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The politics of blasphemy: Why Pakistan and some other Muslim countries are passing new blasphemy laws

Ahmet T. Kuru, Professor of Political Science, San Diego State University, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

On Jan. 17, 2023, Pakistan’s National Assembly unanimously voted to expand the country’s laws on blasphemy, which carries the death penalty for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The new law now extends the punishment to those deemed to have insulted the prophet’s companions, which could include thousands of early Muslims, with 10 years in prison or life imprisonment.

Human rights activists are concerned that the expanded laws could target minorities, particularly Shiite Muslims who are critical of many leading early Muslims.

Pakistan has the world’s second-strictest blasphemy laws after Iran. About 1,500 Pakistanis have been charged with blasphemy over the past three decades. In a case covered by the international media, Junaid Hafeez, a university lecturer, was sentenced to death on the charge of insulting the prophet on Facebook in 2019. His sentence has been under appeal.

Although no executions have ever taken place, extrajudicial killings related to blasphemy have occurred in Pakistan. Since 1990, more than 70 people have been murdered by mobs and vigilantes over allegations of insulting Islam.

My research shows that blasphemy laws historically emerged to serve the political and religious authorities, and they continue to have a role in silencing dissent in many Muslim countries.

Of the 71 countries that criminalize blasphemy, 32 are majority Muslim. Punishment and enforcement of these laws vary.


Blasphemy is punishable by death in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania and Saudi Arabia. Among non-Muslim-majority countries, the harshest blasphemy laws are in Italy, where the maximum penalty is two years in prison.

Half of the world’s 49 Muslim-majority countries have additional laws banning apostasy, meaning people may be punished for leaving Islam. All countries with apostasy laws are Muslim-majority. Apostasy is often charged along with blasphemy.

Laws on apostasy are quite popular in some Muslim countries. According to a 2013 Pew survey, about 75% of respondents in Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia favor making sharia, or Islamic law, the official law of the land. Among those who support sharia, around 25% in Southeast Asia, 50% in the Middle East and North Africa and 75% in South Asia say they support “executing those who leave Islam” – that is, they support laws punishing apostasy with death.

My 2019 book “Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment” traces the roots of blasphemy and apostasy laws in the Muslim world back to a historic alliance between Islamic scholars and government.


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