Blasphemy in a secular state: some reflections
Fikre, Belachew Mekuria
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Anti-blasphemy laws have endured criticism in light of the modern, secular and democratic state system of our time. For example, Ethiopia’s criminal law provisions on blasphemous utterances, as well as on outrage to religious peace and feeling, have been maintained unaltered since they were enacted in 1957. However, the shift observed within the international human rights discourse tends to consider anti-blasphemy laws as going against freedom of expression. The recent Human Rights Committee General Comment No. 34 calls for a restrictive application of these laws for the full realisation of many of the rights within the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Secularism and human rights perspectives envisage legal protection to the believer and not the belief. Lessons can be drawn from the legal framework of defamation which considers injuries to the person rather than to institutions or to the impersonal sacred truth. It is argued that secular states can ‘promote reverence at the public level for private feelings’ through well-recognised laws of defamation and prohibition of hate speech rather than laws of blasphemy. This relocates the role of the state to its proper perspective in the context of its role in promoting interfaith dialogue, harmony and tolerance.