What Drives Blasphemy Charges in the Middle East? (It's Not Just Religion)

Cartoon in support of Jabeur Mejri, by Fey

Cartoon in support of Jabeur Mejri, by Fey

Mauritanian blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed was sentenced to death by firing squad on December 24, 2014, for an online article he published over a year ago. This is Mauritania's first death sentence for apostasy since independence in 1960.

In the article entitled “Religion, religiosity and craftsmen,” Cheikh criticised his country’s discriminatory caste system, linking it to what he identified as similar practices from the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad. But he was accused of insulting the prophet. 

“[Cheikh’s case] is merely an attempt to muzzle anyone who questions a system based on oppression by using religion as an instrument,” tweeted Mauritanian anti-slavery and racism activist Saidou Wane.

The 28-year-old man appears to be yet another victim of a repressive government in a majority Muslim country that deploys “apostasy” and “blasphemy” pretexts to crack down on those who call for reforms or speak out on political issues. By sentencing Mohamed Cheikh to death, Mauritanian authorities claim that it is Islam or Prophet Muhammad that they are trying to protect. But it is more likely that this punishment will serve only to protect the ruling regime from further political criticism.

Commenting on Cheikh's case, journalist Brian Whitaker, author of the book Arabs Without God, writes that religion has become a “political weapon” in Mauritania: 

The strange thing about laws against apostasy and blasphemy is that most of the people who fall foul of them are neither apostates nor intentional blasphemers. In practice these laws have very little to do with theology and are mostly used as a pretext for settling political scores or pursuing personal grudges.

Using religion as “a pretext for settling political scores”
Whitaker indeed points to a broader trend across the Arab world. Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, which differ widely both politically and culturally, have seen similar cases in recent years.

Under a theocratic system of government, like that of Saudi Arabia, the lines that separate the religious from the political are blurred. As a result, those who question the status quo or criticize the authorities can face serious accusations on religious (not political) grounds.

How does a regime get rid of political opponents and critics in countries where religion plays an important role in the lives of the majority? One way is to throw them in jail and say they insulted Islam and its Prophet. That way (almost) no one will come to their rescue.

Raif Badawi campaign image by Amnesty International.

Raif Badawi campaign image by Amnesty International.

Last spring, Saudi Arabia sentenced blogger Raif Badawi to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes for “insulting Islam” after he launched Saudi Liberals, a website hosting content critical of the country’s senior religious figures and its religious police. The site did not focus on Islam per se, but rather on specific political and religious figures and their actions. Nevertheless, Badawi was convicted of “insulting Islam.”

Saudi women's rights activist Souad al-Shammari posted tweets critical of her country’s male guardianship system, whereby a woman must have the permission of a male guardian to engage in various aspects of her life such as travel, work, and marriage. She stands accused of mocking religious texts and religious scholars.

In Tunisia, which does not have laws that criminalize blasphemy or apostasy, Internet users Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji were sentenced in 2012 to seven and half years in prison over the publication of Prophet Muhammad cartoons on the web. It is worth noting that Mejri and Beji were ordinary Internet users — they were not political activists. 

Beji was spared imprisonment as he fled the country before his arrest. However, Mejri spent two years in prison before he was released earlier this year when the former interim President Moncef Marzouki pardoned him. 

“Blasphemy is not a crime. Freedom of choice is very clear in the Quran; it says ‘let there be no compulsion in religion,’” Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist Ennahdha Movement in Tunisia, said at an event in Washington D.C. in June 2013.

But Ghannouchi made this statement in Washington D.C. — not in Tunisia. Why didn’t Ghannouchi say “blasphemy is a not a crime” when Mejri was thrown in jail or when his party proposed a law to criminalize “insults to the Sacred”? Along with self-proclaimed Tunisian seculars’ and ‘leftists, Ghannouchi did not speak out in favor of Mejri’s release for fear of a backlash from a conservative population and turning away potential voters.

