PhD Course: Pitfalls of Blasphemy Laws: the Perspective of Freedom of Religion or Belief
Blasphemy laws, as they still exist in many countries across continents and cultural divides, obviously curb freedom of expression by hampering open political discourse, stifling free artistic experimentation and intimidating critics of the societal and political status quo. This PhD, or professional training, course aims at a systematic criticism of blasphemy laws from the specific angle of FoRB.
Photo illustration: Colourbox
While the adverse impact of blasphemy laws on freedom of expression (henceforth: FREEDEX) is unquestioned, their implications on freedom of religion or belief (henceforth: FoRB) remain controversial. On the one hand, some FoRB activists (including previous and current UN special rapporteurs on FoRB) have pointed to increased risks for religious minorities, converts or dissenters, whose positions may be deemed “blasphemous” in the eyes of religious orthodoxy. On the other hand, commentators have argued that blasphemy laws may be in the service of FoRB by protecting religious feelings from satirical comments and unnecessary provocations; such positions can inter alia be found in some judgments of the European Court of Human Rights.
Theme: Criticism of blasphemy laws
The proposed seminar aims at a systematic criticism of blasphemy laws from the specific angle of FoRB. This general purpose will be pursued in three main steps: (1) systematic reflection, (2) analysis of cases and debates at global and regional levels, (3) the search for viable alternatives to blasphemy laws.
- Systematic reflection: Discussing blasphemy laws from the specific perspective of FoRB, first of all, presupposes an adequate understanding of the scope, content and limits of FoRB. This proves all the more necessary against the background of widespread misperceptions, which sometimes amount to ignoring the very nature of FoRB as a human right to freedom. An adequately clear conceptualization of FoRB furthermore provides the basis for comparing FoRB and FREEDEX. Within the overarching framework of international human rights protection, they both share a number of characteristics, while at the same time remaining distinct legal entitlements.
- Analysis of cases and debates at global and regional levels: For more than a decade, UN resolutions on “combating defamation of religions” caused major controversies between different political camps. In this context, the misperception emerged that FoRB and FREEDEX would point in different or even opposite directions. While FREEDEX obviously opens up the space for provocations, FoRB seemingly functions more like a stop sign – or this has become a widespread assumption. Various UN special rapporteurs, however, have clarified that FoRB does not protect religions in themselves (their reputations, honor, integrity etc.). Rather, FoRB empowers human beings by protecting their dignity, freedom and equality, in keeping with the general human rights approach. From this critical perspective, FoRB and FREEDEX mutually reinforce each other, in the line with a holistic understanding of human rights as being indivisible, interrelated and interdependent. By contrast, however, some judgments of the European Court of Human Rights presuppose a general tension between FoRB and FREEDEX, thus calling for a compromise between the two.
- The search for viable alternatives to blasphemy laws: A number of UN documents call upon States to abolish existing blasphemy laws, in the interest of human rights. This inevitably raises the question: what should the alternative be. The “Rabat Plan of Action”, elaborated under the auspices of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, provides some answers. While always linking restrictive measures against FREEDEX to a very high threshold, the Rabat Plan of Action calls upon states to focus on non-restrictive activities, by encouraging interreligious dialogue projects, launching educational and sensitization initiatives and providing efficient protection for targeted minorities. In pursuance of these purposes, FoRB and FREEDEX largely function in tandem.