Why Religious Freedom Must be a Top Priority

From the Archived "Cardus Policy in Public" Series

Religious freedom is important not only in its own right but is also central to other human goods: it correlates with civil liberties, political liberties, press freedom, longevity of democracy, low levels of militarization and conflict, more physicians, and lower infant mortality.

Introduction: Neglecting Religious Freedom

Many human rights are neglected, but religious freedom is often strikingly so. The late Abe Rosenthal, looking back over five decades working at the New York Times, wrote: "I realized that in decades of reporting, writing or assigning stories on human rights, I rarely touched on the most important. Political, legal, civil and press rights, emphatically often; but the right to worship where and how God or conscience leads, almost never."

In the case of Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, currently sentenced to death for converting to Christianity, it was only after international media had picked up the story and the White House, the Canadian government, the British Foreign Office, France, and the EU had already issued public statements calling for his release that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued basic statements on their websites condemning his treatment. As Ziya Meral notes: "You know something is really wrong when a major human rights group pick(s) up on a human rights concern after governments, mainstream and social media do."1

When religious freedom is addressed, it is often treated only as a humanitarian matter, a careful effort to save a religious believer, or an atheist, from death or prison.2 Such efforts are vitally important, but they should be combined with an awareness of the major role that religion, and religious freedom, play in a wide range of human affairs. Contrary to secularization theories of the 1950s and 1960s, religion is not dying with modernization: instead it is growing and its political influence is increasing. As Shah, Toft, and Philpott show, "God is winning" in global politics "and modernization, democratization, and globalization have only made Him stronger."3

Religious freedom is important not only in its own right but is also central to other human goods: it correlates with civil liberties, political liberties, press freedom, longevity of democracy, low levels of militarization and conflict, more physicians, and lower infant mortality. One of the most striking relations is with economic wellbeing and freedom. Religious freedom correlates with increased income and economic wellbeing for both men and women, though, interestingly, it does so more for women. Of course, correlations do not prove causality, but there are good grounds for thinking that religious freedom directly contributes to good economic and social outcomes.4

Currently, one of the major threats to religious freedom, and freedom of speech and of the press, are attempts to stifle religious discussion and criticism in the name of preventing "defamation of" or "insults to" religion, especially Islam. These restrictions, now spreading in the West, represent the de facto reintroduction of blasphemy laws.5

Blasphemy and Insulting Religion

Twenty years ago, few in the West were concerned with blasphemy restrictions, which, while sometimes still on the statute books, were usually thought to be only of historical interest. That began to change when in 1989 the late Ayatollah Khomeini, then head of Iran’s government, declared that it was the duty of every Muslim to kill Britian-based writer Salman Rushdie on the grounds that his novel The Satanic Verses was deemed blasphemous. Khomeini’s edict triggered a wave of violence. Rushdie himself has survived but only at the cost of a hidden and protected life. Others connected with the book were not so fortunate. The novel’s Japanese translator was assassinated, its Italian translator was stabbed, its Norwegian publisher was shot, thirty-five guests at a Turkish hotel hosting its Turkish publisher were burned to death in an arson attack. Khomeini’s fatwa also inaugurated a worldwide movement to export blasphemy rules already suppressing religious minorities and Muslim dissenters in Muslim majority countries.

Subsequently, the twenty-first century has seen repeated eruptions of violence worldwide in reaction to events such as Theo van Gogh’s and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s feminist film Submission, the Danish and Swedish cartoons of Islam’s prophet Mohammed, Pope Benedict’s Regensburg speech on reason and violence in religion, Geert Wilders’ deliberately provocative film Fitna, and the false Newsweek story that the US military in the Guantanamo Bay prison had desecrated Korans. Now such matters are in the news every week, often every day. Some events, such as the declaration by Terry Jones, a deservedly obscure Florida pastor with a congregation of less than fifty, that he would burn a Koran during prime time on September 11, 2010, achieved a perfect media storm. It combined Muslim outrage at desecration of the Koran with American self promotion and publicity seeking, together with the voracious demands of twenty-four hour news coverage. The result dominated several news cycles and managed to draw in the American President, as well as senior US military leaders and cabinet officials. And dozens of people were killed.

