The US should grant asylum to Asia Bibi, a Catholic mother of five whose blasphemy trial and acquittal have embroiled Pakistan in violence. Her prosecution flouted basic human rights. The aftermath of her deserved acquittal teaches an even larger lesson, for it demonstrates once again how restricting religious freedom can tear a nation apart.
In many countries, leaders face insistent pressure to trample the rights of religious minorities. Acceding to their demands may be the path of least resistance, but it is not the wisest course. To build long-term domestic peace, stability, and prosperity, leaders should stick to the path of freedom.
The peaceful pluralism of the US stands as an exemplar of the long-term advantages of preserving religious freedom. Our foreign policy establishment should view blasphemy laws not just as threats to human rights, but as threats to security and peace.
Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) in 1998 with overwhelming bipartisan support. Since then, five ambassadors-at-large have served in four administrations. The importance of religious freedom has been noted in eight of the last nine national security strategies (the sole exception occurring in 2010). Yet American foreign policy continues to be hampered by a secular bias that minimizes the influence of religion and therefore does not grasp the relevance of religious freedom to security, political, and economic concerns.
In 2009, Asia Bibi was picking berries alongside her Muslim co-laborers when a dispute broke out over whether she could share a cup of water with them. According to reports, they raised the blasphemy accusation to settle a personal score. Despite the lack of evidence, the mere charge was enough to lead to a conviction. Two courageous government officials, Shabaz Bhatti, a Christian, and Salman Taseer, a Muslim, defended her. Radicals assassinated them both.
Bibi waited on death row for nine years before the Supreme Court finally overturned her conviction this October. But predictably, the verdict unleashed a nationwide wave of rioting that brought traffic to a standstill, caused schools to close, and led the government to suspend cellphone service and social media for three days.
The crisis allowed the hardline Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a fast-growing Islamist party, to challenge the newly elected government of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Under pressure from TLP, which has made blasphemy laws the centerpiece of their political platform, Khan made a dealto prevent Asia Bibi and her family from leaving Pakistan—an action many see as a virtual death sentence.
But it’s not clear that even such a tragic outcome would end the violence and lawlessness that have been unleashed. TLP founder Muhammad Afzal Qadri has called for the assassination of judges. While the prime minister’s government is now trying Qadri on terrorism charges, it also allowed him a long leash to incite violence. Since Bibi’s acquittal, vigilantes have dragged countless Christians from their cars to beat them in the street. And of the more than 1,300 people (including many Muslims) who have been charged under the nation’s blasphemy laws since 1987, 62 of them were murdered after being accused.
Not wishing to be outflanked by radicals, the prime minister has doubled down and called upon the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to reintroduce a global blasphemy law at the United Nations under the innocuous-sounding “Defamation of Religions” moniker. Proponents argue that such restrictions on speech are needed to preserve the peace. They note that cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed led to 200 deaths around the world during riots that included attacks on Western embassies. Banning such “defamatory” actions, they argue, will save lives.
Few actions, however, could ignite violent conflict more quickly than creating a global “right not to be offended.” Speech codes violate our fundamental freedom to search for truth and to disagree with one another on matters of profound importance, such as the identity of God and how we should live.
Both secular supporters of hate speech codes and religious proponents of blasphemy laws justify restricting religious freedom and speech in the name of stability. In the name of protecting “religious peace,” the European Court of Human Rights in late October upheld the criminal conviction of an Austrian woman who made controversial statements about Muhammed. But speech codes have a poor track record as peace-keepers. As Paul Coleman points out, speech codes in the Weimar Republic did not stop the rise of Nazism, nor did they prevent civil war in Yugoslavia.
The paradox of tolerance is that it cannot be reached through censorship. As social scientists Brian Grim and Roger Finke have shown, government restrictions on religious freedom increase the likelihood that social conflict will turn violent. Their comparison of 100 different variables relating to 195 countries revealed a “close relationship between legal restrictions and broader religion-related violence, including terrorism and war.”
In July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback convened hundreds of diplomats and religious leaders for the inaugural International Religious Freedom Ministerial Summit. Their Potomac Plan of Action outlines positive steps that governments can take to improve religious freedom, including by repealing blasphemy laws.
The Pew Research Center estimates that almost 80 percent of the world’s population continues to live under serious restrictions on religious freedom. The entire national security establishment should seek to implement the plan because free speech and freedom of religion are fundamental human rights. The fact that they also lead to greater peace, security and prosperity should make foreign counterparts listen up.
This piece originally appeared in Providence Magazine