Pakistan is a Muslim country with harsh blasphemy laws. In 1986, during the military rule of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, it became a capital offence for anyone to insult the prophet Mohammed. Government officials who opposed the nation’s blasphemy laws have been assassinated. Late last year, a Christian woman in Pakistan, Aasiya Noreen, who had been convicted of blasphemy by a Pakistani court in 2010, was acquitted on the basis of insufficient evidence, although she was not allowed to leave the country. She had been arrested and imprisoned in 2009, and sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 after being imprisoned for more than a year without being charged. Her death sentence provoked international outrage from governments and human-rights groups around the world, and generated extensive media coverage. Her acquittal was marked by protests and acts of violence in the major cities of Pakistan. The three Pakistani Supreme Court justices who acquitted Noreen, as well as her lawyer, received death threats.
Pakistan is not alone. According to the 2017 report “Respecting Rights? Measuring the World’s Blasphemy Laws,” compiled by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), “71 of the world’s 195 countries have blasphemy laws” with penalties for violating these laws ranging “from fines to imprisonment and death.”
The USCIRF is “an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) that monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad.” The USCIRF “uses international standards to monitor violations of religious freedom or belief abroad and makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress.” The commission’s report “examines and compares the content of laws prohibiting blasphemy (‘blasphemy laws’) worldwide through the lens of international and human rights law principles.” The laws examined “prohibit or criminalize the expression of opinions deemed ‘blasphemous,’ or counter to majority views or religious belief systems, and many impose serious, often criminal, penalties.”
According to the report’s introduction,
- Blasphemy laws are astonishingly widespread.
- Every one of the blasphemy statutes deviates from at least one internationally recognized human-rights principle.
- All five nations with blasphemy laws that deviate the most from international human-rights principles maintain an official state religion.
- Most blasphemy laws studied were vaguely worded, as many failed to specify intent as part of the violation.
- Most blasphemy laws were embedded in the criminal codes and 86 percent of states with blasphemy laws prescribed imprisonment for convicted offenders.
The list of countries with blasphemy laws is shocking. Not only does it include Muslim countries like Pakistan that one would expect — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia, and Kuwait — but also counties that one would never expect — Germany, Greece, Israel, Finland, Switzerland, and Canada. The ten countries whose prohibitions on blasphemy run most counter to international-law principles are Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Qatar, Egypt, Italy, Algeria, Comoros, and Malta. The ten countries whose prohibitions on blasphemy are most adherent to international-law principles are Ireland, Spain, the Philippines, Guyana, St. Lucia, Grenada, Vanuatu, Brazil, Canada, and Tunisia. But, of course, that these countries have blasphemy laws of some sort is a bad thing.
In November of last year, a new Android app was launched in Indonesia that allows users, including government officials, to report “deviant” religious ideas. Although Indonesia officially recognizes six religions — Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism — it still has a blasphemy law that makes it illegal to promote any other religion, including atheism. The punishment for violating the law can be as many as five years in prison. According to Human Rights Watch, “125 people were convicted of blasphemy in Indonesia between 2004 and 2014 and 23 additional people have been convicted since 2014.”
In addition to blasphemy laws, some countries also have religious-conversion and apostasy laws. Those laws penalize changing one’s religion or seeking to persuade someone else to change and renounce his religion. According to a recent USCIRF “Fact Sheet” on conversion laws, “Many laws related to conversion contain harsh penalties, including death sentences. In some states, there are significant civil implications for changing religions, resulting in legal consequences related to marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance.”
That a fourth of the world’s countries in the twenty-first century still have blasphemy laws seems incredible to Americans. That is because if there is one thing America is universally known for, it is its heritage of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. The only explicit reference to religion in the original seven articles of the Constitution is found in Article VI, paragraph 3:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
And then there is the most well-known part of the Constitution, the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Every individual in every country should have both the freedom to believe the tenets of and practice his religion as he sees fit and the freedom to blaspheme any religion or deity or all of them — as long as he doesn’t violate the personal or property rights of others while doing so.
Such was not always the case in the United States. Colonial America had its share of blasphemy laws. In the “Massachusetts Body of Liberties” (1641), there are several capital offenses listed, including blasphemy:
If any man after legall conviction shall have or worship any other god, but the lord god, he shall be put to death.
