By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, JAN. 6, 2012 ( Accusations of blasphemy, apostasy or insulting Islam are being increasingly used by governments and extremists in the Muslim world as a way of acquiring and consolidating power.

This is the warning at the heart of a book recently published by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea, senior fellow and director, respectively, of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute.

In “Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide,” (Oxford University Press), they say that when Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced his fatwa, or decree, calling for the death of British author Salman Rushdie because of his book "The Satanic Verses," most Westerners considered it to be a one-off event.

The decree, however, marked the beginning of the use of Islamic blasphemy laws to curb freedom of speech. The use of these laws intensified after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as Islam and Muslim governments came under much greater scrutiny. Muslim authorities took action to try and silence activists, analysts and the media in general. 

The laws, already used to oppress religious minorities within Islamic countries, were now extended as Islamic rulers demanded that Western governments punish those who had allegedly insulted Islam. According to the book’s authors this is a break from a long-standing Islamic legal tradition, that offenses committed by non-Muslims in non-Muslim countries are of no concern to Islamic law.

Contrary to the Western notion of religious freedom as guaranteeing the rights of an individual, the 57 member nations of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) interprets it as meaning respect for religion itself, Islam and everything Islamic, the book explains.

Majority countries

One part of the book looks at how blasphemy and apostasy laws are applied in countries with a majority Muslim population. The authors declare that they found the results of their survey of these countries “deeply troubling.”

They found that these countries used such laws not only to ensure respect for Islam but also to restrict the activities of academics, dissidents, reformers and human rights activists. They also consider that these restrictions punish independent thinking and make for a closed religious mindset.

An additional problem is that terms such as blasphemy, or the charge of insulting Islam, are used without precision. Even within the same country, courts vary in their procedures and offer new interpretations about what acts are breaches of the law.

The laws are also used to repress Muslims who follow other schools of interpretation. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the government insists that the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam should be the one upheld. Muslims of other views, whether Shias, Sufis, or reformers, can thus be open to the charge of apostasy.

Iran does the same, although in its case it champions the Shia interpretation of Islam, and represses the others. According to Marshall and Shea, Iran’s judges often follow their personal interpretations of the law and convict people on such ill-defined charges as “dissension from religious dogma,” and “propagation of spiritual liberalism.”


Another part of the book looks at efforts to spread the restrictions in place in Islamic countries to other parts of the world. One case they cite is that of the Danish cartoons in 2005-06 which sparked a worldwide crisis. 

It was, in fact, the OIC that gave the incident publicity and pushed the backlash. The cartoons had been published in September 2005 and even republished in countries such as Egypt and Morocco without any negative consequences. The cartoons only became a problem when in January 2006 the OIC decided to make an issue of the cartoons. In the ensuing riots and violence some 200 people lost their lives.

Islamic countries are also using the United Nations to push for anti-blasphemy laws. These efforts, the authors explain, date back to just over 20 years ago and especially since 1999 when the OIC began to a campaign to have the United Nations officially endorse a global ban on blasphemy.

After repeated failures to have such a ban imposed, in 2011 there was a change in tactics with an initiative to establish an international standard for hate-speech. The wording proposed, say Marshall and Shea, rely on undefined and general terms.

The book also explains how some Western countries are considering limits on criticism of religion. Some of the hate speech laws in place already are just as vague and arbitrary as the laws against blasphemy in Islamic countries.

Laws are not the only problem. The book dedicates a chapter to how violence and the threat of violence are being used to silence critics of Islam in the West. Among the cases cited is the murder of Theo van Gogh in 2004 in Holland and the death threats against ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

The imposition of curbs on what is perceived to be hostile criticism of Islam is incompatible with the freedoms inherent in democracy and human rights, the authors state. Freedoms that, as the book amply demonstrates, are under a continuing threat.