Blasphemy laws across the world were brought back into the spotlight this week after a court in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, sentenced Jakarta’s Chinese-Christian governor to two years in prison for insulting Islam.
Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama was accused of blasphemy during his re-election campaign last year when a video surfaced of him quoting a verse in the Quran to prove to his supporters that there were no restrictions on Muslims voting for non-Muslim politicians.
Indonesia is one of about 50 nations around the world that still has anti-blasphemy laws or policies on the books. A recent report released from the Library of Congress points out that blasphemy laws are more prevalent in Muslim-majority countries, “but many other countries, including Western jurisdictions, retain such laws on their books and some have even enforced them in recent years.”
Although 87 percent of Indonesians are Muslim, its government is formally secular and its constitution protects six religions, giving no special status to Islam.
The laws are extremely common in the Middle East and North Africa, where 18 of the region’s 20 countries criminalize blasphemy, and the punishments are often brutal.
In 2015, Iran executed 20 people for “enmity against God,” according to a U.S. State Department report. In Saudi Arabia, at least four Shia Muslims, including at least one cleric, were put to death for adhering to the wrong sect of Islam. In Afghanistan, a woman was beaten to death by an angry mob after being falsely accused of burning a Quran.
“She was beaten with sticks and boards, kicked, run over by a car and dragged, thrown into a dry riverbed, stoned, and finally set on fire as bystanders recorded the crime and police watched every act of barbarity,” according to the State Department report.
While blasphemy laws are most common in Middle Eastern and North African countries, they can also be found in other regions of the world, including Europe, where 16 percent of countries possess them, and the Americas, where about 29 percent of countries have the laws.
“In Western Europe, many countries retain blasphemy and related laws,” the Library of Congress report reads. “While in some countries they are never enforced, there have been prosecutions in recent years in Austria, Finland, Germany, Greece, Switzerland and Turkey.”
Germany most recently exercised its blasphemy laws in February 2016, when an atheist man was fined 500 euros for placing several bumper stickers mocking Christianity on his car.
The former teacher, Albert Voss, argued that the stickers were protected by his right to free expression, but a German court ruled the slogans constituted a violation of the country’s blasphemy laws. In addition to the fine, Voss had his car seized and his driver’s license suspended.
Only a few countries in the Americas and the Caribbean, including Canada and Brazil, have blasphemy or religious insult laws in place, but those laws are not enforced.
In the United States, while there are no federal blasphemy laws, several states — including Massachusetts and Michigan — still have anti-blasphemy laws on the books.
Those laws, however, run contrary to constitutional speech and religious protections, and “would almost certainly prompt a court to ban the enforcement of any such law,” according to a recent Pew Research Center study.