequately addressing this crisis. While these problems are most prevalent today in the Muslim world, other regions and religious traditions have also struggled with blasphemy laws, including the West. Speakers discussed whether and how other countries’ experiences with blasphemy offer lessons for repressive regimes in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and others in the present day.

The challenges presented by blasphemy laws are immense. We invite you to read about them in this report. We trust you will find its debates and its exploration of this troubling and timely subject both vigorous and enlightening.

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