Blasphemy laws on the books in one-third of nations: study

Protesters hold placards condemning the killing of university student Mashal Khan, after he was accused of blasphemy, during a protest in Islamabad, Pakistan April 18, 2017

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Laws prohibiting blasphemy are “astonishingly widespread” worldwide, with many laying down disproportionate punishments ranging from prison sentences to lashings or the death penalty, the lead author of a report on blasphemy said.

Iran, Pakistan, and Yemen score worst, topping a list of 71 countries with laws criminalizing views deemed blasphemous, found in all regions, according to a comprehensive report issued this month by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The bipartisan U.S. federal commission called for repeal of blasphemy statutes, saying they invited abuse and failed to protect freedoms of religion and expression.

“We found key patterns. All deviate from freedom of speech principles in some way, all have a vague formulation, with different interpretations,” Joelle Fiss, the Swiss-based lead author of the report told Reuters.

The ranking is based on how a state’s ban on blasphemy or criminalizing of it contravenes international law principles.

Ireland and Spain had the “best scores”, as their laws order a fine, according to the report which said many European states have blasphemy laws that are rarely invoked.

Some 86 percent of states with blasphemy laws prescribe imprisonment for convicted offenders, it said.

Proportionality of punishment was a key criteria for the researchers.

“That is why Iran and Pakistan are the two highest countries because they explicitly have the death penalty in their law,” Fiss said, referring to their laws which enforce the death penalty for insulting the Prophet Mohammad.

Blasphemy laws can be misused by authorities to repress minorities, the report said, citing Pakistan and Egypt, and can serve as a pretext for religious extremists to foment hate.

Recent high-profile blasphemy cases include Jakarta’s former Christian governor being sentenced to two years in jail in May for insulting Islam, a ruling which activists and U.N. experts condemned as unfair and politicized. Critics fear the ruling will embolden hardline Islamist forces to challenge secularism in Indonesia.

A Pakistani court sentenced a man to death last month who allegedly committed blasphemy on Facebook, the first time the penalty was given for that crime on social media in Muslim-majority Pakistan.

“Each of the top five countries with the highest scoring laws has an official state religion,” the report said, referring to Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Somali and Qatar. All have Islam as their state religion.

Saudi Arabia, where flogging and amputations have been reported for alleged blasphemy, is not among the top “highest-risk countries”, but only 12th, as punishment is not defined in the blasphemy law itself.

“They don’t have a written penal law, but rely on judges’ interpretation of the Sharia. The score was disproportionately low,” Fiss said. “If a law is very vague, it means prosecutors and judges have a lot of discretion to interpret.”

 

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Toby Chopra)

 

Malaysian state introduces public caning for sharia crimes

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – A Malaysian state amended its Islamic laws on Wednesday to allow public canings, sparking criticism that the change was unconstitutional and could infringe on the rights of religious minorities.

Ethnic Malay Muslims make up more than 60 percent of Malaysia’s 32 million people and attempts to implement stricter forms of sharia law in recent years have raised concerns among members of the ethnic Chinese, Indian and other minorities.

The new law was approved in the state assembly of Kelantan, which is governed by a conservative Islamist party, PAS, and where nightclubs and cinemas are banned.

The northeastern state has been pushing for the adoption of a strict Islamic penal code, called ‘hudud’, that would provide for punishments such as stoning for adultery and amputations for theft.

The amendment allowing public caning was passed as part of an effort to streamline sentencing under Islamic criminal law, Kelantan deputy chief minister Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah was quoted as saying by the Bernama state news agency.

“Caning can now be carried out inside or outside of prison, depending on the court’s decision,” Mohd Amar said, according to Bernama.

“This is in line with the religion, which requires that sentencing must be done in public.”

He did not say exactly what crimes would be punished by caning but the list would likely include adultery.

Islamic law is implemented in all Malaysian states but is restricted to family issues such as divorce and inheritance, as well as sharia crimes involving Muslims, such as consuming alcohol and adultery.

Criminal cases are handled by federal law.

Ti Lian Ker, a member of the Malaysian Chinese Association, part of the ruling coalition, said public canings were unconstitutional under federal criminal law.

“This is a rewriting of our legal system and spells a bleak future for the nation,” he said in a statement.

Last year, the PAS introduced a bill that would expand the powers of sharia courts and incorporate parts of hudud into the existing legal system.

The bill is expected to be debated in parliament when it reconvenes later this month.

