Commonwealth countries are much more likely than other countries to have laws against blasphemy or apostasy. That is the finding of new research carried out by Humanists UK, ahead of a debate happening today in the House of Commons on blasphemy laws in the Commonwealth. Humanists UK has called for Commonwealth countries to repeal their blasphemy laws, as has happened over the last decade in Jamaica, Malta, New Zealand, Canada, and Scotland.
45% of countries in the world criminalise blasphemy, with 7% having the death penalty and a further 27% having prison sentences. But among Commonwealth countries, those figures are 59%, 9%, and 38%, respectively.
Among former British Empire countries, the figures are even worse: 69% criminalise blasphemy, with 13% having the death penalty, and a further 46% having prison sentences.
The Commonwealth and British Empire figures are worse than all other recent major empires:
Another way of looking at the statistics is that while a third of countries today were part of the British Empire, 69% of countries with the death penalty for blasphemy were part of the British Empire. So were 60% of countries with jail 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 criminalise blasphemy and apostasy are often the source of such persecution – for example, in the case of Mubarak Bala, President of the Nigerian Humanist Association, recently sentenced to 24 years in prison for blasphemy. The repeal of such laws is therefore a vital step in guaranteeing FoRB for all.
Humanists UK has briefed members of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, and others, ahead of the Commons debate.
Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:
‘The widespread prevalence of laws against blasphemy and apostasy in Commonwealth states is one of the many long dark shadows of empire. We hope Commonwealth states repeal such laws wherever they have them, following the progressive example set over the last decade by Jamaica, Malta, New Zealand, Canada, and Scotland.’
Humanists Barbados founder Maachelle Farley said these statistics were a wake-up call for Commonwealth countries (like Barbados) that still have blasphemy laws on the books. She said:
‘Looking to countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where blasphemy laws are used to persecute minorities and suppress women’s rights, leaders right across the Commonwealth have a duty to drive home reform and strike these outdated, unnecessary offences 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.’
More about blasphemy laws in the Commonwealth
13 countries around the world have the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy. Five are in the Commonwealth, and four more are formerly part of the British Empire, leaving just four that were neither. The five in the Commonwealth are Brunei, Malaysia, the Maldives, Nigeria, and Pakistan. All see serious violations of freedom of religion or belief happening on a regular basis, including against the non-religious. In the former British Empire, this is also the case in Qatar, Somalia, the UAE, and Yemen. Sudan recently repealed the death penalty for apostasy, although it still carries a jail sentence.
Some of the Commonwealth countries have blasphemy laws that date back to the Victorian era, or longstanding common law offences. An example is South Africa, which has restrictions falling short of prison. These laws are a legacy of the UK’s colonisation of other parts of the world. Humanists UK is not making the comparisons with other former empires to praise those empires – whether that means the horrific mass murders of the atheist Soviet Union, or of the Spanish Empire in Latin America, or France’s at times violently anti-clerical history. But it does seem to be the case that the scale of the problem in the Commonwealth is a legacy of the British Empire, and the attitudes of elites in the UK at the time.
In terms of the UK itself, Northern Ireland is now the last part of the UK to have blasphemy laws on the books – albeit not used in a very long time. But countries that do often use their blasphemy laws do frequently point to such ‘dead letter’ laws in the West as justifying their own behaviour. Northern Ireland Humanists has therefore been working for the repeal of Northern Ireland’s laws, and has wide political support for this. It is hoped that the laws will be repealed not long after the resumption of the Executive and Assembly.
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 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 exerted control over more than 20 countries. Other recent Empires involved ten or fewer countries, and therefore the overall figures can be influenced a lot by individual countries’ laws.
Read more about our international work.
Humanists UK is a member of the End Blasphemy Laws Campaign, founded by Humanists International.
Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.