Respecting Religions or Silencing Free Expression
CDHR's Commentary: Speaking from his palatial royal palace in Mecca, the Saudi King Abdullah called on the United Nations to draft legislation that would make it illegal for any individual, group or country to insult “divine religions and prophets”. King Abdullah also stated that it “is obligatory upon each Muslim to defend our religion and all the prophets”. The timing of King Abdullah's call on the United Nations to limit individual freedom of expression under the pretext of blasphemy legislation coincided with the celebration of Eid Al-Adha, one of Islam's holiest occasions.
King Abdullah was addressing some three million Muslims who were in Mecca to perform the Hajj (pilgrimage) rituals, which every able Muslim must perform once in his/her lifetime. On the face of it, creating legislation to protect religious sensitivities seems harmless until one considers the full ramifications of the Saudi King's call to ban criticism of religions, specifically Islam. The intent of King’s global blasphemy initiatives is to criminalize any criticism of religion, even in democratic societies where freedom of expression is guaranteed and protected as an inalienable and natural right of every citizen. Blasphemy legislation will only serve to constrict universal human rights and enable tyrants silence their critics at home and abroad.
In Saudi Arabia, criticism of Islam, the Saudi ruling family and religious clerics are prohibited, and non-compliance with prohibition can result in severe punishment as exemplified by the case of Mr. Hamza Kashgari, a 23 year old columnist and an outspoken supporter of the Arab Spring and for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia long before his arrest by the Saudi authorities for tweeting an imaginary conversation between himself and the Prophet Muhammad. Currently Hamza Kashgari languishes in a Saudi prison and faces the prospect of the death penalty, the punishment for blasphemy in Saudi Arabia.
The plight of Hamza Kashgari, and that of many like him, shows the danger of the blasphemy legislation that King Abdullah and the 57 members of the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation are advocating. In any democratic country, Kashgari's remarks or any similar remarks by others on Twitter or in public would have gone largely unnoticed. In the United States of America and other true democracies, inflammatory and vitriolic speeches are protected under the rule of law, as enshrined in the U.S. First Amendment.
If the United Nations adopts a blasphemy legislation, freedom of expression would be prohibited and dictatorial regimes like the Saudi monarchy will continue to have free hand in accusing individuals of blasphemous acts under the pretext of defending religion; when in fact their objective is to silence critics by incarcerating and in some cases executing them. This extremely dangerous proposal for blasphemy legislation must be rejected by Muslims who are struggling for emancipation from the yoke of tyranny and by the wider international community, especially Western democracies who are the real target of the blasphemous law the Saudis and other Muslim regimes are promoting.