Manipulation by Governments

The international attention to these events has led to an impression that campaigns against "insulting Islam" and kindred offenses are mainly a matter of callous cartoonists and provocative pastors. Such impressions are misleading and provide only a small hint of the full, terrifying implications of such accusations. In fact, contemporary violence in response to purported religious insults is not simply the spontaneous expression of outraged religious sentiments but is carefully stoked and channeled by governments, usually authoritarian ones straining for political advantage. And the objects and victims of such accusations are not usually insensitive westerners but minorities and Muslim dissidents.

In fact, accusations of blasphemy or insulting Islam are currently used systematically in much of the Muslim world to silence religious minorities, authors, and courageous journalists and democracy activists, including the region’s Nobel Prize winners. Muslim reformers who question repressive interpretations of Islam are jailed for "insulting Islam" or "mocking religion," or threatened, even killed, by mobs, vigilantes, and terrorists, simply for advocating an Islam of freedom.

The famous "Danish cartoons" of Mohammed were published in Denmark’s largest newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in September 2005. Subsequently, some were reproduced in several Muslim countries by newspapers that printed them in order to criticize them. There was no violent response. Violence erupted only after the December 2005 summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC, now named the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) in Saudi Arabia—initially convening to discuss sectarian violence and terrorism, but focusing on the cartoons—urged its member states to rouse opposition to Demark. In February 2006, that is five months after the caricatures were published, many Muslims across Africa, Asia, and the Mideast set out from Friday prayers for often violent demonstrations, killing over 200 people, mostly Christians in Nigeria.

The highly controlled press in Egypt and Jordan raised the issue of the cartoons repeatedly, until an astonishing ninety-nine per cent of Jordanians and ninety-eight per cent of Egyptians had heard of them, though few knew anything else at all about Denmark.6 This reflects government policy, since, as these countries’ media have been strictly censored, their populations read what their governments want them to. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, perhaps irritated by the then US policy of pushing for democracy in the Middle East, urged boycotts of Danish products. Iran and Syria manipulated riots partly to deflect attention from their nuclear projects. Turkey later used the cartoons as bargaining chips in negotiations with the US, including with President Obama, in order to gain leverage for two high level Turkish appointments to NATO.7

Similar manipulation of news and feelings occurred with other international blasphemy incidents. Campaigns against "insults to Islam" are not simply eruptions of outraged religious feeling: they also reflect manipulation of these feelings by deliberate government policies. This does not mean that the outrage felt by ordinary Muslims when their beliefs and symbols are criticized, mocked, or besmirched is not real—after all, governments cannot manipulate religious feelings unless there are religious feelings there to manipulate—but it does mean that responses to purported insult are usually politically channeled.

The Targets: Minorities and Religious Reformers

Nor are the victims of blasphemy accusations usually irreverent westerners. Islamists and authoritarian governments now routinely use accusations of apostasy and blasphemy to repress religious minorities, and also Muslim writers, journalists, political dissidents, and, perhaps politically most important, religious reformers. Indeed, one reason for the extended violence over the Jyllands-Posten cartoons was that many of those who suggested a peaceful response were forcibly silenced. Editors in Algeria, Jordan, India, and Yemen were arrested. In Syria, journalist Adel Mahfouz was charged with "insulting public religious sentiment" because he called for peaceful dialogue instead of riots to resolve the controversy, an offence that could bring a three year sentence.

Currently, millions of Baha’is and Ahmadis, members of religions that arose after Islam, are condemned en masse as de facto "insulters" of Islam and are subject to discriminatory and brutal laws, pervasive state extra-legal violence, and attacks by mobs, vigilantes, and terrorists. Those who leave Islam for another religion or for none at all face similar fates. When they are in the minority in Muslim majority countries, Sunnis, Shia, and Sufi Muslims may be persecuted for differing from "true Islam," meaning the version promulgated by government religious authorities. In Egypt, often thought as a more moderate country, Shia leaders have been imprisoned and tortured for being "under the influence of Shia ideas."8

