History

Where Is It Illegal To Insult Religion?

In Egypt, a woman was sentenced to jail for making an anti-religious comment on Facebook. So where else can you be punished for blasphemy?

In January, Egyptian poet Fatima Naoot was sentenced to three years in prison for a Facebook post that authorities considered blasphemous. Her crime? Criticizing the slaughter of animals during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. Naoot's appeal was denied in March.

Blasphemy may seem like an archaic holdover in the realm of modern law, but as Trace Dominguez explains in this Seeker Daily dispatch, the numbers are surprising: According to a 2012 Pew Research study, nearly a quarter of the world's countries still have anti-blasphemy laws on the books, with punishments ranging from fines to jail time to execution.

What is blasphemy, exactly? By definition, the term refers to any act that disrespects God, religion or scripture. But its parameters as a crime are infamously loose and anti-blasphemy laws are often used for blunt political persecution.

Naoot is just one of a growing number of Egyptians who are in jail or on trial for violating Egypt's blasphemy laws, which critics call ambiguous, confusing and abusive. Ironically, there have been more religious-based convictions under Egypt's new secular military government than under the previous Islamist regime, according to human rights advocates.

Indeed, anti-blasphemy laws have a long and bloody history in all three major Western religions and have been used to justify persecution for centuries.

RELATED: Cracking Down On Atheist Bloggers In Bangladesh

In the Middle East and North Africa, 70 percent of countries criminalize blasphemy. In Pakistan, the crime is still punishable by death. Since the 1980s, more than a thousand Pakistanis have been accused and convicted.

Anti-blasphemy laws are not exclusive to Islamic governments, either. Both Canada and New Zealand have laws on the books concerning "blasphemous libel," which refers to published material that disrespects Christianity.

The U.S. doesn't have any federal blasphemy laws, but some states do. In Michigan, for example, it's a misdemeanor to blaspheme the name of God. Such laws are no longer enforced, thanks to free speech protections guaranteed by the Constitution.

But as Fatima Naoot's case in Egypt makes starkly clear, abusive blasphemy laws are still alive and well in the 21st century.

Learn More:

Pew Research: Which countries still outlaw apostasy and blasphemy?

Al Jazeera: Muslim men held on blasphemy charge in Pakistan

The Guardian: Looking back at Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses

NPR: Pakistan's Religious Right Mobilizes Anew to Defend Blasphemy Laws