In today’s dictionary, blasphemy is defined as: “the act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things; profane talk.” This article will discuss and consider the inexplicit conclusions drawn by religious laws on the African continent. Aided by records made by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the article aims to conclude that many of the religious laws still practiced and implemented on the African continent should be reconsidered and in some cases even dismissed.
There is a very complex relationship between the laws of religion and the human rights law of freedom of expression or opinion. Evidentially, violating a law of religion gives rise to a violation of a law of freedom of expression. According to USCIRF, both laws are internationally recognized as being ‘human rights.’ Nevertheless, this complex relationship between the human right laws of religion and the human right laws of freedom of expression or opinion has been shown to manifest in some of the most unsavory ways on the African continent. Even in today’s society, there are religious laws present in many African countries, which are used instrumentally to suppress and silence populations from being able to exercise their human right of freedom of expression, belief, and opinion.
This article will consider three African countries – South Africa, Sudan, and Mauritania – in relation to their government and constitutional approach towards religious laws. The main aim here is to educate, emphasize, and highlight the social effects and implications that these laws have on the citizens of these nations’ abilities to express and honor the practices of their beliefs and conviction.
According to USCIRF’s 2019 survey findings, laws prevalent in African countries that restrict religious freedom as well as freedom of expression or opinion are as follows: “at least 9 countries have apostasy laws, at least 25 criminalize blasphemy, and at least 29 have laws against hate speech”(Bagga, et al. 1).
Following off of USCIRF’s observations and findings, it should be emphasized that the problem with blasphemy laws and all other laws that restrict religious freedom is not only that they infringe upon the human right for freedom of expression, but also, in many of the cases recorded about the African countries where these laws are practiced and heavily implemented, these laws tend to be flawed and problematic. One such problem, for example, is blasphemy laws being discriminatory and overly subjective towards the states’ own religious preference. Secondly, given the general progression and development of societies worldwide since the time when most of these laws were first passed, for some of these African countries, the defining parameters of their religious laws no longer fit with the countries’ new progressive constitution. As a result, these laws should be rendered as inconsistent and an enemy of the countries’ progress.
South Africa is a good example of this. 26 years after the ending of Apartheid, South Africa still maintains its conflicting blasphemy law. In South Africa, blasphemy is a common law criminal offense defined as: “unlawfully, intentionally and publicly acting contemptuously towards God”. Given that these laws are subjectively based on the Christian religion, the God in reference is necessarily the Christian God, as the law was first passed under the old South Africa that was characterized by apartheid and European colonialism.
In 1962, South African-born Israeli visual artist and jazz clarinetist named Harold Rubin was prosecuted for his artwork, titled “My Jesus,” which he presented at a closed competition on religious art in South Africa. The artwork became a source of high controversy as it led to a blasphemy charge by South African authorities. The provocative artwork consisted of the crucifixion in which Jesus Christ appeared as a nude black figure with the head of monster. In a 2008 interview with The Jerusalem Post, Rubin opened up about the artwork and the lengthy trial which followed and ultimately resulted in him fleeing to Israel: “It was a picture of Jesus which had just a hint of an erection. The writing on the painting said: ‘I forgive you O Lord, for you know not what you do.’ That was just at the time when the apartheid authorities were getting very strict about Christianity and religion.” (Davis) Although Rubin was exonerated for the blasphemy charge, his final act of protest against the restrictively oppressive constitution was by fleeing the country to Israel, where he was able to make a new life for himself in Tel Aviv.
