News analysis: Experts say blasphemy laws are undercurrent of unrest in Middle East

Protections needed to stop an 'theocratic iron curtain' from falling say experts

Published: Thursday, Sept. 27 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

But many of those young adults are also unemployed and frustrated that the regime change has not brought about the reforms demanded during their protests that called for change. They become easy targets for extremists who are organized and skilled at exploiting those frustrations by tapping into a crowd's emotional defense of their religious beliefs.

"They join the cause of (the minority) religious extremists out of misplaced aggression because of the 30 percent unemployment," Daud said.

The offending video, "Innocence of Muslims," which has been blamed for inciting the demonstrations over the past two weeks, had been posted on YouTube for more than two months before a conservative broadcaster aired it on Egyptian television the week of the 9/11 anniversary.

Shea noted that one of the leaders of the demonstration in Cairo was the brother of al-Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri, a "potent sign" that al-Qaida lives, Shea said.

"Islamists also want to ensure that the next elections are fought on their terms," she said. "They want to shut down debate and criticism of the way they rule because they rule in the name of Islam."

Breeding hostility

Most religious traditions incorporate some type of blasphemy and apostasy codes within the faith. But when those codes, which ban any disrespectful or sacrilegious depiction of a religion or belief, are incorporated into public law, they can become tools by those in power to silence critics and oppress minorities.

For centuries, Christianity advocated severe punishment, including death, for blasphemy against the church, and those penalties were often enforced by governments in Christian-majority countries. And while most religions have abandoned the harsh penalties, even countries that advocate free expression and religious freedom have been slower to rid their legal codes of blasphemy statutes.

In the United States, a handful of states still have blasphemy laws on their books, although they have gone unused for decades since the Supreme Court found them unconstitutional in 1952. That case involved a film that was deemed sacrilegious under New York state's blasphemy law.

Muslims and the countries where their faith is dominant will have to go through the same evolution if they want democracy, said Thomas Farr, a former American diplomat and now assistant professor of religion and world affairs at Georgetown University.

"Blasphemy laws are deeply seeded into the cultures of most of the (Muslim) majorities of these countries," he said. "There is a broad view in the Muslim world that if one insults Islam they must be punished by prosecution by the state or mob violence."

A recent State Department report said that in 2011 "governments (in Muslim-majority nations) increasingly used blasphemy, apostasy, and defamation of religion laws to restrict religious liberty, constrain the rights of religious minorities, and limit freedom of expression."

The report noted Pakistan in particular where people have been murdered for speaking out against the state's blasphemy statutes. The recent case in August of a 14-year-old Christian girl prompted an international outcry.

The girl was granted bail and her case was sent to juvenile court Monday after a police investigation found she had been framed by an Imam, who is now accused of tearing pages out of the Quran himself. But the girl remains in hiding and fears for her life because of the accusation made against her.

During her tenure on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Shea said she found that governments usually back down when their abuse of blasphemy laws are exposed, such as in the girl's case in Pakistan or in Iran, where a Christian pastor who faced a death sentence for apostatizing from Islam was released earlier this month. But those rulers still defend the laws as necessary to govern their people and promote social harmony.

A recent report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that the laws actually have the opposite effect.

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