Is blasphemy a crime today?

Blasphemy, or the act of insulting or showing contempt for God or sacred things, has been considered a crime for centuries in many cultures and religions. However, attitudes towards blasphemy laws have shifted dramatically in modern times. While dozens of countries still have anti-blasphemy laws on the books, enforcement has declined sharply. Today, there are active debates around the world about whether blasphemy should still be considered a crime.

What is blasphemy?

Blasphemy is defined as irreverence or insult toward a religion or religious beliefs, sacred objects, or revered figures such as prophets or gods. Examples of blasphemy include:

  • Insulting or mocking religious scriptures, texts, or doctrines
  • Desecrating religious sites, relics, or images
  • Criticizing or questioning core tenets of a religion
  • Depicting revered religious figures inappropriately

Essentially, blasphemy involves showing disrespect for the sacred within a religious tradition. The concept arises from the idea that certain aspects of religion demand reverence. Thus, to insult or mock these revered things is considered a grave sin or crime in some faiths.

Which religions have blasphemy laws?

Historically, prohibitions against blasphemy have appeared in all major world religions. They were especially prominent in monotheistic faiths that believed in one god.


For centuries, Christian nations viewed blasphemy as a serious offense. During the medieval era, sayings or acts considered blasphemous were punishable by death. The crime was considered both a sin against God and an act that could undermine social order and morality. While enforcement declined after the Enlightenment, some places retained laws against blasphemy into the 20th century.


Jewish law has long forbidden blasphemy and irreverence toward Yahweh, the sacred name of God. According to the Torah, those who “blaspheme the name of the Lord” were to be executed. Today, there are no criminal blasphemy laws in Israel, although insulting religion may result in a civil suit for damages.


Blasphemy, termed taẓkiya in Arabic, is considered a hudud crime under classical Sharia law, meaning it is seen as a sin against God. Punishments traditionally included fines, imprisonment, flogging, and in some cases execution, though interpretations varied. Most Muslim nations today have anti-blasphemy statutes of some kind.


Early Hindu law books list blasphemy against Brahman, the universal divine essence, as a sin. Traditional punishments included cutting out the blasphemer’s tongue. Today, India still has blasphemy laws that have occasionally been applied against those seen as insulting Hinduism.


While Buddhism has no specific prohibition against blasphemy, some Buddhist-majority countries like Thailand have laws against insulting religion. Punishments have historically included fines or imprisonment.

Where are blasphemy laws still enforced today?

While blasphemy laws have been repealed across most of Europe and the Americas, they are still on the books and actively enforced in dozens of nations around the world:


Pakistan enforces some of the strictest blasphemy laws globally. Over a dozen offenses are punishable by life imprisonment or death. Laws are frequently used to persecute religious minorities and others.


Iran’s constitution prohibits insults against Islam and legally recognizes only a narrow band of religious freedom. Critics of Islam have been imprisoned, flogged, and executed under blasphemy laws.


Blasphemy is outlawed in Egypt under prohibitions against insulting a “heavenly” religion. In recent years, these laws have been enforced through internet monitoring and mass arrests.


Although relatively secular, Indonesia criminalizes blasphemy and heresy against legally recognized religions. Over 150 people, mostly religious minorities, were convicted between 2004-2014.


Russia’s anti-blasphemy laws make it illegal to insult religious beliefs and desecrate holy texts or objects. Enforcement ramped up in recent years, with prison terms becoming common.


Section 295A of India’s colonial-era penal code outlaws “outraging religious feelings.” It remains enforceable by fines and imprisonment. Critics argue it restricts free speech about religion.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia applies Sharia law, which equates blasphemy and apostasy with treason punishable by death. Accused blasphemers face public beheading.

Country Blasphemy Law Details
Pakistan Up to death penalty
Iran Flogging, imprisonment, execution
Egypt Up to 5 years imprisonment

Decline of blasphemy laws in the West

Christian nations were the first to begin decriminalizing blasphemy, beginning in the 18th century with the Enlightenment push toward secular government. By the 20th century, the U.S. and most European states had abolished religious blasphemy laws through legal reform.

Several factors led to this reversal in much of the West:

  • Separation of church and state – As secular governance and religious freedom took root, laws enforcing religious doctrines were seen as obsolete.
  • Defense of free speech – Blasphemy laws came to be viewed as impediment to the right of free speech about religion.
  • Declining religiosity – As populations became less religious, the perceived need to protect sacred beliefs eroded.
  • Rise of pluralism – With religious diversity, it became problematic to protect traditional beliefs while allowing debate.

The last Western nations to overturn national blasphemy laws include Malta (2016), Denmark (2017), Canada (2018), New Zealand (2019), and Greece (2019). However, some places like Germany and Poland retain them but rarely enforce them in practice.

