We have yet another example of the perils facing academics in some Muslim countries with a death sentence handed down by a Pakistani court against Professor Junaid Hafeez, 33, because he allegedly posted derogatory remarks against Mohammed on social media. Many of our closest allies routinely flog or kill those who simply question religious dogma.
Such blasphemy laws are not confined to Muslim nations, though they are most prevalent among countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, and other Muslim countries. I have previously criticized such European blasphemy laws (here and here and here). We have been following the international trend (here and here and here and here) to criminalize criticism of religions, including this prior column. The Obama Administration joined the UN Human Rights Council and agreed to create a “new” standard balancing speech and respect for religion. These new standards are merely thinly disguised blasphemy laws that are spreading throughout the world, including the West. As I discussed recently, many nations have shifted their efforts to impose blasphemy crimes in favor of broader hate speech and discrimination laws.
The death sentence against this academic shows how these laws are designed to curtail free speech and free thought. These countries use the laws to protect religious dogma and make adherence to the majority orthodoxy a legal requirement. When a religion fears event the uttering of dissenting views, it reflects a deep insecurity about its appeal to individuals. It also gives religious figures state-sponsored muscle to silence any detractors or free thinkers who would challenge their authority.
Hafeez is an example of how these laws are used to target political opponents as well as dissidents. He arrested in 2013 and has cruelly been held in solitary confinement since 2014. He was exposed to modern studies and values. In addition to medical training, he studied English literature and was a Fulbright scholar to Jackson State University where he studies literature, photography, and theater. He was viewed as a threat from Islamic political parties like Islami Jamiat Talaba, Jamaat-e-Islami) and Tehrik-tahafaz-e-Namoos-e-risalat. Rather than engage in a debate or dialogue, the Islamic parties want him dead as a warning to others not to utter opposing views.
He has shown all of the courage and intellectual honesty missing in this court and the Islamic groups seeking his death.