The curious incident of the US Office of International Religious Freedom denouncing blasphemy laws

by | August 27, 2016

In an interesting turn of events, David Saperstein, United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom posted a blog on Wednesday titled “Time To Abolish Blasphemy Laws, Uphold Freedom of Expression”.

As a country that still has a blasphemy law on the books, Canada should feel justly chastised at being part of a group that includes such human rights luminaries as Indonesia, Egypt, and Iran.

This blog from Saperstein is like a gift from on high for those of us advocating for the repeal of section 296. I encourage all of you to send the link to your MP.

So, is that it? Are done here? Weeeeeeell, no, not quite. While most coverage of this story stops there, this wouldn’t be an Indi-style CA if I didn’t go just a bit deeper into the story.

So, let’s dig.

I don’t know enough about Saperstein to say much about him. I invite any American readers – or Canadians who are familiar with Saperstein – to weigh in in the comments. What I do know is that he’s the first non-Christian US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom – he’s actually a rabbi. He seems to have a reputation of standing up for minority religions. (Which, if you’re a cynic, might be explained by the fact that he’s a rabbi.)

So what’s the problem?

My favourite Sherlock Holmes quote comes from the story The Adventure of the Silver Blaze:

Detective Gregory: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Detective Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

Did you notice that among the examples given by Saperstein in his blog post there was:

  • a Muslim university lecturer in Indonesia;
  • a poet in Egypt;
  • four Coptic Christian teenagers in Egypt;
  • a Christian in Iran;
  • the Afghan mob murder of Farkhunda;
  • a Pakistani Christian couple burned alive by a mob;
  • dozens of targeted killings of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan; and
  • the one positive story, about an Imam and two other prominent Muslim leaders who physically stood between the angry mob and the Christian community until the crowd dissipated.

Notice anything missing?

Don’t focus on the fact that all the aggressors are Muslim. That’s just sloppiness on Saperstein’s part, because it’s not like violence instigated by other religious groups is hard to find. Don’t focus on the aggressors. Focus on the victims. Notice anything missing?

Here are the religions of the victims (I presume the “poet in Egypt” is Fatima Naoot, who I think is Christian):

  • Muslim;
  • Christian (probably);
  • Christian;
  • Christian;
  • Muslim;
  • Christian;
  • Muslims; and
  • Christians.

Now, I can excuse Saperstein of just… forgetting… about all the other major religions out there, because he is an American, and they’re not really on his radar. But… there is one group that does have a very prominent presence in America, yet that he totally missed.

There’s not a single incident of discrimination or persecution against atheists or otherwise non-religious persons or groups mentioned.

Where are the multiple atheist bloggers who have been hacked to death in Bangladesh? What about Alexander Aan, beaten by a mob and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail for Facebook postings?

Now you might just shrug it off as just an oversight on Saperstein’s part. To that I’d point out… that’s a hell of an oversight for the head of the US’s Office of International Religious Freedom.

But I wish it was just Saperstein’s oversight.

See, the punchline of Saperstein’s post is the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18. If you followed the link and read it… did you notice the curious thing about its language about nonreligion?

“But, Indi. There is no language in Resolution 16/18 about nonreligion.”

That’s the curious thing.

Resolution 16/18 was a big deal for the UNHCR. And let me be clear, both 16/18 and its follow-up Resolution 19/8 are wonderful documents. If you read closely enough, nonbelief is covered by both 16/18 and 19/8. The problem is that you have to read really carefully, and it’s all too easy for states to say they agree with 16/18 & 19/8 while at the same time persecuting atheists. Other UN comments do clearly state that nonbelief deserves the same protections from discrimination as belief. But Saperstein neither pointed to those other documents, nor did he give any indication that he was giving any consideration to nonbelief at all.

Here’s another fact that might put things into perspective. Resolution 16/18 was originally proposed by…

… Pakistan…

… on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

That would be the same Pakistan mentioned in 3 out of 8 of the incidents Saperstein mentioned… and the same OIC whose members are mentioned in… well, all 8.

Knowing that 16/18 came original from the OIC and Pakistan, now it probably makes sense why it doesn’t explicitly offer any protection to lack of religion or belief. Sure, the brilliance of 16/18 is that protection is nevertheless implied… but when atheist bloggers are being hacked to death, we really need more than just a vague implication.