What does the Quran say about blasphemy?
These governments also seem to ignore the fact that while Islam does not encourage blasphemy, it does tolerate it. In fact, the Quran does not prescribe a punishment for it.

Prophet Muhammad and his early followers faced persecution and ill-treatment by their contemporaries, including insults, mockery and defamation. But the Quran instructed them to be patient and simply turn away from blasphemous conversations, rather than to condemn them. 

…And you will surely hear from….those who associate much abuse with Allah. But if you are patient and fear Allah – indeed, that is the matter [worthy] of determination. [chapter 3, verse 186]

And when you see those who engage in [offensive] discourse concerning Our verses, then turn away from them until they enter into another discourse. [chapter 6, verse 68]

It is the same for apostasy. The Quran does not prescribe any worldly punishment for those who decide to convert from Islam to another religion or no religion at all. “Let there be no compulsion in religion” and “the truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve,” the Quran states.

It seems clear in the Quran that apostasy and blasphemy do not require punishments such as the death penalty or lashing — yet authorities in countries like Mauritania, Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to do the opposite. It seems the motive is more rooted in politics than religion.

“Arab rulers act as if Islam is in danger…maybe they are afraid of the collapse of their thrones,” Tunisian blogger Khaoula Frehcichi wrote in a blog post. “They know very well that criticising the religious institution is the first step to unsettle their regimes.”


  • Steve

    “The Quran does not prescribe any worldly punishment for those who decide to convert from Islam to another religion or no religion at all.”

    The author is lying. In Islam this is called taqiyya which is lying and deception to further Islam. The quoted passages are from the early rose colored Koran that the apologists want you to believe is their gospel. The fact is these early passages have been superseded by the later and more violent Koran which does proscribe death for apostasy. Superseding of an earlier passage by a later contradictory passage is called abrogation in Islam. Basically, later passages on a subject trump earlier ones and this is how Islam resolves contradictions in its holy book. In addition to the Koran, there are many Hadith’s which proscribe death for apostasy. The Hadith’s are descriptions of the prophets actions written down by contemporary eye witnesses and are, like the Koran, the law in Islam. Please note the distinct lack of mention of abrogation and the Hadith’s in this article (and any others) written by the Islamic apologists that are meant for western eyes.

    Qur’an (4:89) – They wish that you should disbelieve as they disbelieve, and then you would be equal; therefore take not to yourselves friends of them, until they emigrate in the way of God; then, if they turn their backs, take them, and slay them wherever you find them; take not to yourselves any one of them as friend or helper.

    • Afef Abrougui

      Hi Steve,

      Thanks for your comment. I expected to get a similar comment. I actually thought about addressing this issue in the article, but I did not want to overload the article with much details.

      Now to your comment, what you just did is exactly what some extremist groups like ISIS do. They quote a verse, without taking into consideration the context, and use it to brainwash youth who lack the proper religious education.

      Yes the Quran has verses on fighting, but it did not instruct early Muslims to fight those who renounce their religion or those who do not believe. It instructed them to fight those who fought and persecuted them (that is in self defense).

      ‘Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress’,

      And concerning the verse you just quoted, if you kept on reading, the next verse says the following at the end:

      ‘So if they remove themselves from you and do not fight you and offer you peace, then Allah has not made for you a cause [for fighting] against them.’

      As for abrogation, not all Islamic scholars endorse it. Others think it is relative and limited to few verses.

      But even if I’m going to accept your abrogation argument, the trend when it comes to ‘apostasy’ or ‘disbelief’ did not change from earlier verses. Chapter 109 (this is one of the latest chapters, the Quran has 114 chapters) is clear on this:

      “Say, “O disbelievers, I do not worship what you worship. Nor are you worshippers of what I worship. Nor will I be a worshipper of what you worship. Nor will you be worshippers of what I worship. For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.”

      Concerning the hadith, which yes I made the decision not to quote them here, because again I did not want to overload the article with details, I suggest you read this article: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/05/islam-saudi-apostasy-201458142128717473.html

      The author argues that the Hadith about the death penalty is not ‘about apostasy in the strict sense of no longer believing in Islam per se. Rather, it is about what can be considered in modern terms political treason.’

