Commonwealth countries are much more likely than other countries to have laws against blasphemy or apostasy. That’s the conclusion of new research by Humanists UK, ahead of a debate in the House of Commons today on blasphemy laws in the Commonwealth. Humanists UK has called on Commonwealth countries to repeal their blasphemy laws, as has happened over the past decade in Jamaica, Malta, New Zealand, Canada and Scotland.
45% of countries in the world criminalize blasphemy, 7% have the death penalty and 27% prison sentences. But among Commonwealth countries, these figures are 59%, 9% and 38% respectively.
Among the countries of the former British Empire, the figures are even worse: 73% criminalize blasphemy, 14% have the death penalty and 48% have prison sentences.
The numbers for the Commonwealth and the British Empire are worse than any other major recent empires:
Another way to look at the statistics is that while a third of the countries today were part of the British Empire, 70% of the countries with the death penalty for blasphemy were part of the British Empire. The same is true for 60% of countries that have prison sentences for blasphemy.
Humanists UK campaigns for Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) around the world, particularly for non-religious people facing persecution. In many countries, it is impossible to be openly non-religious. Laws that criminalize blasphemy and apostasy are often the source of such persecution – for example, in the case of Mubarak Bala, president of the Nigerian Humanist Association, who was recently sentenced to 24 years in prison for blasphemy. Repealing these laws is therefore a vital step in ensuring FoRB for all.
Humanists UK briefed members of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, and others, ahead of the debate in the House of Commons.
Humanists UK chief executive Andrew Copson said:
“The widespread prevalence of blasphemy and apostasy laws in Commonwealth states is one of the many dark shadows of the empire. We hope Commonwealth states will repeal these laws wherever they have them, following the progressive example set over the past decade by Jamaica, Malta, New Zealand, Canada and Scotland.
Humanists Barbados founder Maachelle Farley said the statistics are a wake-up call for Commonwealth countries (like Barbados) that still have blasphemy laws. She says:
“When it comes to countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where blasphemy laws are used to persecute minorities and suppress women’s rights, leaders across the Commonwealth have a duty to drive reform of the home and remove these obsolete and unnecessary offenses from the law.
“The UK was a source of blasphemy laws in the Commonwealth, and now most of the UK has abolished them. We in Barbados and across the Commonwealth should do the same.
Learn more about blasphemy laws in the Commonwealth
13 countries in the world apply the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy. Five are in the Commonwealth, and another four are formerly part of the British Empire, leaving only four who were neither. The five Commonwealth countries are Brunei, Malaysia, Maldives, Nigeria and Pakistan. All note that serious violations of freedom of religion or belief occur regularly, including against non-religious people. In the former British Empire, this is also the case in Qatar, Somalia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Sudan recently repealed the death penalty for apostasy, although it still carries a prison sentence.
Some of the Commonwealth countries have blasphemy laws that date back to the Victorian era, or long-standing common law offences. An example is South Africa, which has restrictions below prison. These laws are a legacy of British colonization of other parts of the world. Humanists UK does not draw comparisons to other ancient empires to praise those empires – whether it is the horrific mass murders of the atheist Soviet Union, or the Spanish Empire in Latin America, or the sometimes violently anticlerical history of France. But it seems that the scale of the problem in the Commonwealth is a legacy of the British Empire and the attitudes of British elites at the time.
As for the UK itself, Northern Ireland is now the last part of the UK to have blasphemy laws on the books – although they haven’t been used for a very long time. . But countries that often use their blasphemy laws frequently refer to these “dead letter” laws in the West as justifying their own behavior. Humanists in Northern Ireland have therefore worked for the repeal of the laws of Northern Ireland and enjoy wide political support for this. It is hoped that the laws will be repealed soon after the executive and assembly resume.
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK’s Director of Public Affairs and Policy, Richy Thompson, at [email protected] or by telephone on 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.
Read our briefing ahead of today’s debate in Parliament.
By “recent major empires” we mean recent empires that exercised control over more than 20 countries. Other recent empires involved ten countries or less, and therefore the overall figures can be heavily influenced by the laws of each country.
Learn more about our international work.
Humanists UK is a member of the Campaign to End Blasphemy Lawsfounded by Humanists International.
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