The blasphemy iceberg is much bigger than Charlie Hebdo

The drama began when a Pakistani politician named Salman Taseer criticized the land's blasphemy laws that were being used to condemn Asia Bibby, a Christian convert.

This led to a man named Malik Qadri firing 20 rounds into Taseer's back, according to witnesses, while security guards assigned to the Punjab governor stood and watched the assassination. When Qadri went to trial, cheering crowds showered him with rose pedals. Later, radicals threatened the judge who found Qadri guilty.

The judge, of course, had committed blasphemy by passing judgment on the man who killed a Muslim politician who -- by criticizing the blasphemy laws and defending an apostate -- had committed blasphemy.

"Then you get the question: Can you defend the judge or would that be blasphemous? We are starting to get here very like a Monty Python element," noted human-rights scholar Paul Marshall, speaking on "Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech and Freedom of Religion" at The King's College in New York City.

This kind of tragedy on the other side of the world is not what most Americans and Europeans think about when they worry about violence inspired by accusations of blasphemy, said Marshall, who currently teaches at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, Indonesia. Instead, most people think of the recent attempt to kill cartoonist Lars Vilks during a Copenhagen free-speech forum, the slaughter of the Charlie Hebdo magazine staff in Paris or the murder of "Submission" filmmaker Theo van Gogh in broad daylight on a busy street in Amsterdam.

"People in the West tend to notice these things only when they happen in the West," said Marshall, co-author of "Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide," with Nina Shea, a Hudson Institute colleague. It's crucial to understand that the Charlie Hebdo attack and similar cases are, he added, "markedly atypical of accusations of blasphemy or insulting Islam, worldwide. … This is a worldwide, global phenomenon and the things of which we are aware are simply the tip of a very large iceberg."

While attacks "close to home" dominate the news, thousands of other blasphemy accusations are made against groups representing millions of people around the world. According to Marshall, journalists and diplomats should note the trends that loom behind recent headlines.

* The vast majority of the accused fall into one of four groups inside majority-Muslim cultures, said Marshall. The first are believers -- such as Baha'is or Ahmadis -- in faiths historically linked to Islam, but rejected by most traditional Muslims. Then there are atheists, skeptics and those who have converted to another faith, usually Christianity. Also, Sunni Muslims in the majority may persecute minority Shia believers, or vice versa, and Sufi Muslims are often at risk -- period. Finally, there are Muslims whose political or doctrinal views offend ruling elites.

* Even when specific laws exist, most blasphemy charges are stated in vague terms that are hard to debate, with the alleged blasphemers being accused of offenses such as "insulting a heavenly religion," "creating confusion among Muslims," "imitating Christians," "friendship with the enemies of God," "fighting against God," "dissension from religious dogma" or "propagation of spiritual liberalism."

In regions controlled by the Islamic State, he noted, regime leaders argue, "if you disagree with us then you are not a true Muslim, therefore you have left Islam, therefore you are an apostate, therefore we can kill you. Then they kill you."

 *Blasphemers are usually killed by "spontaneous" riots, assassinations or police misconduct before trials can take place. No one has been officially executed, he noted, under Pakistan's blasphemy codes -- yet hundreds of people have died.

* Political leaders often manipulate blasphemy accusations in order to create a climate of fear that helps crush dissent.

Of course, people can act because of motivations that are both political and religious, stressed Marshall. "In order for a government to manipulate a sentiment, … the sentiment has to be there in the first place. You can't stoke people's religious beliefs, unless they've got religious beliefs."

The bottom line? It should trouble anyone who cares about human rights.

"When politics and religion are intertwined, as they necessarily are in debates about blasphemy," he said, "then without religious debate there can be no political debate, without religious disagreement there can be no political disagreement and without religious freedom there can be no political freedom."