Given the rise of media and information technology, the debate over anti-blasphemy laws has become one of international importance. Cutting across different regions and faiths, blasphemy laws have triggered instability, empowered extremists, and increased sectarian violence. With frequently vague wording, they are open to whimsical interpretations, resulting in scores of human rights abuses, and violating international standards of free expression, religion, and belief.
While many religious traditions have taboos against blaspheming the sacred, violence related to allegations of blasphemy is particularly prevalent across Islamic states. In some Islamic states, scores of human rights abuses, committed in the name of fighting blasphemy, constitute obstacles to reform and democracy, and enhance the likelihood of sectarian violence. Blasphemy laws often help majority viewpoints to triumph against those of dissenters. As a result, religious minorities, free-thinkers, and political dissidents in Muslim majority countries are frequently targeted by blasphemy laws, weakening social cohesion and constraining free expression.
Whether online or offline, high-profile allegations of blasphemy have affected foreign relations and have raised new policy stakes for relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world. In the digital age, verbal expressions that were once limited to the immediate geographic vicinity are now broadcast globally at lightning speed. It is thus becoming increasingly important for governments and social media companies to implement policies that protect pluralism and democracy. Social media companies must take action to ensure the protection of both their users and uphold global standards of free speech. The U.S. government also has a duty to encourage pluralism and freedom of expression around the world. There are certain steps the United States should take to oppose anti-blasphemy laws in a broader effort to curb violent extremism and promote the peaceful expression of religious views, which is essential to democratic reform.
Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. State Department Special Envoy on Climate Todd Stern spoke at the US Climate Action Center, at the COP 24 UN climate negotiations, on the future of the Paris Agreement in Katowice, Poland on December 10, 2018.