Saturday, August 8, 2020

Shining a light on blasphemy laws

Thursday, Senator Lankford of Oklahoma requested the Senate call “for the global repeal of blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws” by agreeing to S.Res. 458.

From the Congressional Record:
Mr. LANKFORD. Mr. President, thousands of radical Islamists rallied on Friday in Northwestern Pakistan in support of a man who earlier this week walked into a courtroom in the city of Peshawar and gunned down a U.S. citizen on trial for blasphemy.

That is how the New York Times started its article on this issue last week. The American, Tahir Naseem, died of his wounds before he could be taken to the hospital while the gunman was taken into custody.

The U.S. State Department said Naseem was standing trial after being lured to Pakistan from his home in Illinois. He was entrapped by the country's controversial blasphemy law, which international rights groups have sought to have repealed.

The blasphemy law calls for the death penalty for anyone found guilty of insulting Islam, but, in Pakistan, the mere allegation of blasphemy can cause mobs to riot and vigilantes to kill those who have been accused.

Pakistani officials said Naseem was charged with blasphemy after he declared himself to be Islam's prophet. That was the accusation that was laid against him.

At the rally in Peshawar, which was in support of the person who murdered the American citizen, the demonstrators carried signs that praised the murderer for the killing and called for his immediate release from jail. They said he killed Naseem because the government was too slow in prosecuting blasphemy cases.

Last December—8 months ago—I filed a resolution to speak with a unified voice on what I considered to be a nonpartisan issue—a simple statement from this Congress condemning blasphemy laws across the world wherever they exist.

We are a nation that stands for the ability of every individual to choose any faith, to change one's faith, or for one to have no faith at all. That is a basic human right.

Yet, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, 84 countries—more than one-third of the world's countries—have a blasphemy law on the books, including in Pakistan, where an American citizen was murdered last week under an accusation of blasphemy.

This resolution that I filed 8 months ago with the Foreign Affairs Committee has already moved in the House. The House Foreign Affairs Committee worked through the process of this resolution in March of this year and passed it unanimously. It was sponsored by Democrat Jamie Raskin and had the support of multiple Democrats on the Foreign Affairs Committee. It was overwhelmingly moved while this resolution—a mere eight pages—has sat, unmoved, for 8 months.

Senator Lankford asked unanimous consent for the Senate to agree to his resolution “Calling for the global repeal of blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Menendez objected citing “foreign interference in our elections” as a higher priority.
Now, I don't want to undermine the importance of the issue that Senator Lankford is trying to address. Around the world, we see autocratic rulers imposing blasphemy laws as a way of targeting the freedom of religion and speech of those who enjoy that or should enjoy that freedom of religion and speech. His resolution rightly condemns blasphemy laws for violating international human rights standards, and it raises serious concerns.

I believe addressing blasphemy laws and standing up for the freedom of religion and the protection of religious minorities is urgent and warrants much further attention from both the Committee on Foreign Relations and of this body as a whole.

I urge Senator Lankford to work with Chairman Risch to schedule a legislative markup so that this resolution, as well as other important initiatives, can be considered under regular order because, when his resolution or others are before it, there is an opportunity to amend them, to augment them, and to include other issues, even within the context of the issue of religious freedom.

Full Senate floor debate

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