South Africa’s blasphemy law characterizes the stark contrast between the old apartheid South Africa and the new post-apartheid South Africa that came about in 1994 as a Constitutional democracy with a Bill of Rights as part of its Constitution. In today’s South Africa, many activists have argued against South Africa’s criminal law approach towards blasphemy, by raising the valid argument that, in modern day South Africa, continuing the implementation of blasphemy laws under the same stipulation as it was under the apartheid regime, is in fact unconstitutional in relation to the fact that South Africa has long since then progressed into a Constitutional democracy with a Bill of Rights as part of its Constitution. Under the new South Africa, implementation of these blasphemy laws should be considered as being illegitimate because the laws are discriminatory on religious grounds as they are subjectively enforced in favor of the Christian religion. Discrimination on religious grounds is a violation recognized by South Africa’s constitution as highlighted in its Bill of Rights. This puts the present day South African government and leading party officials into question, why continue to maintain blasphemy laws that are now peripheral and inconsistent with the countries new constitutional democratic identity?
An excerpt from South Africa’s Bill of Rights, implemented in 1994:
(1) This Bill of Rights is a cornerstone of democracy in South Africa. It enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom.
(2) The state must respect, protect, promote and fulfill the rights in the Bill of Rights. (“The Bill Of Rights”. Concourt.org.za)
Another issue for South Africa maintaining its old blasphemy law is the inconsistency present in the fact that implementing the blasphemy law in the new South Africa also violates the rule stipulated in its Bill of Rights that makes freedom of speech a lawful right in South Africa. This is a primary example of where we see the complex intertwining relationship between laws of religion and laws of free speech/opinion/expression. For South Africa, such a complication should mean reconsidering its notion of maintaining its current blasphemy law or at the very least restructuring the definition of it. Still, I would impose the argument that blasphemy laws hardly are a fit in a country like South Africa. South Africa characterizes itself by its democracy and liberation, while in most cases blasphemy laws can only impede upon the liberated and democratic ideology that South Africa has aimed at enforcing since the 1994 fall of the apartheid regime. Evidentially, blasphemy laws tend not to encompass the most democratic agendas and objectives and they can in most cases be used as an instrument to limit a variety of religious expression and human rights. These laws violate and conflict human rights and their passing should be reconsidered.
The second African country to be considered in relation to its intimations for freedom of religious expression and belief is Sudan (Bagga, et al. 12). The way in which blasphemy laws are practiced and implemented in Sudan are too a much harsher degree than that of South Africa. In Sudan, religious laws fundamentally aim towards averting any potential for its necessarily Muslim population to convert or attempt to convert (someone) from the country’s dominant religion of Islam, to any other religion or spiritual belief.
USCIRF stipulates that according to Article 126 of Sudan’s harsh Penal Code, any attempt by Muslims made at converting or adopting a religion other than Islam is a criminal offence punishable by the death penalty (Bagga, et al. 31). The law does still however allow room to appeal for the lesser sentence of imprisonment rather than having to suffer the death penalty However, this provision is only granted upon the exception that the offender expresses sincere remorse and commits to Islam.
What’s more is that in Sudan tensions are raised even further by the enforcement of societal justice by religious vigilante groups. These religious vigilante groups are comprised of violent and fanatic citizens who take it upon themselves to make certain that the consequences of not abiding by the country’s religious laws are manifested harshly and violently. Inevitably such groups are able to instrumentalize the country’s religious laws to their favor to inflict violence against any minority religious groups (Bagga, et al. 12). These challenges pose as further obstacles that make it very difficult and dangerous for the small minority of any Sudanese individuals who wish to, or are religiously committed to any faith or spiritual belief other than the Islam religion. Inevitably this has resulted in the silencing of any minority religious groups in Sudan.
The story of Sudanese female journalist named Marwa Al Tijani, showcases an example of Sudanese government attempts at enforcing its religious laws. Marwa Al Tijani’s writings and publications sparked controversy and attracted government attention, they were considered to be violations to the Sudanese state’s religious laws because, they were said to express and discuss topics and ideas framed around a concept of renunciation of the Islamic faith and religion. However, the Sudanese state practiced at certain degree of leniency in its implementation of its law this time. According to USCIRF, Marwa Al Tijani was declared mentally unfit to stand trial and the charges against her were dismissed (Bagga, et al. 12).
