The most personal and powerful testimony came from Shaan Taseer, the son of Salman Taseer. His father was the governor of Punjab who, after speaking out on Bibi’s behalf, was denounced by radical clerics and shot by his bodyguard on January 4, 2011. Shaan noted that while his father was posthumously absolved by Pakistani courts of blasphemy charges, “what took his life was the mere accusation followed by public calls for vigilante murder.”
Shaan Taseer offered an emotionally arresting denunciation of blasphemy laws for how they affect the accused. But he went further, noting that “the very existence of this law in our statute books, has itself radicalized society. It has signaled to a religious majority that the sanctity of their religion is under catastrophic threat, and that they must take extreme measures to defend it. Quick on the heels of any blasphemy accusation is a public call for murder to avenge the perceived slight.”
The abuse of blasphemy laws is widespread and continues today around the world. “Always remember Asia Bibi,” Taseer added, but don’t forget “the 200 others [imprisoned in Pakistan] who suffer under the blasphemy law. We owe them justice. That is what my father’s legacy asks of us.” And, of course, to those in other nations’ prisons as well.
Governments contend that such measures promote social peace, yet the nations that most actively enforce such laws suffer from the greatest religious persecution and violence. Advocates claim that banning blasphemy protects religious practice, when in fact it punishes those who act out their faith — being “salt and light” in Christian terms — in the rest of their lives. Indeed, blasphemy laws make honest engagement among people of faith dangerous, even deadly. The legislation is quite exactly the antithesis of religious liberty.
What to do?
“This is our fight and we will fight it,” Taseer insisted, but added, “Be our friends in this fight. Help us consign these pernicious laws to the dustbin of history, where they belong.”
Repeal of blasphemy legislation is the right solution, though politically impossible in countries such as Pakistan. Restoring procedural protections for defendants would help. Taseer suggested placing “provisions around the law to make it less effective,” and most important, imposing consequences on those who misuse it, especially the “hate‐mongers, hate clerics.” The U.S., Europe, and other interested nations should press the issue, not just as a matter of human rights, but of international security as well.
Western countries should take note of the radicals using such laws to preach violence and bar them from visiting other nations to spread their poison. Taseer suggested also targeting politicians who support such extremist measures at home while playing the role of statesmen abroad. Deny them visas. “I can assure you they all want their U.S. visas, they don’t take that lightly,” he added.
With the looming transition in Washington, advocates of religious liberty fear they will receive a colder reception from the new administration. President‐elect Biden should ensure that this most basic right of conscience remains at the top of America’s human‐rights agenda. And blasphemy should be a top priority in the fight against religious persecution.
In her testimony before the USCIRF, Elizabeth O’Casey, director of Advocacy at Humanists International, reminded us that anti‐blasphemy measures are about more than religious belief. She further explained that “blasphemy laws tend to serve those in power and enable religious persecution; they censor, they create a climate of fear, and they stifle artistic creativity, academic research, scholarship and freedom. They may also lead to imprisonment and death — thus violating the most potent human rights of all — the right to mental and physical integrity, and the right to life.”
As mentioned, those abusive measures do not persist in a vacuum. Their encouragement of international conflict and terrorism abroad implicates us all, too. Indeed, the promotion and prioritization of religious liberty does more than advance human rights. It also encourages geopolitical stability and security. Those ought to be two ends shared by all people, wherever they live and whatever their faith.