Critics of the bill say the implementation of hudud could infringe on the rights of religious minorities and disrupt the fabric of Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Praveen Menon and Robert Birsel)

Protesters rally against Islamic law in dozens of U.S. cities

People hold signs while participating in an event called "March Against Sharia" in New York City, U.S.

By David DeKok and Tom James

HARRISBURG, Pa./SEATTLE (Reuters) – Protesters held rallies across the United States on Saturday to denounce sharia law, the Islamic legal and moral code that organizers say poses a threat to American freedoms, but critics believe anti-Muslim hatred is behind the condemnation.

ACT for America, a self-described grassroots organization focusing on national security, staged rallies in New York, Chicago, Boston, Denver and Seattle, as well as many smaller cities. Hundreds of people pledged on social media to attend an event that ACT billed as “March against Sharia.”

On the steps of the Pennsylvania state capitol in Harrisburg, barricades and a heavy police presence, including officers mounted on horses, separated about 60 anti-sharia demonstrators from an equal number of counter-protesters. Many of the latter were dressed in black masks and hoods and chanting “No Trump, no KKK, no Fascist USA.”

The atmosphere was tense but the protest went off with no violence and only one arrest, police said.

More than a dozen men belonging to the anti-government Oath Keepers were on hand, invited by ACT to provide security. Most of them carried handguns.

Chris Achey, 47, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, said he did not hate Muslims but believes that much of Islam is incompatible with Western culture.

“The Constitution is the law of the land,” he said. “We have to be careful with who we let in the country.”

Anti-sharia protesters scuffle with counter demonstrators and members of the Minnesota State Patrol at the state capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota,

Anti-sharia protesters scuffle with counter demonstrators and members of the Minnesota State Patrol at the state capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S. June 10, 2017. REUTERS/Adam Bettcher

On its website, ACT described sharia, which covers many aspects of Muslim life including religious obligations and financial dealings, as incompatible with human rights. It said sharia justifies the oppression of women and homosexuality, and advocates female genital mutilation.

But critics say the organization vilifies Muslims and has repeatedly equated Islam with extremism. In their view, the rallies are part of a wave of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment fueled by President Donald Trump, who called for a ban on Muslims entering the country during his election campaign.

Molly Freiburg, 33, of Philadelphia, was one of the counter-protesters but not part of the larger group clad in black.

“America is not in danger from sharia law,” she said. “This manifestation at the Capitol is actually a way to make our Muslim neighbors feel uncomfortable.”

A representative for ACT for America could not be reached for comment.

In Seattle, about 75 anti-sharia protesters were outnumbered by counter-protesters at a rally that was moved from Portland, Oregon. Tensions are running high in Portland after a man yelling religious and racial slurs at two teenage girls on a commuter train fatally stabbed two men who tried to stop him.

Talbot Sleater, a 62-year-old construction foreman, said that the Seattle protest was the first of the kind that he had attended. A Briton who moved to the United States, he said he had decided to go after recent attacks in his home country.

“People are being run over in the street with trucks and little kids are being blown up,” Sleater said, referring to recent attacks in London and Manchester. “I don’t want that to happen here.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the country’s largest Muslim advocacy group, urged Americans to participate in one of several local educational events being organized in “a peaceful challenge to Saturday’s hate rallies.”

It also warned Muslims to take extra precautions against potential violence over the weekend.

Anti-Muslim incidents rose 57 percent last year, including a 44 percent jump in anti-Islamic hate crimes, CAIR said in a report released in early May.

Oath Keepers said on its website that it was “answering the call to defend free speech against those who would use terrorist violence or the threat of violence to shut it down.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center says Oath Keepers is “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the United States,” organized around a “set of baseless conspiracy theories.”

Refuse Fascism, a coalition of activists advocating confrontational tactics to oppose what it calls the Trump “regime,” said it would show up at the rallies “to counter the xenophobic hatred and lies, defy intimidation and drown it out.”

(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Frank McGurty in New York; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Mary Milliken and Chizu Nomiyama)

Thousands rally in Malaysia to back Islamic penal code bill

Man walks past Malaysia billboard at airport

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Malaysians rallied in the capital on Saturday to support the adoption of a strict Islamic penal code, a proposal religious minorities fear could infringe their rights.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has thrown his weight behind the contentious bill, which seeks to incorporate parts of the Islamic penal code, or “hudud”, into Malaysia’s existing Islamic legal system.

Najib, who is currently embroiled in a corruption scandal, is hoping to burnish his Islamic credentials in order to boost his chances in national elections that must be held by August 2018.