Another case that received media attention and was recorded by USCIRF, was the 2017 case of the male student named Mohamed Salih Al Dsogi, attempted to change his religious identity from Muslim to ‘not religious’ (Bagga, et al. 12). The story made headlines as the male student was seen as challenging Sudan’s Article 126. The trial once again ended in a dismissal in court, with the male student being declared mentally unfit to stand trial.
Finally, records and statistics produced by USCIRF, show that Mauritania ranks as number 1 in the world for having the harshest and most severe laws against blasphemy. The African country known to practice the harshest blasphemy laws by far is Mauritania. USCIRF notes the harshness of these laws as being as follows; there is no provision for the potential of repentance, if a person is found guilty of committing blasphemy. The offense is criminalized and punishable only by the death penalty (Bagga, et al. 37). Furthermore, the law also extends its punishment of the death penalty towards Muslims who continually fail to partake in performing prayers.
USCIRF also records the case of Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkheytir is a Mauritanian blogger whose case received global media attention and sparked universal outcry towards the Mauritanian government(Bagga, et al. 16). Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkheytir was convicted in 2014 for violating the Mauritanian blasphemy laws. According to USCIRF, the conviction came as a result of an article written by him that addressed the issue of religious discrimination and race issues in Sudan. Sudanese government officials claimed that the article expressed criticism towards the Islamic prophet Mohammed. Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkheytir was sentenced to death. Despite the death penalty charges being dropped, according to USCIRF, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkheytir still remains in a detention center where he is incarcerated at an unknown location with little to no contact with the outside world (Bagga, et al. 16).
In conclusion, religious laws practiced in African countries inexplicitly draw towards anti-progression conclusions for the continent and should be reconsidered. Many of these laws are problematic insofar as the fact that they are inconsistent with modern constitutions. The maintaining of these laws in African countries acts as an enemy of progress for the African continent. Furthermore, in many cases these laws are harsh, inhuman, and a violation of human rights.
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Davis, Barry. “A Mainstream Embrace”. The Jerusalem Post | Jpost.Com, 2008, www.jpost.com/Arts-and-Culture/Music/A-mainstream-embrace-94458. Accessed 26 Apr 2020.
“Harold Rubin”. En.Wikipedia.Org, 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Rubin. Accessed 30 Mar 2020.
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“Mauritania: Quash Blogger Mkhaitir’S Death Sentence”. Human Rights Watch, 2017, www.hrw.org/news/2017/11/07/mauritania-quash-blogger-mkhaitirs-death-sentence. Accessed 31March 2020.
Morgan, Scott. “International Religious Freedom Commission Reports On Apostasy, Blasphemy, And Hate Speech In Africa – Juicy Ecumenism”. Juicy Ecumenism, 2020, juicyecumenism.com/2020/02/04/international-religious-freedom-commission-reports-on-apostasy-blasphemy-and-hate-speech-in-africa/. Accessed 31 Mar 2020.
Refugees, United. “Refworld | Sudan: Protesters Describe Torture By Security Officers”. Refworld, www.refworld.org/docid/4d75d3b15.html. Accessed 30 Mar 2020.
“South Africa – End Blasphemy Laws”. End Blasphemy Laws, end-blasphemy-laws.org/countries/africa-sub-saharan/south-africa/. Accessed 31 Mar 2020.
“The Bill Of Rights”. Concourt.Org.Za, www.concourt.org.za/index.php/constitution/your-rights/the-bill-of-rights. Accessed 30 Mar 2020.
van Rooyen, Jacobus C.W. “Dignity, Religion And Freedom Of Expression In South Africa”. Scielo.Org.Za, www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222011000100051. Accessed 31 Mar 2020.
Mbali Hlubi is a senior foreign exchange student at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, United States. Her home country is South Africa, where she studies at Rhodes University. She is currently completing her postgraduate studies and is an English major with a minor in Philosophy. She finds interest in music, public speaking, literature, and creative visual art.