One major target is Muslim reformers. In Afghanistan, Shia scholar Ali Mohaqeq Nasab, editor of "Haqooq-i-Zen" (Women’s Rights) magazine, was imprisoned by the Karzai government for publishing "un-Islamic" articles that criticized stoning as a punishment for adultery.9 Saudi democracy activists Ali al-Demaini, Abdullah al-Hamed, and Matruk al-Faleh were imprisoned for using "unIslamic terminology," such as "democracy" and "human rights," when they called for a written constitution. Saudi teacher Mohammad al-Harbi was sentenced to 40 months in jail and 750 lashes for "mocking religion" after discussing the Bible in class and saying that the Jews were right.10 The Indonesian Ulema Council, considered the country’s highest Islamic authority, issued a fatwa banning the Liberal Islamic Network, which teaches an open interpretation of the Koran. The radical Islam Defenders Front threatened Ulil Abshar Abdulla, the network’s founder.11 Egyptian Nobel prize winner in literature Naguib Mahfouz reluctantly abandoned his lifelong resistance to censorship and sought permission from the clerics of Al-Azhar University to publish his novel Children of Gebelawi, hitherto banned for blasphemy. He lived under constant protection after being stabbed by a young Islamist, leaving him partly paralyzed.12

After medical professor Mohammad Younas Shaikh, a member of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, raised questions about Pakistan’s policies in Kashmir, he was charged with having blasphemed in one of his classes.13 In 2007, feminist Taslima Nasreen had to flee Bangladesh for her life because her writings were accused of being "against Islam."14 Also in Bangladesh, Salahudddin Choudhury was imprisoned for hurting "religious feelings" by advocating peaceful relations between Bangladesh and Israel.15 Egypt bans books and imprisons Muslims whose views are contrary to those of the state-funded Sunni center, Al-Azhar.

Akbar Ganji, perhaps Iran’s most prominent dissident, was imprisoned for six years on charges including "spreading propaganda against the Islamic system." Ayatollah Boroujerdi was imprisoned for arguing that "political leadership by clergy" was contrary to Islam.16 Iranian Nobel peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi received death threats from "The Association Hostile to Apostate Baha’is" for her defense of Iran’s Baha’i minority, whose persecution as "apostates" has become even worse under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.17 Hashem Aghajari was imprisoned in 2002 because he challenged Iran’s rulers by saying, "We must understand that the master is not a holy, divine being, and we cannot grant him that status." The charge against him was blasphemy, thus proving his point that the Mullahs confuse themselves with God.18

As in Saudi Arabia, religious repression in Iran is not some minor quirk; it is at the heart of the regime’s ideology. Dissidents and dissenters are charged with "friendship with the enemies of God," "hostility towards friends of God," "fighting against God," "obstructing the way of God and the way towards happiness for all the disinherited people in the world," "dissension from religious dogma," "insulting the Prophet," "insulting Islam," "propagation of spiritual liberalism," "promoting pluralism," "calling into question the Islamic foundations of the Republic," and, my favourite, "creating anxiety in the minds of. . .Iranian officials."

Threats in the West

Muslim reformers sometimes cannot escape these threats and attacks even if they live in the west. In 2006, an organization calling itself "Supporters of God’s Messenger" (Al-Munasirun li Rasul al Allah) emailed a communiqué to over thirty prominent, usually Muslim, political and religious reformers that declared it would kill them as "atheists" and "polytheists" unless they repented.19 Among its named targets was Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, perhaps the best known human rights and democracy activist in the Arab world, who had previously been imprisoned by the Egyptian government for his advocacy of Coptic Christian rights and free elections. Another was Ahmad Subhy Mansour, an imam who was imprisoned and had to flee Egypt, and has published works arguing against the death penalty for apostasy.

It said they had betrayed "Islam and the Muslim umma, publicly supported leaders of unbelief, the worshipers of the cross, the Christians with whom they attend conferences, helping them against our spiritual leaders, and even demanding for them the right of ruling over our Muslim lands. Also, they support and cooperate with the sons of pigs and monkeys [i.e. Jews]."20 The targets were pronounced "guilty of apostasy, unbelief, and denial of the Islamic established facts" and given three days to "announce their repentance." The message included their addresses as well as the names of their spouses and children.

Groups such as "Supporters of God’s Messenger" now aim to silence Muslims who dare to criticize their actions and beliefs and suggest a modern interpretation of Islam. If even Western democracies cannot provide the political space for Muslims to debate these critical questions concerning the meaning of Islam, then hope of democracy will be undercut.

Western Governments

However, faced with expanding demands for restrictions on freedom of religion and speech, Western governments have often not responded with a robust defense of individual religion and rights. Instead they, including Canada, have often caved to Islamist pressure.

