Author:Boston, Rob

Laws That Punish People For Criticizing Religion Are Collapsing. But In Some Countries, Saying Negative Things About Faith Can Endanger Your Life.

An Indonesian woman finds herself enmeshed in a particularly cruel legal dilemma: She has been accused of blasphemy on the basis of an offhand remark about the volume of a local mosque's call to prayer.

The woman, Meiliana, is a Buddhist who, like many people in Indonesia, goes by just one name. As a religious minority in a country that is about 87 percent Muslim, Meiliana had always found her rights respected. That changed after a neighbor in her community of Tanjung Balai reported to authorities that Meiliana had complained about the volume of a mosque's speakers and said she'd like to see it lowered. Meiliana disputed that, claiming that she had merely remarked that the volume seemed louder than in the past; she says she made no request that it be turned down.

Nevertheless, Meiliana was hauled before a court, tried and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Her lawyer told Al Jazeera last year that Meiliana is inconsolable.

"She's surprised that her case ever went to trial," the lawyer, Sibarani, said.

Meiliana's case features some unusual facts. But her situation is not uncommon. In some parts of the Muslim world, allegations of blasphemy are on the upswing.

The trend may be fueled in part by the global reach of social media. In the past, critics of religion relied on magazines or newsletters to spread their views. The reach of such publications was limited. Today, anyone with a computer can upload a YouTube video, send a tweet or make a Facebook posting. And that's getting some people in trouble.

In 2017, a 30-year-old Pakistani man named Taimoor Raza was sentenced to death for blasphemy on the basis of a Facebook posting. Raza, a member of Pakistan's Shiite Muslim minority, got into a religious argument on Facebook with a man who turned out to be a counter-terrorism official. During the discussion, Raza was accused of "derogatory acts against the prophet Muhammad."

A Christian woman in Pakistan, Asia Bibi, was tried for blasphemy last year after allegations that she had insulted Muhammad. Bibi, who was imprisoned for eight years during legal proceedings, was acquitted but has had to go into hiding. In November, The Guardian reported that extremists were going "house to house" to search for Bibi, and that they are determined to kill her.

In 2015, Ashraf Fayadh, a poet of Palestinian origin, was accused of insulting Muhammad and spreading atheism in Saudi Arabia. Fayadh was sentenced to death, but the sentence was later reduced to eight years of imprisonment and 800 lashes.

Westerners sometimes look at such laws as relics or evidence of religious zealotry. While there may be some truth to that, it's also the case that blasphemy laws have a long lineage in Europe and America. It's only recently that some have begun to fall and in other nations they're actually being enforced.

In Ireland, residents voted decisively to remove blasphemy as a criminal offense from the country's constitution in an Oct. 27 referendum. The vote effectively repealed a provision found in Article 40 of the Irish Constitution which stated, "The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law." In the referendum, nearly 65 percent of the voters backed removing the word "bias phemous" from the provision.

"[T]here is no room for a provision such as this in our Constitution," Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan told The Irish Times after the vote. "Ireland is rightly proud of our reputation as a modern, liberal society. The world has watched in recent years as we have taken landmark decisions as a people to change our constitution with regard to some of the deepest personal matters when we voted Yes to marriage equality and to repealing the Eighth Amendment." (The Eighth...

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