In the wake of the furor over Innocence of Muslims, we are hearing renewed calls to criminalize blasphemy under international law from the halls of the United Nations. This comes a little over a year after the so-called Islamic states retired a discredited, decade-long campaign to combat "defamation of religions" (and legal coherence).
Meanwhile, the 1966 human rights treaty banning "advocacy of religious hatred" remains in force. Indeed, it is precisely such a charge that has the Indonesian atheist Alexander Aan and the Russian punks Pussy Riot locked away at this moment. What more could one want?
Those who study the history of blasphemy laws are condemned to repeat themselves: These laws don't work. Unless what you are after is more blasphemy. Consider the case of India.
In September 1917, Muslim villages in the Shahabad and Gaya districts of the Indian state of Bihar were besieged by tens of thousands of rioting Hindus, who for days ranged in mobs looting and destroying homes, desecrating mosques, and stealing cattle. By their end, the Shahabadriots had resulted in assaults on 150 villages, 176 serious injuries, and 41 deaths.
What caused this carnage? The ceremonial slaughter of cows by members of the local Muslim community in celebration of the religious festival of Id Al-Adha.
British colonial records document eruptions of such inter-community violence throughout the nineteenth century. Today these tensions are ratcheted up by the opposing political agendas of Hindu nationalist and Islamist movements.
This tragic legacy has unfolded not despite but alongside robust laws prohibiting "outraging the religious feelings" of others. These laws were installed under British colonial rule ostensibly to manage and mitigate precisely this kind of interfaith strife.
The Indian Penal Code was drafted in 1837 by the Indian Law Commission under the chairmanship of Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay and eventually adopted in 1860. It is "a truth which needs no proof," wrote the Commission, that there are "many persons of such sensitive feelings among the higher ranks of the Natives of India" for whom "insults have as great a tendency as bodily injuries to excite violent passion."
But the Indian Penal Code's criminalization of religious offense in its Article 295 -- the ancestor of the infamous blasphemy laws of Pakistan, as well as Bangladesh -- has not solved the problem. It has institutionalized the problem.
The law legitimizes and incentivizes outrage. Where the incensed reactions might be seen as religious demagoguery inciting extrajudicial murder, in the context of Article 295 they can be seen as agitation for the reign of justice and the enforcement of a duly enacted law. Where they might otherwise be nothing but impotent rage, with the help of the law they can be tactics that succeed in removing the offending practice -- if only for the moment.
Furthermore, the law expanded the meaning of blasphemy, generating new opportunities for outrage. Traditional Islamic law, for example, recognizes the offense of sabb al-rasul, insult to the Prophet. But an insult to the Prophet obviously is not equivalent to feelings of outrage about just any sacred values. A legal system crafted to encompass Hindus, Muslims, and Christians created a standard that went far beyond any of their religious doctrines: the standard of respect for all believers.
The law quite literally wrote new blasphemies into being.
Consider Urdu literature's first "angry young woman," Rashid Jahan. Jahan, a young medical doctor, made her literary debut in a 1932 anthology called Angarey (Embers), a critique of contemporary Indian Muslim society -- in particular the conditions endured by women -- denounced by local clerics and conservative papers as an "Absolutely Filthy and Foul" pamphlet of blasphemies.
Rashid Jahan and her three fellow contributors were threatened with death by stoning and hanging. In March 1933 the authorities of Uttar Pradesh state government intervened, confiscating and destroying all but a handful of copies of the book under Article 295's protection of religious feelings. The law helped to turn a critique of Islamically-based gender inequality into a blasphemous affront to Muslims.
Whose interests are served by generating new opportunities for outrage that are legitimized and incentivized by law? Those who benefit most are the most extreme voices -- like Angarey's most implacable enemies -- who anoint themselves as representatives of the outraged and thereby claim authority and consolidate power within the community.
The lessons of this history are clear. If you want to bring about greater reverence for your sacred values, laws against blasphemy won't help. If, on the other hand, you want to boost your bids for power and authority within your religious community, they are a god-send.