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Is Blasphemy Hate Speech?

NEW YORK – The assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province in Pakistan and an outspoken critic of religious extremism, has focused attention on his country’s draconian blasphemy law. Adopted in its present form by General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq’s military dictatorship more than three decades ago, the blasphemy law imposes a mandatory death penalty on anyone convicted of insulting Islam.

The police officer who murdered Taseer apparently acted because the governor recently launched a campaign to repeal the law. From the standpoint of Pakistani religious extremists who have applauded the murder, that itself was an act of blasphemy.

For a long time, blasphemy laws were considered an unfortunate legacy of efforts in England during the religious struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to suppress deviant interpretations of scripture among Christians. They were spread in South Asian countries and elsewhere through British colonial rule. General Zia’s harsh version of the law in Pakistan was adopted as part of his effort to use Islam to legitimize his suppression of all dissent.

Blasphemy became a global concern in the late 1980’s when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for the assassination of the writer Salman Rushdie for his novel, The Satanic Verses. Although Rushdie survived with the help of an extraordinary level of protection provided by British security forces, others associated with his book were murdered.

More recently, arguments that it is legitimate to make blasphemy a crime have, disturbingly, gathered increasing support. Those who insist that blasphemy does not warrant the protection otherwise given to freedom of expression often claim that it is a form of hate speech.

It seems important, therefore, to clarify the differences between hate speech and blasphemy. Inasmuch as hate speech involves incitement of imminent violence, it may be made criminal, even in the United States , where freedom of expression enjoys particularly strong legal protection. It is assumed in such circumstances that the violence will be carried out by those who sympathize with the views of the person inciting hatred.  An example would be a mob attack on a member of a racial or religious group in direct response to a speech urging an assault on members of that group.

Ordinarily, however, the circumstances in which blasphemy may lead to violence are entirely different. In those circumstances, the violence is not imminent, and it is carried out by those offended by the speaker’s views rather than by sympathizers. And, of course, it is typically carried out directly on the speaker.

This makes criminalization of blasphemy a far greater threat to freedom of expression. After all, while a speaker can reasonably take care not to express views that will lead to imminent violence, if listeners have unlimited discretion in determining what causes offense, the speaker can never know what will so offend some people near or far at some time in the future that they will commit violence.

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These differences between hate speech and blasphemy are fundamental. It is, therefore, inappropriate to extend the legal restrictions on hate speech to blasphemy. Criminalizing blasphemy should be strongly opposed as an unwarranted restriction on freedom of expression, even by those who believe that there are certain limited circumstances in which it is appropriate to make hate speech a crime.

Of course, such distinctions do not matter much to the religious fanatics who rejoice in the murder of Salman Taseer. Yet those who admire his courage in struggling for freedom of expression ought to see to it that efforts to make blasphemy a crime, or to perpetuate it as a criminal offense, are afforded no legitimacy whatsoever.

Aryeh Neier, the president of the Open Society Institute and a founder of Human Rights Watch, is the author, most recently, of Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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