Free Press

Resolution Calling for the Global Repeal of Blasphemy Laws Introduced in Congress

An attack on free speech is a greater blasphemy than is an insult to the divine.



Republican Rep. Joseph Pitts and Democrat Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee introduced House Resolution 290 calling for all countries to repeal of their blasphemy laws. Such laws criminalize saying offensive things about God or religion. Citing Pew Research data the resolution notes that 44 countries had blasphemy laws as of 2012. Blasphemy is outlawed in 14 Middle East and North African countries, 11 countries in the Americas, 9 Asia-Pacific countries, 7 European countries, and 3 Sub-Saharan African countries. The resolution then goes on to list people who have been imprisoned for the offense in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and, most egregiously, Pakistan. 

The resolution then notes that the House of Representatives –

(1) recognizes that blasphemy laws inappropriately position governments as arbiters of truth or religious rightness as they empower officials to enforce particular religious views against individuals, minorities;

(2) calls on the President and the United States Department of State to make the repeal of blasphemy laws a priority in its bilateral relationships with all countries that have such laws through direct interventions in capitals and in multilateral fora;

(3) encourages the President and the United States Department of State to oppose any efforts at the United Nations or other international or multilateral fora to create an international anti-blasphemy norm, such as the 1999–2010 defamation of religions resolutions, or attempts to expand the international norm on incitement to include blasphemy or defamation of religions ….

In my article, "The Human Right to Offend" in which I review Danish cartoon editor Flemming Rose's The Tyranny of Silence where I explain:

As Rose correctly argues, tolerance properly understood is the ability to accept speech one dislikes. "When we focus on non-discrimination and equality, and aim to empower the aggrieved, tolerance is no longer about the ability to tolerate things we don't like," he explains. "It becomes the ability to keep quiet and refrain from saying things that others may dislike." Calls to ban offensive speech sacrifices diversity of expression in the name of respecting diversity of culture. "If we accept the idea that people have a right not to be offended, we will end up with a tyranny of silence, for almost any speech may be deemed offensive," declares Rose.

Insult fundamentalists justify their efforts to restrict speech with the catchphrase, "Freedom of speech is not the same as the freedom to offend." In fact, there is no freedom of speech if people cannot offend those who would deny women equal rights, persecute homosexuals, and commit violence against people who do not share their faith. "The idea that if you say something that might be construed as offensive, you somehow restrict the liberty of others is nonsense," argues Rose. He is entirely right.

For more backgroun, see also my article,"No One Has the Right to a World in Which He Is Never Despised," where I argued:

Reverence for free speech ultimately protects the free exercise of religion. If a believer cannot speak in defense of his faith, then he has no real freedom of religion. That is why an attack on free speech is a greater blasphemy than is an insult to the divine.

Congress should speedily pass this resolution and the Obama administration should see to it that the robust defense of free speech is a cornerstone of American foreign policy.