Critics of the bill warn that it could pave the way for full implementation of hudud, which prescribes punishments such as amputations and stoning, and disrupt the fabric of Malaysia’s multi-cultural and multi-religious society.

“The so-called ’empowerment’ of the Shariah Court will only exacerbate the unequal treatment of Muslims and non-Muslims before the law,” said Bebas, an NGO that organized a smaller counter-rally.

No official figures were available on how many people attended Saturday’s peaceful support rally in Kuala Lumpur, but estimates were in the tens of thousands.

Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, deputy president of the hardline Islamist opposition Parti Islam-se Malaysia (PAS), one of its organizers, said 100,000 people were expected to attend.

The PAS presented the bill in parliament last year but later withdrew it in order to fine tune the legislation. It is now expected to be reintroduced in the next parliamentary session, in March.

Najib, who has resisted calls to resign over a scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), where he was an adviser, backed the bill despite the anger of members of his own United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) ruling coalition.

Lawsuits filed by the U.S. Justice Department in July last year said nearly $700 million of the misappropriated funds from 1MDB flowed into the accounts of “Malaysian Official 1”, who U.S. and Malaysian officials have identified as Najib.

Najib has denied any wrongdoing.

Presidents of three parties representing the Chinese and Indian ethnic groups in Najib’s ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition have threatened to quit their cabinet posts if the bill passes.

For decades, PAS has been pushing for Malaysia to adopt hudud in the northeastern state of Kelantan that is governed by the party, arguing that it is the responsibility of the country’s Malay-Muslim majority to support Islamic law.

Criminal cases are currently handled by federal law in Malaysia, where Malay Muslims account for more than 60 percent of the 30 million population.

The Shariah courts come under the jurisdiction of each state and are limited to family law covering issues such as divorce and inheritance.

Supporters of the legal reform said Saturday’s rally also aimed to allay the fears of minority groups.

Ismail Borhan, 33, an engineer who attended the rally, said the objective of the bill was to allow commensurate action that can act as a deterrent to wrongdoing.

“Those opposed to the bill have a lack of understanding and exposure (to Islam), simply opposing for the sake of opposing,” he said.

(Reporting by Joseph Sipalan; Writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Helen Popper)

Islamic State: Dhaka Cafe slaughter a glimpse of what’s coming

Policemen sneak a look inside the Holey Artisan Bakery and the O'Kitchen Restaurant as others inspect the site after gunmen

By Ruma Paul

DHAKA (Reuters) – Islamic State has warned of repeated attacks in Bangladesh and beyond until rule by sharia, Islamic law, is established, saying in a video last week’s killing of 20 people in a Dhaka cafe was merely a glimpse of what is to come.

Five Bangladesh militants, most from wealthy, liberal families, stormed the upmarket restaurant on Friday and murdered customers, the majority of them foreigners, from Italy, Japan, India and the United States, before they were gunned down.

“What you witnessed in Bangladesh … was a glimpse. This will repeat, repeat and repeat until you lose and we win and the sharia is established throughout the world,” said a man identified as Bangladeshi fighter Abu Issa al-Bengali, in the video monitored by SITE intelligence site.

Bangladesh has rejected the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for the Friday attack and blamed it on a domestic militant group.

It was one of the deadliest attacks in Bangladesh, where Islamic State and al Qaeda have claimed a series of killings of liberals and members of religious minorities in the past year. The government has also dismissed those claims.

The IS video began with pictures of recent attacks in Paris, Brussels and Orlando in the United States that the Middle East-based militants have claimed.

The fighter in the video, who spoke in both Bengali and English, said Bangladesh must know that it was now part of a bigger battlefield to establish the cross-border “caliphate” the group proclaimed in 2014.

“I want to tell the rulers of Bangladesh that the jihad you see today is not the same that you knew in the past,” he said from a busy street in the militant group’s de facto capital of Raqqa, in Syria.

“The jihad that is waged today is a jihad under the shade of the Caliphate.”

Though Bangladesh has rejected the IS claim of responsibility for Friday’s attack, police said they were stepping up security in response to the video threat.

“We are taking this issue seriously. All our concerned units are working tirelessly,” said deputy police inspector general Shahidur Rahman.

Police believe the domestic Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State, played a significant role in organizing the band of privileged, educated young men who carried out the attack.

Police have said they are hunting for six members of the group suspected to have helped the attackers.

But foreign security experts say the scale and sophistication of the attack on the Holey Artisan bakery cafe pointed to some level of guidance from international militant groups.