If any man or woeman be a witch (that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit,) They shall be put to death.
If any person shall Blaspheme the name of god, the father, Son, or Holie ghost, with direct, expresse, presumptuous, or high handed blasphemie, or shall curse god in the like manner, he shall be put to death.
And then there is the colony of Maryland. According to the “Maryland Toleration Act” (1649),
… that whatsoever Person or Persons within this Province and the Islands thereto Belonging shall from henceforth Blaspheme God that is Curse him or deny our Saviour Jesus Christ to be the Son of God or shall deny the holy Trinity the Father Son and Holy Ghost or the Godhead of any of the said three Persons of the Trinity or the unity of the Godhead or shall use or utter any reproachful speeches, words or Language Concerning the said holy Trinity or any of the said three Persons thereof shall be punished with death & Confiscation or Forfeiture of all his or her lands and Goods to the Lord Proprietary and his heirs….
Blasphemy laws in Colonial America were not just religious in nature. The Sedition Act of 1798 — passed just a few years after the adoption of the Constitution — made it illegal to
write, print, utter, or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered, or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute….
Violators could be punished “by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.”
Blasphemy laws are still on the books in some states, although they are not enforced.
According to a recent USCIRF “Fact Sheet” on blasphemy laws,
- Blasphemy laws violate freedom of religion or belief.
- Blasphemy laws violate freedom of expression.
- Blasphemy laws promote intolerance and discrimination against minorities.
- Blasphemy laws are often misused.
- Blasphemy laws are frequently vague and overbroad.
Those are good points, and the USCIRF goes on to explain them well. But there is one major problem with blasphemy laws that the USCIRF never mentions in its fact sheets, on its website, in its op-eds, in its press releases, or in its report on the world’s blasphemy laws: Blasphemy laws are laws that punish the commission of a victimless crime.
Every crime needs a real victim — not a potential victim or a possible victim, but rather a tangible and identifiable victim who has suffered measurable harm to his person or measurable damages to his property. There should be, as far as the law is concerned, no such things as nebulous crimes against religion, nature, society, humanity, civilization, the greater good, the public interest, or the state. Having bad habits, exercising poor judgment, engaging in risky behavior, participating in dangerous activities, holding erroneous opinions, performing immoral actions, and committing vices are not, in and of themselves, crimes. It is on this latter point that the 19th-century classical-liberal political philosopher Lysander Spooner so eloquently explained,
Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property. Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another. Vices are simply the errors which a man makes in his search after his own happiness. Unlike crimes, they imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their persons or property.
Unless this clear distinction between vices and crimes be made and recognized by the laws, there can be on earth no such thing as individual right, liberty, or property — no such things as the right of one man to the control of his own person and property, and the corresponding and coequal rights of another man to the control of his own person and property.
Vices may be immoral, they may be addictive, they may be ruinous, they may be foolish, and they may be sinful, but crimes they are not. Only actions that cause harm to others or their property without their consent should be crimes. What is unjust, immoral, and unethical should not necessarily be criminal.
Prosecuting Americans for committing victimless crimes not only turns vices into crimes, it unnecessarily makes criminals out of otherwise law-abiding Americans; is an illegitimate function of government; criminalizes voluntary, consensual, peaceful activity; costs far more than any of its supposed benefits; does violence to individual liberty and private property; and is incompatible with a free society.
That does not mean that certain victimless crimes are not immoral, sinful, unethical, or dangerous. It does not mean that any or all victimless crimes are wholesome, good, healthy, or noble. It does not mean that some victimless crimes don’t have any negative consequences. Adultery is generally viewed as immoral, but few want it to be against the law to commit adultery. Smoking cigarettes leads to all kinds of health issues, but few want it to be against the law to smoke a cigarette in the privacy of one’s home. Divorce has negative consequences for children, but few want it to be against the law to get a divorce. So why do so many people want to criminalize victimless crimes such as drug use, prostitution, and price gouging?
Committing victimless crimes may be addictive, unhealthy, unwise, risky, irresponsible, injurious, dangerous, immoral, ruinous, sinful, or just plain stupid, but it is not for the government to decide what risks people should be permitted to take and what kinds of behaviors they should be allowed to engage in — as long as their actions are peaceful, private, voluntary, and consensual; and as long as those who freely and willingly participate in such acts are not harming or violating the personal or property rights of nonparticipants.