      And during the lifetime of the Prophet, a man converted to Islam before he decided to leave the religion. No punitive measures were taken against him.

      The bottom line is, to read the Quranic verses without taking into account the historical context is a folly, and this exactly what extremist groups are doing.

    • OH

      So if they remove themselves from you and do not fight you and offer you peace, then Allah has not made for you a cause [for fighting] against them. Right? Right.
      My god man. You come in here and announce that the author is lying. But you have not said anything about the subject of the article, at all!

    • Kevin Schmidt

      Yeah! We don’t want any stinkin’ rose colored Korans trying to outshine our holier than thou black colored Bibles.

  • columbare1

    These religious fanatics are just that fanatics who should not be listened to , as all they seem to be teaching is intolerance for any who do not conform to their particular brand of religion

  • OH

    I’m for religious persecution of the worthless rich, based on Luke 16:24. If I was the king, I would definitely charge the worthless rich on religious charges, rather than on treason, bribery, theft, sabotage, and other charges. Why NOT bring some religion into the legal system.

  • Hard Little Machine

    I’m not sure it’s relevant to assert that YOUR interpretation of Islam is such and such and the crazies’ interpretation is misguided. They dont think it’s misguided.

  • smipypr

    With no central authority in Islam, policy can be set by individuals. Just as in mainline Protestantism, there is no single source for theological and philosophical guidance. While I certainly do not advocate a regime such as the in the Roman(see, they’re divided, too) Catholic, wherein the Pope is at the top, and the Curia actually runs the Church. Even with a single figure at the top, the Catholic church has had leadership/membership trouble in the past, and this will likely continue. While all religious texts are open to interpretation, the sects within Islam are inherently at odds, often resulting in open, and violent, opposition. Each side regards itself as the rational; there is often little room for discussion. Religious freedom isn’t the problem, necessarily; the problem is trying to run a government without a secular, civic, basis. The great philosopher, Emo Phillips, did a wonderful bit about two people, meeting on a bridge. As they discussed each others’ religious affiliation, they were very similar, until one was thrown off the bridge, after the other determined him a heretic. Funny enough on stage; no way to govern a large number of people.

  • Nicko Thime

    The word blasphemy should disappear from human consciousness right along with the religious fanatics who created it.
    One man’s blasphemy is another’s truth and truth will never come from religion.

  • Chris Herz

    Just wait until the American religious right, the last part of the electorate which gives the oligarchy a free pass, acquires full control. We will show these ridiculous Muslims how theocracy should be managed!

    • Kevin Schmidt

      The Christians have committed more atrocities in the past than all other religions combined. It’s no different this time around. The Christian US Military have already killed over one million people since 2000 in their various wars OF terror. Yet a couple Muslims in France are supposedly the real terrorists.

  • Rdzkz

    Well get real muslims: all this is done by the Saud family controlling YOUR Holy lands of Mecca and Medina, they sell out to the americans to try to get Iraq, they have the Said bros and so many other young ones of yours dying because of of THEIR setup so they can steal your petro-wealth. And you do not see it? Bet the Prophet [PBUH} could see through these guys immediately. Out of the global populations, nearly 1/4 people is a muslim and the welathy royals have convicned you are a minority and so poor at that! Ding-dong, it is because they do not share, or only with the like of Pres Bush who kill their own americans for no good reason –but the good ol/petrol black. remember who invited all those infidels into YOUR homes?

  • Kevin Schmidt

    In the US, we get rid of political adversaries of the Democratic-Republican DUHopoly Party, Inc., with well orchestrated smear campaigns.
    Whistle blowers are also political adversaries. They are gotten rid of by charging them with revealing secret information for whistle blowing. Or they get fired or demoted for poor work performance.

  • […] What Drives Blasphemy Charges in the Middle East? (It’s Not Just Religion), Afef Abrougui […]

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