Many countries have also been disowning or repressing their own citizens on grounds similar to those of "insulting Islam." The case of Salman Rushdie is well known: he was treated as a hero when the Ayatollah Khomeini first called for him to be killed after the publication of The Satanic Verses. I remember his welcoming reception by Canadian Federal and Provincial politicians at the highest levels, coupled with brave declarations that we would never submit to censorship by threat. But now Rushdie is treated as something of an embarrassment, and "human rights" commissions in Canada have hauled writers before tribunals to interrogate them about their writings on matters touching on Islam.21 In Europe, politicians such as Geert Wilders or Jussi Halla-aho have been prosecuted for statements on Islam.


The freedom to debate, reject, refuse to respect, or to criticize religious ideas is an essential element of religious freedom. In contrast, prohibitions on "defamation of religions" reflect the view that, in the realm of belief, government should serve as the arbiter and regulator of ideological orthodoxy rather than as the defender of personal freedom. Islam is a complex and varied belief system shaping the views and practices of many of its 1.6 billion followers in culture, politics, economics, science, education, personal and family relations, law and society, as well as what is often called religion. Hence limits on criticism are major means of social and political control—they coerce religious conformity and forcibly silence criticism of dominant religious ideas, especially when those ideas support, and are supported by, political power.

The continuing encroachment of de facto blasphemy limits in the West threatens free speech, free expression, and the free exchange of ideas—whether sacred or secular, ridiculous or respectful, and it will not assure social peace and harmony. As comedian Rowan Atkinson warned, such laws merely produce "a veneer of tolerance concealing a snakepit of unaired and unchallenged views."22 Norway’s strict restrictions on "hate speech" did not prevent Anders Behring Breivik from slaughtering over seventy people because of his antipathy to Islam; indeed his writings suggest that he engaged in violence because he believed that he could not otherwise be heard.

In the Muslim world, such restrictions also help radical interpretations of Islam to crush debate and discussion about the nature of faith and religion. Nor will these restrictions produce tolerance. After Pakistani Governor Salman Taseer was murdered for his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, his daughter Sara correctly observed, "This is a message to every liberal to shut up or be shot."

As the late Abdurrahman Wahid, former President of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, and head of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization, has written:

. . .coercively applied blasphemy laws narrow the bounds of acceptable discourse . . . not only about religion, but about vast spheres of life, literature, science and culture in general.
Rather than legally stifle criticism and debate—which will only encourage Muslim fundamentalists in their efforts to impose a spiritually void, harsh and monolithic understanding of Islam upon all the world—Western authorities should instead firmly defend freedom of expression, not only in their own nations, but globally, as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

When politics and religion are intertwined, as they necessarily are in debates about blasphemy and insulting Islam, without religious debate and critique there can be no politics.


1 Ziya Meral, "The Giant Blind Spot of Human Rights NGOs," Huffington Post, October 2, 2011

2 Thomas Farr, World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty Is Vital to American National Security (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); "Religious Freedom and National Security," pp.17-22 of Paul Marshall, ed., Religious Freedom in the World (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).

3 Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, Timothy Samuel Shah, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (New York: Norton, 2011).

4 Brian Grim, "God’s Economy: Religious Freedom & Socio-Economic Wellbeing," pp. 42-47 of Paul Marshall, Religious Freedom in the World; Theodore Malloch, "Free to Choose: Economics and Religion," pp. 48-53 of Marshall Religious Freedom in the World; Brian Grim and Roger Finke The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the 21st Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

5 The following sections draw on Paul Marshall and Nina Shea, Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

6 This is discussed by Jytte Klausen in her The Cartoons That Shook the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). Out of fear, Yale University Press refused to include a photo of the relevant page of Jyllands-Posten in the book.

7 Marshall and Shea, Silenced, p. 174.

8 Op. cit. p.73.

9 Op. cit. pp. 111-112.

10 Op. cit. pp. 30-33.

11 Op. cit. p. 163.

12 Op. cit. p. 81.

13 Op. cit. pp. 97-98.

14 Op. cit. pp. 154-155.

15 Op. cit. pp. 155-156.

16 Op. cit. pp. 53-54.

17 Op. cit. pp. 45-46.

18 Op. cit. pp. 55-56.

19 Paul Marshall, "Resisting Intimidation: We must protect Muslim reformers," NRO, April 14, 2006,

20 Translations by the Center for Islamic Pluralism,

21 Marshall and Shea, op. cit., pp. 250-251.

22 Op. cit. p. 258.