Controversies over Islamic blasphemy laws

In recent decades, Islamic nations have faced growing controversies over the application of blasphemy laws:

Persecution of minorities

Laws are often disproportionately enforced against religious minorities like Christians and Ahmadi Muslims. Critics argue this amounts to religious discrimination and persecution.

Constraints on religious freedom

Punishing questioning or criticism of Islam is seen by human rights advocates as constraining freedom of thought and belief about religion.

Conflicts with free speech norms

Global free speech advocates argue blasphemy laws restrict the open debate necessary in inclusive democracies, regardless of causing offense.

Abuse for personal gain

In places like Pakistan, charges are sometimes misused to settle personal vendettas and disputes completely unrelated to blasphemy.

Role in fostering extremism

Some experts believe blasphemy laws foster a climate of religious intolerance that allows extremism to thrive. Mob violence is often unleashed against accused blasphemers.

These tensions around Islamic blasphemy laws have fueled an active reformist movement in some Muslim nations. Human rights groups globally also actively campaign for the worldwide repeal of blasphemy laws as incompatible with modern legal norms.

Recent blasphemy controversies and calls for reform

Debates around blasphemy laws continue to flare up across the world as dissenting voices and religious minorities challenge their legitimacy. Recent controversies include:

Asia Bibi case in Pakistan

Bibi, a Christian woman, was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 and sentenced to death. She spent 9 years on death row before Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted her in 2019, sparking massive protests from Islamist groups. The case focused global attention on abuses of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Charlie Hebdo shooting in France

In 2015, Al-Qaeda linked gunmen massacred staff at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in retaliation for the publication’s frequent caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. The attack highlighted tensions around depictions of Islamic figures.

Jakarta governor conviction in Indonesia

In 2017, the Christian governor of Jakarta was convicted of blasphemy against Islam and given a two-year prison sentence. Many saw the charges as politically motivated to block his re-election, signaling a growing religious intolerance.

European Court of Human Rights rulings

In 2018, the court ruled that Austria’s criminal conviction of a woman for calling Muhammad a pedophile violated her free speech rights. However, it also stated religious sensibilities justify some anti-blasphemy laws.

Samuel Paty murder in France

In 2020, a French teacher was beheaded near Paris after showing cartoons of Muhammad in a class on free speech. The murder by an Islamic extremist underscored tensions around secularism, religious expression, and terrorism in France.

Current status of blasphemy laws worldwide

According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2021 report, over 70 countries worldwide still criminalize blasphemy. These nations include:

– 21 countries in the Middle East and North Africa
– 17 countries in the Asia-Pacific region
– 19 countries in Europe and Eurasia
– 9 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa
– 5 countries in the Americas

However, there are vast differences in how such laws are applied in practice. Roughly one quarter of the countries actively enforce them with imprisonment, fines, or corporal punishment. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran impose the harshest penalties. Other nations no longer enforce decades-old statutes that remain on the books. The most intense enforcement occurs in the Muslim-majority countries.

Arguments for and against blasphemy laws

Here are some of the key points raised on both sides of the debate around blasphemy laws in the 21st century:

Arguments in Support

  • Protect religious sensibilities – They prevent gratuitous insult to revered figures or beliefs.
  • Uphold public order – They discourage incitement and maintain harmony between groups.
  • Reflect community standards – They codify boundaries of acceptable speech based on local norms.
  • Allow freedom of religion – They facilitate religious freedom by creating an environment where beliefs are not denigrated.

Arguments in Opposition

  • Violate free speech – They infringe on individual rights to freely express opinions on religion.
  • Promote intolerance – They foster climates of religious repression and extremism.
  • Lead to abuse – They are easily exploited to persecute minorities and settle personal grievances.
  • Incompatible with secularism – State policing of sacrilege violates principles of separation between religion and government.

There are good faith reasons offered on both sides of this complex debate. Those who support retaining blasphemy laws place protecting divine sanctity and social harmony as the priority. Opponents emphasize individual liberties, abuses of power, and modern legal norms as reasons for repeal.


The key takeaways regarding blasphemy and blasphemy laws today are:

– Blasphemy remains a religious crime in dozens of states, mostly with Muslim majorities. A handful enforce harsh punishments.

– However, such laws have been abolished across most of the West. Tensions around Islamic blasphemy laws specifically exist worldwide.

– Controversies continue to erupt around enforcement against minorities and dissenters. Critics view the laws as repressive and prone to abuse.

– There are substantive arguments on both sides – for facilitating religious sensibilities, and against infringing liberties.

– Blasphemy laws ultimately represent a conflict between traditional religious prohibitions and modern secular rights. Ongoing reform efforts reflect pressures to resolve this tension.

The status of blasphemy as a crime remains in flux globally. As societies continue debating boundaries between protected religious beliefs and individual freedoms, the future of anti-blasphemy laws worldwide hangs in the balance. But the prevailing momentum favors reform and repeal.

Leave a Comment