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Juan Cole: Death Penalty for Blasphemy Rare in Muslim World

January 12, 2011

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By **Juan Cole**

From JuanCole.Com.

Pakistani campaigners against the country’s blasphemy laws are pointing out that out of 54 Muslim-majority countries in the world, at most 5 permit capital punishment for blasphemy. They are Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and possibly Afghanistan (the new Afghan constitution incorporates human rights norms that could affect statutes treating blasphemy as a capital crime).

Note that 3 of these countries with harsh penalties for blasphemy are close allies of the United States.

As it turns out, [blasphemy] laws are relatively rare in the Muslim world.

Blasphemy laws are of course objectionable on their face, though they also exist in Christendom. (For what it is worth, there is a Wikipedia survey of such laws.) As recently as 1969 a man in Finland was fined for a blasphemous piece of artwork entitled “Pig Messiah.” Some provinces of Australia, still have such laws on their books, though the last prosecution was in Victoria in 1918. Brazil, Austria, Denmark, etc. have anti-blasphemy laws, though they have not been used any time recently and the penalties are fines and jail time. It is more common nowadays in Europe for individuals to be prosecuted on charges of hate speech toward a religious community. Ironically, Germany used its anti-blasphemy law, originally designed to protect Christianity, to convict a man of defaming Islam in 2006. Israel also has a law against blasphemy, and in India it is illegal maliciously to defame someone’s religion. Blasphemy laws in many Muslim countries resemble those in Christendom in involving fines and jail time. Muslim-haters in the U.S. have been attempting to argue that Muslims are essentially violent, pointing to the death sentence for blasphemy as evidence. As it turns out, such laws are relatively rare in the Muslim world, and mainly come out of the Wahhabi branch, not mainstream Sunnism. (Pakistan’s law was a martial law ordinance promulgated by a pro-Saudi general).

Moreover, Islamic law or shariah expects that the state, not individuals, should prosecute and punish criminal infractions. Muslim-haters try to give the impression that all Muslims are vigilantes. Vigilanteism is a component of radical groups, but is forbidden by mainstream Muslim authorities.

Copyright 2011 Juan Cole

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Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and director of its Center for South Asian Studies. He maintains the blog Informed Comment. His most recent book is Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

This post originally appeared at JuanCole.Com.

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