Victimless crimes take many forms. Here are twelve real-world examples.
Possessing illegal drugs is a victimless crime. If one owns his own body, then he has the right to put any substance he wants into his body, from marijuana to fentanyl and anything between. It is not the proper role of government to prohibit, regulate, restrict, or otherwise control what a man desires to eat, drink, smoke, inject, absorb, snort, sniff, inhale, swallow, or otherwise ingest into his mouth, nose, veins, or lungs.
Working without a license is a victimless crime. Why is it that some Americans must get permission from the government to open a business, engage in commerce, work in certain occupations, have a particular vocation, or provide a service to willing customers? Since when is it the business of government to forbid or permit people to exercise what should be their natural right to make a living? Since when is it the business of government to forbid or permit people to freely contract with other people to provide them services?
Prostitution is a victimless crime. People who support laws against prostitution do not generally support laws against fornication and adultery. But why does the introduction of money suddenly turn fornication and adultery into criminal offenses? If it is legal for a woman to provide free sexual services as often as she wants and to as many people as she wants, then how can it be illegal for her to charge for her services? How can something that is legal to give away be illegal if one charges for it?
Selling a kidney is a victimless crime. If an individual owns his own body, then he likewise owns all of the organs in his body. If you can’t do what you wish with your own body without the government’s permission, then you don’t own your own body; the government does. Overseeing the procurement of bodily organs is an unconstitutional and illegitimate function of government that could be handled entirely and more efficiently by the private sector on the free market.
Gambling is a victimless crime. It may be addictive, foolish, wasteful, and financially ruinous, but what someone does with his own money is his own business, not the government’s business. Everyone should have the freedom to do what he wishes with his own money, including waste it, burn it, give it away, hide it under a mattress, squander it, or gamble it away.
Ticket scalping is a victimless crime. Ticket scalpers are middlemen and entrepreneurs who perform a valuable service. What could possibly be wrong with an exchange of tickets for cash between a willing buyer and a willing seller, as long as their activity does not violate the property rights of the owner of the ground where they make their exchange?
Price gouging is a victimless crime. Price-gouging laws are predicated on the fallacy that there is a just price for every good and service, and even more so during bad weather or some government-declared state of emergency. But price gouging is simply charging market prices for goods that are in high demand and short supply. Natural dis-asters don’t negate economic laws. Price-gouging laws also grossly violate property rights.
Discrimination in hiring, selling, membership, or renting is a victimless crime. Discrimination is not aggression, force, violence, or threat. No one has the right to any particular job, hotel room, club membership, house, or apartment. Anti-discrimination and public accommodations laws are an illegitimate function of government and an unconstitutional expansion of federal power that infringes upon property rights, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, free
enterprise, and freedom of contract. To outlaw discrimination is to outlaw freedom of thought.
Usury is a victimless crime. It is the borrower who should be deciding what rate of interest is too high, not the government. But there is no right to borrow money at a particular rate of interest. If the borrower doesn’t like the rate of interest offered to him by the lender, then he can choose not to borrow any money from that lender and go somewhere else. But how can a willing lender and a willing borrower freely agreeing on an interest rate possibly be committing a crime?
Drinking alcohol as a legal adult who has not reached the age of 21 is a victimless crime. Any American who has reached the age of 18 can get married, enter into contracts, vote in elections, and join the military. He is also legally responsible for all of his actions. It makes no sense at all that he cannot purchase and drink alcoholic beverages.
Doing business on Sunday is a victimless crime. In many states, cities, and counties, it is illegal to sell automobiles or alcohol on Sunday. But if a business owns or controls its own property, then the business alone should determine what days of the week it will be open for business.
None of that is to say that these illegal actions are equal in nature, but they do all have one thing in common: they are crimes in search of victims.
Murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide, lynching, torture, rape, robbery, burglary, theft, larceny, shoplifting, embezzlement, assault, battery, child abuse, looting, rioting, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and arson are real crimes that merit various degrees of punishment or imprisonment. But only persons who initiate violence or aggression against someone else should ever be incarcerated, and no one should ever be arrested or fined for committing a victimless crime. And certainly not for blasphemy. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my legs.”
This article was originally published in the March 2019 edition of Future of Freedom.