Officials in Dhaka said on Tuesday police commandos had mistakenly shot dead a restaurant chef during the operation to end the siege.

H.T. Imam, a political adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, also said security officials had seen online warnings about an impending attack on Friday and ordered major hotels and restaurants in the neighborhood of the cafe shut.

But they missed the actual target, he said.

(Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Latest Boko Haram attack in Niger Forces thousands to flee

Nigerian refugees and other people displaced by the Boko Haram insurgence stand in queues after arriving in Nigeria, at Geidam, Nigeria

By Nellie Peyton

DAKAR (Reuters) – An estimated 50,000 people have fled Boko Haram attacks in southeast Niger since Friday, the U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday, adding to a humanitarian crisis caused by the spread of violence in the region.

The Islamist group first took the town of Bosso near the Nigerian border on Friday in an attack in which 30 soldiers from Niger and two from Nigeria were killed. It was the deadliest assault in Niger by Boko Haram since April 2015.

A UNHCR statement said on Tuesday that civilians fleeing Bosso are mainly walking toward Toumour, about 30 km (18 miles) to the west. Some are continuing on to the town of Diffa and north toward Kabelawa, where a camp for the refugees is already near capacity with 10,000 people.

They are part of a growing crisis in the Diffa region near lake Chad, where Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, and Niger meet and where Boko Haram has conducted more than 30 attacks this year, according to the United Nations.

In May, the Niger government estimated that there were more than 240,000 displaced people in the region.

“The welfare of these people and others forced to flee the violence in Bosso is of great concern,” UNHCR said. “Insecurity and lack of access have long hampered humanitarian operations in parts of the Diffa region, though Bosso is the only area where we do not implement projects directly.”

Clashes have continued in Bosso in recent days as both sides seek to retain control of the town. Niger troops briefly regained control of Bosso on Saturday morning, according to the defense ministry, but the militants retook it on Sunday night, Bosso Mayor Mamadou Bako said.

Reuters was unable to independently verify who had control of the town on Tuesday.

Boko Haram has been trying to establish an Islamic state adhering to strict Sharia law in northeast Nigeria since 2009. About 2.1 million people have been displaced and thousands have been killed during the insurgency.

(Reporting By Nellie Peyton; Editing by Edward McAllister and Tom Heneghan)

Texas Senate Advances Bill Banning Sharia Law

The Texas Senate has advanced a bill that would prohibit family courts in the state from considering Sharia Law when it conflicts with state law.

While the law itself does not mention Sharia Law by name, the intent of the bill from Senator Donna Campbell is to keep Sharia law from overriding federal or state Constitutions.  There had been concerns of non-Constitutional sources being used in family courts and dealing with marriage and divorce matters.

“A ruling or decision of a court, arbitrator, or administrative adjudicator under this title may not be based on a foreign law if the application of that law would violate a fundamental right guaranteed by the United States Constitution or the constitution or a statute of this state,” the bill states.

The Bill passed the Senate 20-11 after passing a House committee 5-1 last week.

“Sen. Campbell has done a great job in leading senators to advance the laws that protect our basic rights from infringement,” commented Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in a statement. “SB 531 upholds Texas morals from foreign laws that contradict or violate our laws and our beliefs.”

An Islamic tribunal formed in North Texas earlier this year to arbitrate disputes between Muslims such as divorce proceedings.

“All our decisions point back to the Koran and Sunna … and what the prophet Mohammed left to us,” Dr. Taher el-Badawi, Islamic Tribunal judge, told KEYE TV.

Texas City Stands Up To Sharia Law

The city government of Irving, Texas is standing up and saying sharia law is not going to be legal within the bounds of their city.

A Sunni mosque in Irving had announced earlier this year they were forming an Islamic Tribunal to provide mediation of disputes in the Muslim community according to Sharia Law.  Now, the city has passed a resolution backing a Texas House Bill that would forbid the use of “foreign law” to decide issues within the city.

Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne has been the subject of hate from the Muslim community because of her bold stand against Sharia Law.

“As Mayor of the City of Irving, I took an oath to uphold the laws of the State of Texas and the Constitution of the United States,” Duyne wrote earlier this year. “American citizens need to remember that their rights are guaranteed by the Constitution and I believe no one should subjugate themselves to anything less.”

However, she says this new law is not aimed at religion of any kind.

“This bill does not mention at all Muslims, sharia law, Islam, even religion,” Duyne stated.

Duyne said that she would work to fight for anyone whose civil rights is violated in any way by people connected to the “Tribunal”.