Defending obscurantism

Promoting tolerance? Emirati president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan with a liberal-minded friend

In an Orwellian twist of logic, Gulf states are once again pushing to restrict religious freedom under the guise of promoting tolerance, combating extremism and protecting human rights.

At a conference in France at the weekend, a Saudi official from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs called for the worldwide introduction of blasphemy laws, as a matter of urgency.

The situation, he said, "requires everyone to intensify efforts to criminalise insulting heavenly religions, prophets, holy books, religious symbols and places of worship".

The kingdom, of course, has been setting an example in this respect. It was under such laws that Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes, 10 years in jail sentence and fined of one million riyals ($266,000). 

Earlier this month, Iceland became the latest country to legalise blasphemy. A parliamentary bill repealing the 75-year-old law stated: "It is fundamental to a free society that people should be able to express themselves without fear of punishment, whether from the authorities or from other people."

Emirati crackdown

Last week the UAE's president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, issued an ill-conceived decree which was reported as cracking down on "hate speech". It received praise from local media and "experts".

It did indeed criminalise "any acts that stoke religious hatred" and outlawed takfirism – characterising "religious groups or individuals as infidels, or unbelievers" – but it also included vaguely worded provisions that would allow the authorities to suppress any religious (or irreligious) discourse that they happen to disapprove of.

According to Gulf News, the decree criminalises "any act that insults religion through any form of expression, be it speech or the written word, books, pamphlets or online" along with "any act that would be considered as insulting God, His prophets or apostles or holy books or houses of worship or graveyards".

A further provision makes it illegal to "discriminate against individuals or groups on the basis of religion, caste, doctrine, race, colour or ethnic origin". While that might sound commendable, the UAE has numerous laws which discriminate on the basis of religion and there is no sign of any move to abolish them:

  • The constitution states that Islam is the official religion.

  • The law denies Muslims the freedom to change religion. 

  • The law forbids proselytising of Muslims by non-Muslims.

  • Courts apply sharia (Islamic law) for most family law matters, e.g., marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and on rare occasions for criminal matters. 

  • The government prohibits distribution of non-Islamic religious literature under penalty of criminal prosecution, imprisonment, and deportation. 

  • The government (through the Awqaf) administers Sunni mosques, many of which must follow government-approved sermons. 

  • The law prohibits churches from erecting bell towers or displaying crosses on the outside of their premises.

  • The government does not permit instruction in any religion other than Islam in state schools.

  • Private schools found to be teaching subjects that offend Islam, defame any religion, or contravene the country’s ethics and beliefs face possible closure.

  • Islamic studies are mandatory in public schools and in private schools serving Muslim children.

  • Muslim men may not marry non-Muslim women unless they are "people of the book" (i.e. Christian or Jewish).

  • Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men.

  • The law grants custody of children of non-Muslim women to the Muslim father in the event of a divorce. 

  • A non-Muslim woman who fails to convert is ineligible for naturalisation as a citizen and cannot inherit her husband’s property unless named as a beneficiary in his will.

  • The government imposes some restrictions of observation of Ashura by Shia Muslims.

  • The law prohibits black magic, sorcery, and incantations, which are punishable by a prison term ranging from six months to three years and deportation.

Posted by Brian Whitaker 
Monday, 27 July 2015