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In a recent interview on CNN, Chris Cuomo invited Pamela Geller to speak on his show about the recent threats against her life after Geller hosted a cartoon drawing contest depicting the prophet Muhammad. Geller said she decided to hold the contest as a response to the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in France.
"They’re just cartoons," Geller said about the contest. "We’re holding this exhibit and cartoon contest to show how insane the world has become — with people in the free world tiptoeing in terror around supremacist thugs who actually commit murder over cartoons. If we can’t stand up for the freedom of speech, we will lose it."
The topic of free speech was revisited during Geller’s segment with Cuomo, during which Geller pointed out that free speech is often curtailed in Muslim countries: "In Muslim countries, under the Sharia, there is a death penalty for blaspheming Mohammad."
Is that true?
Well, yes and no.
First, a bit of background on what Sharia law actually entails. The Sharia is tied in to Islamic law as derived from both the Quran and Mohammad’s teachings. Essentially, it translates to the "right path" or "the way."
However, as Professor Khaleel Mohammed at San Diego State University pointed out, "that way is not always defined (and can) be considered similar to Jesus saying ‘I am the way, the truth and the life...’ In Islam, the Sharia is this abstract." Stemming from the Sharia are multiple interpretations of this "way," and they are embodied in the fiqh.
Geller said that "in Muslim countries, under the Sharia, there is a death penalty for blaspheming Mohammad." In an email interview with PunditFact, Geller elaborated on her statement:
"The death penalty can result from blasphemy charges in majority-Muslim countries including Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan (where the death penalty is often enforced against ‘blasphemers’ by lynch mobs), Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen. Kuwait and the UAE recognize Sharia rules for blasphemers, and that can lead to death (too)."
To assess Geller’s claim, we turned to the "Compendium of Blasphemy Laws" compiled by the Human Rights First organization, the Library of Congress’ "Laws Criminalizing Apostasy," as well as other sources. We compiled a chart to see how different countries handle blasphemy.
Out of 50 countries listed with a Muslim majority, we only found five with definitive state laws stating that in cases of blasphemy against Islam, Allah, or Mohammad, the punishment was death - Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Brunei. (Brunei’s death penalty against blasphemy will not go into effect until this October.)
In addition, another six countries have laws in which death is the punishment for apostasy, or the denouncement of one’s religion. (Since blasphemy may fall under the category of apostasy in some instances, these laws are also included.) These countries are Morocco, Mauritania, Yemen, the Maldives, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
That’s 11 out of 50 countries. And even in these instances, laws are not absolute.
Take Qatar. Under its penal code, apostasy is to be judged according to the Sharia, which states that the punishment is death. Blasphemy could also fall under this category. Yet, "Qatar has not imposed any penalty for this offense since its independence in 1971," according to the Library of Congress’ "Laws Criminalizing Apostasy."
Other countries are even more clear. In Tajikistan, with a Muslim population of 96.7 percent, the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and speech.
While not many countries on the list go so far as to guarantee these rights, the majority do not have capital punishment officially listed for either blasphemy or apostasy. In many instances, when individuals are killed for either of those crimes, it is through extrajudicial means. Private citizens, and not the state, kill people they believe committed blasphemy or apostasy.
"Remember, (when we hear) about ‘Islamic law,’ it often has little to do with actual Islamic law... in fact (these ‘laws’) are on-the-spot creations of warlords," Mohammed said.
The majority of countries who have laws detailing punishment against blasphemy or apostasy have either imprisonment or a fine, and not death, as the worst outcome.
Geller said that "in Muslim countries, under the Sharia, there is a death penalty for blaspheming Mohammad."
At best, that is an overgeneralization. Yes, there are countries who prescribe the death penalty, and they often do cite the Sharia as the cause for it. But out of 50 countries with Muslim majorities, there are only 11 where this is in some way sanctioned by state law.
In addition, not all countries with the death penalty use it. The death penalty is not applied universally, and can be mitigated in cases when the accused repents.
Geller’s statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details and takes things out of context. We rate her statement is Half True.
Google Chart, "Blasphemy and Apostasy Laws," June 11, 2015
Pamela Geller’s website, "VIDEO Round 2: Pamela Geller vs. Chris Cuomo," June 4, 2015
Breitbart News Network, "$10,000 Muhammad Art and Cartoon Contest to be Held at Site of ‘Stand With the Prophet’ Conference in Texas," February 11, 2015
Constitutional Rights Foundation, "The Origins of Islamic Law," accessed June 11, 2015
Email interview with Khaleel Mohammed, San Diego State University religious studies professor, June 8, 2015
Email interview with Pamela Geller, President of the American Freedom Defense Initiative and Stop Islamization of America, June 5, 2015
Human Rights First, "Compendium of Blasphemy Laws," May 20, 2014
Library of Congress, "Laws Criminalizing Apostasy," June 9, 2015
UN Public Administration Network, "Constitution of the Republic of Tajikistan," accessed June 11, 2015
U.S. Department of State, "Somalia 2012 International Religious Freedom Report," accessed June 11, 2015
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World Intellectual Property Organization, "Comoros: Law No. 082P/A.F - Law No. 95-012/AF on the Penal Code (Crimes and Offenses)," accessed June 11, 2015
Palestinian Basic Law, "2003 Amended Basic Law," accessed June 11, 2015
UN Information System on the Question of Palestine, "International covenant on Civil and Political Rights," October 29, 2004
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The University of Texas at Arlington, "Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan," accessed June 11, 2015
Pew Research Center, "Which countries still outlaw apostasy and blasphemy?", May 28, 2014
Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, "Constitution of the Republic of Albania," November 29, 1998
Official Site of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, "The Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan," accessed June 11, 2015
Legislation Online, "Criminal Codes," accessed June 11, 2015
International Committee of the Red Cross, "The Criminal Act of 1991," accessed June 11, 2015
University of Richmond Constitution Finder, "The Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic," accessed June 11, 2015
UN Office on Drugs and Crime, "Dijbouti Penal Code," accessed June 11, 2015
International Labour Organization, "Somalia," accessed June 11, 2015
Pew Research Center, "Table: Religious Composition by Country, in Percentages," December 18, 2012
End Blasphemy Laws, "Morocco and Western Sahara," accessed June 11, 2015
End Blasphemy Laws, "Brunei," accessed June 11, 2015
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