Salman Taseer, the late governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, was assassinated on Jan. 4 of this year, killed by his own bodyguard. He would have turned 67 on May 31. Another top Pakistani official, Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, was shot dead in early March.
Both men were outspoken opponents of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which criminalize a range of offenses against religious symbols and institutions. Despite the stated intent of such laws to protect freedom of religion, their practical consequence is very different, often serving as licenses for governments and individuals to harass rivals, legitimize violence, and settle petty disputes.
In February, more than 1,000 people stormed an Indonesian court protesting what they believed was too lenient a sentence for a Christian found guilty of blasphemy. Last summer, a professor in Kerala, India, accused of blasphemy and suspended from teaching for distributing an exam question with an allegedly derogatory reference to the Prophet Mohammed was attacked with an ax on his way home from church. The list goes on and on in countries stretching from Europe to Southeast Asia. More than 70 recent cases of violence resulting from blasphemy laws have been documented by the organization Human Rights First.
For years now, laws that criminalize statements impugning religion (commonly referred to as "defamation of religion" or "blasphemy" laws) implicitly have condoned violence against those who depart from a country's dominant sectarian views. These government sanctions have contributed to the preservation of intolerant cultures antithetical to open debate and democracy. It is therefore of great significance to the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa that U.S. efforts within the U.N. Human Rights Council recently have succeeded in putting the council on record as repudiating defamation-of-religion laws.
The council, a body heavily influenced by the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference and criticized frequently for its reflexive condemnation of Israel and for the human rights records of its own member countries, formally advocated the criminalization of blasphemous speech through defamation provisions as recently as 2008, making the council's reversal of its position through the adoption of a resolution on March 24 all the more striking.
At its latest session, which began this week, the council's member countries must continue this course of embracing free speech and becoming more tolerant of dissent. The United States' own experience over the last century teaches that this transition will be essential to the project of building stable democracies.
America's historical experience has been that its society's capacity for tolerance grows stronger through exercise. Protections afforded speech and the press are not only a means of safeguarding something of great and unique value (that is, open discussion), but also a means of developing the habit of moderating natural but dangerous individual and societal tendencies.