So what have we got here? Well, we’ve got a call for the abolition of blasphemy laws… but specifically for the protection of minority religions. Not non-religion.

Sigh. Always the bridesmaid; never the bride.

Okay, fine. Even if it’s not being done for us, the abolition of blasphemy laws is just a good thing in general. And, sure, we can certainly cheer for the minority religious people who will no longer be persecuted. And we do benefit too, however indirectly. Increasing liberty and fighting intolerance are always good things, even if we atheists are not the direct beneficiaries.

But… it just… rankles… to be so pointedly ignored. This is our problem, too. And arguably, blasphemy is more a problem for nonbelievers than it is for any believers, minority or otherwise.

I suppose just… grit your teeth, pass the link on to your MP, and if this does actually lead to the abolition of any blasphemy laws, try to put on a show of being as enthused as if you weren’t being completely overlooked in favour of religious groups. If atheism being invisible will help the passage of resolutions like 16/18 and the abolition of blasphemy laws then… well, we can bear that much.

For now.

7 thoughts on “The curious incident of the US Office of International Religious Freedom denouncing blasphemy laws

  1. Pat

    You have some very good points but along with the atheists, he also left out the Jews which one would think are particularly hogh on his radar. He may have chosen his examples based on relative frequency and both groups were left out.

    The rest of your observations are very interesting though.

    1. Indi Post author

      I would imagine the reason he didn’t include any examples with Jewish victims is because there aren’t any. Can you think of a single instance in recent history of a Jewish person being victimized by a blasphemy law? (Note: It’s not hard to find instances of Jewish people being victimized… just not by blasphemy laws.)

      By contrast, there are *dozens* of cases of atheists being victimized by blasphemy laws. By relative frequency, atheists would probably be far and away at the top of the list. In fact, many of the highest-profile cases have been atheists, from Alexander Aan to Amos Yee, which makes their absence in Saperstein’s list so striking.

  2. Bubba Kincaid

    Good catch Indi.

    But again, I have to take issue with people constantly chalking these kinds of “oversights” to just more cases of blithe stupidity. It’s too easy, let’s people off the hook in a certain way, and taking that view really amounts to facilitation.

    For how long are we going to apologize for acts and omissions by the invocation of honest mistakes by morons? Must we continually shill for cynical intent?

    After all, probably more often that not, these “oversights” and “omissions” are not mere blunders by fools, but the culmination of conscious systems of thought and willful predications.

    Knowing that 16/18 came original from the OIC and Pakistan, now it probably makes sense why it doesn’t explicitly offer any protection to lack of religion or belief. </q

    And I noticed that you didn't afford the same implicit pardon to the OIC and Pakistan. This is where double-standards are born.

    There is nothing that says the current invocation of such violence (and laws passed to support it) is anything more than proof that in locations of extreme tumult, it becomes exceedingly easy for discombobulated people to foment large crowds of even more discombobulated people into slavering mobs of blood frothed criminal butchers.

    1. Indi Post author

      > And I noticed that you didn’t afford the same implicit pardon to the OIC and Pakistan.

      I didn’t pardon anyone, implicitly or otherwise.

      I would *love* to see Saperstein forced to explain the glaring omission of any mention of any of the many, many unbelievers who have suffered because of blasphemy laws. Even *if* the omission was entirely “blithe stupidity” (which I don’t really believe), he would still deserve a slap on the wrist for “forgetting” such a frequently victimized demographic. He’s the freaking head of the Office if International Religious Freedom; he should *not* be “forgetting” about nonbelievers and their need for freedom too.

      (I also note he didn’t mention the highest-profile blasphemy case of them all: Raif Badawi. Perhaps because the culprit in that case is Saudi Arabia?)

  3. Bubba Kincaid


    My point was simply that, though I agree that politeness may dictate that we be forced to assume blithe ignorance as opposed to willful neglect/intent, even such concluding as result of certain lines of reasoning and predispositions, we should not forget that it is just that, politeness.

  4. Bubba Kincaid

    Muslimfest in Mississauga yesterday. These are the people we are supposed to treat like human garbage.



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