Silent Victims: Apostasy and Blasphemy Laws Worldwide

Kristin Wright | Open Doors USA | Thursday, December 8, 2011

Silent Victims: Apostasy and Blasphemy Laws Worldwide

Earlier this year two Pakistani government officials spoke out regarding the controversial case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan after she was found guilty of “blasphemy” against the Islamic prophet Mohammed. But for Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province in Pakistan, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minorities' affairs, the outcome of their vocal defense of Asia Bibi ended in more tragedy than either anticipated.

Today, Asia Bibi still sits in prison awaiting hanging. Numerous Islamic clerics have declared that if the government will not follow through on her death sentence, they themselves will finish the job. As for Salman Taseer, he died under a hail of 27 bullets, fired by his own bodyguard. Shahbaz Bhatti was leaving his mother's home in Lahore only months after Taseer's death, when a drive-by shooting claimed his life as well.

The topic of blasphemy codes, found in numerous Muslim-majority countries around the world, including Pakistan, is the subject of Paul Marshall and Nina Shea's recently-released 448-page book, Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide.

Paul Marshall, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, is the author of more than 20 books on religion and politics, mostly centering on issues related to religious freedom internationally. Silenced is co-written by Nina Shea, a human rights attorney and founder of the Center for Religious Freedom, founded in 1986. Contributors to the book include Abdurrahman Wahid, the late president of Indonesia, as well as Nasr Hamid Abui-Zayd, the late academic director of the International Institute of Qur'anic Studies, and Abdullah Saeed, professor of Arab and Islamic studies at the University of Melbourne.

Marshall says that the inspiration for writing Silenced came as a result of editing an earlier book on the growth of radical forms of Sharia law. “We realized that restrictions on 'insulting religion' were central to radical Islam,” he comments, adding that the laws “prevent discussion and challenge of all the other restrictions.” The authors of Silenced document the cases of hundreds of victims of controversial blasphemy laws – of which Asia Bibi is only one example. The stories of those who have fallen victim to accusations of blasphemy in the Muslim world include political dissidents, journalists, writers, artists, movie makers and religious minorities of all kinds. It wasn't a challenge to find the stories, Marshall says, but rather, “to select [the material] and keep it within bounds.”

The book begins with a forward by Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid, the late president of Indonesia. As a Muslim and a strong advocate for interfaith dialogue, Wahid writes, “Nothing could possibly threaten God who is Omnipotent and existing as absolute and eternal truth.” He states that “God has no enemies,” and that “those who claim to defend God, Islam, or the Prophet are thus either deluding themselves or manipulating religion for their own mundane and political purposes.” Wahid adds, “We witnessed this in the carefully manufactured outrage that swept the Muslim world several years ago, claiming hundreds of lives, in response to cartoons published in Denmark.”

Marshall and Shea recount the vehement targeting of British author Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini, in his infamous call for “all zealous Muslims to execute quickly wherever they find them,” the author himself as well as all others involved with his book, The Satanic Verses. Ayatollah Khomeini found the book to be offensive, and this was apparently enough to warrant the brutal murders of Rushdie's Japanese translator, as well as the serious injuries inflicted upon his Italian translator and Norwegian editor.

In Silenced, Marshall notes that, “Few saw [at the time] that Khomeini was, in fact, spearheading a religious trend with political undertones, propelled by a zeal not seen in the West for several centuries.” Marshall says that Khomeini's edict “signaled a new worldwide movement to curb freedoms of religion and speech through the export and enforcement of Muslim blasphemy rules that were already suppressing minorities and dissenters in Muslim-majority countries.”

As for examples of those who are currently repressed under blasphemy laws found throughout the Muslim world, Marshall and Shea have no shortage of stories. Twenty-five-year-old Ismaili Shia is one such example, the authors recount. He was stopped by members of Saudi Arabia's religious police in 2002 for listening to music in his car, reprimanded, and told that he should be listening to the Qur'an instead. The religious police accused him of insulting the Qur'an by calling it “boring.” Two months later Shia was convicted of insulting Islam and sentenced to 2,000 lashes and eight years of prison. He was let out of prison early only after well-connected relatives intervened on his behalf.

In Egypt, a Baha'i activist and dentistry professor, Basma Gamal Musa, was denounced on television by the program's host, who declared that Musa was an “apostate,” and that the “woman should be killed.” For a consecutive five days after the broadcast, Baha'i homes 200 miles south of Cairo were firebombed while numerous Baha'is received death threats.

Marshall and Shea investigate the trend toward vaguely defined “hate speech” laws in the West, laws they say “serve as proxies for Muslim blasphemy rules.” They write that “although the West remains much freer than the Muslim world, it is experiencing problems stemming from blasphemy restrictions,” including the “targeting of a wide range of views, vague and variable laws that are selectively enforced, vigilantism, intimidation and harassment of political opponents, the repression and marginalization of Muslim reformers, and the silencing of political and religious debate.”

What does Marshall think of the trend toward restricting speech about religion? “It is frightening and corrosive of free societies,” he says. “Religion affects everything, so if you can't criticize religious views, whole areas of life are are put off limits to debate. It also empowers radical Muslims at the expense of other Muslims.”

Marshall and Shea have dedicated the book to the two men who lost their lives earlier this year for opposing Pakistan's blasphemy laws, Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti. “To Shahbaz Bhatti, our friend and a lifelong champion of religious freedom, and to Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, both murdered in 2011,” the dedication reads.

Kristin Butler is a contributing writer at, where she covers topics related to human rights and religious freedom. For further articles, visit her website at or email [email protected].

Publication date: November 8, 2011