Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

Rep. Raskin’s remarks — ‘Thought crimes that have no actual victims’

Vol. 38 No. 01 Jan/Feb 2021
U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

The Freedom From Religion Foundation cheered the U.S. Senate’s and House’s approval in December of a resolution seeking the global repeal of blasphemy and related laws. Both resolutions specifically note that “secularists” are frequent victims of such laws.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., co-chair of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, spoke on the floor of the House in support of the anti-blasphemy resolution on Dec. 7, 2020. The following is a slightly edited version of that speech.

By U.S. Rep Jamie Raskin

Mr. Speaker, in this age of partisan division, one of the foundational American values still has the power to bring us together across the aisle — the defense of every human being’s freedom of religious conscience and freedom of thought against government persecution.

With House Resolution 512, we act today to stand up for religious and intellectual freedom in a world gone mad with religious discrimination, religious oppression and religious violence. H.R. 512 calls for global repeal of laws punishing blasphemy, heresy and apostasy — three religiously defined thought crimes that have no actual victims and thus no place in the criminal law of free nations.

And, yet, governments in 84 countries — from Saudi Arabia and Iran and Somalia to China and Russia and Bangladesh — still use laws like these to intimidate, arrest, prosecute and incarcerate members of minority religions, disfavored faiths and freethinkers. Putting them in jail or even condemning them to death for religiously subversive speech was not unknown in the American colonies. In Massachusetts, Puritan governors hanged Quakers for their heretical lectures in town squares. But our enlightenment Constitution, especially our First Amendment’s Free Exercise and antireligious Establishment clauses, put us squarely on the path of rejecting blasphemy laws and these other relics of the Inquisition, holy crusades and New England witchcraft trials.

Our law has gotten rid of obsolete offenses like blasphemy and apostasy because they have a purely religious character and do not refer to empirical social harms. Blasphemy is making impious or sacrilegious statements about established churches or doctrines. Heresy is taking religious or intellectual positions at odds with an established religious orthodoxy. Apostasy is breaking away from a religious orthodoxy or church. As offensive as we might consider other people’s religious views and utterances, in America today, people’s thoughts and words about religion are absolutely protected by the First Amendment. But in many parts of the world where religion is still actively weaponized by theocratic and authoritarian governments, these imaginary offenses can still get you thrown into jail, harassed and executed, or simply stopped and torn from limb to limb by state-sanctioned lynch mobs.

Religious people of the wrong faith are the most common victims of blasphemy and heresy laws.

You might be a practicing Christian or Hindu in an officially Muslim state like Libya or Afghanistan or a devout Muslim in a Hindu society like India. You might be a nonreligious person targeted by your enemies or state authorities.

You might be a 22-year-old Nigerian gospel musician like Yahoo Sharif Aminu, who is convicted of blasphemy in his state Sharia Court in Kano State on Aug 10, and has been sentenced to death by hanging for something that he said on a WhatsApp group on the Internet.

You might be a Sudanese Christian like Meriam Ibrahim, who was jailed for apostasy because, although she’d been a devout Christian for her entire life, government officials demanded that she follow her absent father’s Muslim faith. She was held in jail with her 20-month-old son and forced to give birth to her daughter in prison while her legs were shackled to the floor.

You might be a 13-year-old Muslim boy in Nigeria, like Omar Farouk, who was sentenced to 10 years at hard labor for blasphemy when he said something about Allah in an argument with friends — a brutal miscarriage of justice condemned by UNICEF and child advocates all over the world.

You might even belong to the wrong sect of the official state religion. In the Islamic State of Pakistan, for example, people belonging to the Ahmadiyya Muslim faith are being persecuted as heretics and apostates as if this were the Middle Ages. At least five Ahmadi Muslims have been killed in Pakistan this year [2020] alone because of their faith.

Mr. Speaker, the global assault on religious and intellectual freedom today is taking place in many of the world’s largest countries. China confines millions of Muslims in miserable re-education camps and forces them into slave labor. Russia has decreed that Jehovah’s Witnesses are an extremist group and confiscated their property, jailed their members and even allegedly tortured some of them. India recently passed draconian laws burdening the rights of disfavored Muslim minorities.

With this resolution, Mr. Speaker, against the new wave of global religious oppression and persecution, America can once again take the lead in defending the basic human rights of religious and intellectual freedom all over the world.

Let us share this principle with the nations of the world with this resolution.

Raskin family creates fund

Following the death of U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin’s 25-year-old son Tommy in late December, the Raskin family announced the launch of the Tommy Raskin Memorial Fund for People and Animals. The fund will distribute money to causes and charities championed by Tommy Raskin, including Oxfam, Give Directly, the Helen Keller Institute and Animal Outlook. The fund was launched with an initial contribution of $50,000 and FFRF has made a donation.

Condolences or donations can be sent to [email protected] or by mail to his district office at 51 Monroe Street, Suite 503, Rockville, MD 20850.