Are there laws in India for apostasy?

Can you insult an imaginary entity called "God"? At least the "insulting creeds, religious societies and ideological associations" can under certain circumstances have criminal consequences in this country. What exactly such abuse represents; Whether and how this should be punished is viewed very differently around the world. This article gives an up-to-date overview.

By Jan-Tobias Peterle

Blasphemy Legislation

"Blasphemy" (derived from the ancient Greek word blasphēmía "reputation damage", which was adopted in Middle Latin as blasphemizare "blasphemy God") denotes behavior or an utterance that is used as an insult, mockery or cursing of certain religions. B. of the respective god, whose saint or an ideological creed, is valued.


The fact of "blasphemy" is already mentioned in the basic scriptures of many world religions. For example, in the 3rd book of Moses, Leviticon, which is part of both the Jewish Tanch and the Old Testament of the Christian Bible: “Whoever reviles the name of the Lord is punished with death; let the whole church stone him. The stranger, like the native, must be killed if he vilifies the name of God. ”In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, Jesus Christ affirmed this vilification command. In the Gospel of Mark, a Jewish high priest accuses Jesus himself of "blasphemy" after he had presented himself as the "Son of God". Even if many states today strive for a more or less strong separation of state and religion, the “fact of blasphemy” that existed in antiquity can be found in numerous legal systems that are largely understood to be secular.

According to a 2011 opinion of the Human Rights Committee on the “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”: “Prohibitions on depictions of disrespect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Treaty, except in special circumstances such as those in Art. 20 , Paragraph 2 of the Treaty. ”Article 20, Paragraph 2: calls for the prohibition of:“ Defending national, racist or religious hatred that incites discrimination, hostility or violence. ”A large majority of states worldwide have signed up to this international agreement committed (current status 2019: signed: 74, ratified: 172).

In practice, however, this component of human rights is often not implemented and "blasphemy" is still considered a more or less serious legal violation in many countries.


The Blasphemy Laws Report 2017 of the "U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom “(USCIRF) presents the current global situation. The “offense of blasphemy” is defined as: “Act of insult, disregard or lack of reverence for God”. The USCIRF report shows that a total of 71 countries around the world have related laws. These 71 are distributed as follows: 25.4 percent of them fall in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Also 25.4 percent on the Asia-Pacific region. Europe accounts for 22.5 percent, sub-Saharan Africa 15.5 percent and 11.2 percent for the states of the American continent. The proportion of states that have blasphemy legislation is therefore slightly more than a third (37 percent) of all states globally.

As can be seen from the graphic, this often affects strongly religious states such as the “Islamic Republic of Iran”. However, even Central European countries such as Germany or Switzerland sometimes criminalize "blasphemous acts" and thus violate the internationally recognized human rights principles mentioned. In particular, the “right to freedom of expression” is disregarded.


There is no uniform regulation about what exactly falls under such a "blasphemous act". The term "blasphemy" is often not explicitly mentioned in the respective legislations, even if they are aimed at it. Instead, the offense is also referred to as "defamation, defamation or insult" of the religion or the respective sacred elements of it, or as "violation of religious feelings".

Many countries, especially those influenced by the Enlightenment, such as the USA, the United Kingdom or France, do not have blasphemy legislation or have abolished it. However, other western countries such as Germany, Switzerland or Austria have one and, using Germany as an example, punish “insulting denominations, religious societies and ideological associations” if “it is likely to disturb the public peace”. Other countries take the definition of “blasphemy” much broader and also punish those aspects that are protected in Europe by the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and freedom of speech, such as the mockery of religions, their beliefs or religious symbols, also in the context of satire or criticism of religion. Some even criminalize everyday cursing with religious references in private. Some strongly religious states, especially those with a defined state religion, also consider membership or change (conversion) to other religions, denominations or world views as blasphemy due to their claim to absolute status. The same applies in part to the confession of atheism or apostasy, which some countries equate with "blasphemy". The conceptual boundaries are often fluid.


Some states, especially those with a predominance of Muslims, have their own “apostasy legislation” in addition to blasphemy laws. In fact, as the annual Freedom of Thought Report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) from 2017 shows, apostasy is criminalized in 22 countries.

In 12 of these, namely in Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, the Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, this can even be punished with the death penalty.

The sentence

A study by the “Freedom of Thought Report” published in 2016 also examines the amount of the penalties imposed.

The penalties for violating the respective blasphemy laws range from fines and local restrictions to jail and corporal punishment to death sentences. The study counts 43 states (including Germany) that have provided prison sentences for blasphemous acts in addition to fines or other restrictions. There are also states that have corporal punishment and public humiliation in their catalog of punishments. For example, the Saudi internet activist Raif Muhammad Badawi was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in 2014 for his advocacy of women's rights, religious freedom and a secular state because of “insulting Islam”, a fine of 194,000 euros and 1,000 lashes, some of which have already been publicly carried out , condemned. The public is currently also concerned with the case of “Asia Bibi”, a Pakistani Christian woman who was sentenced to death in 2010 for “blasphemy” because she is said to have called Jesus and not Mohammed as God's “true prophet”. During the length of the proceedings, there were several assassinations of politicians who had campaigned for Asia Bibi. After Asia Bibi was acquitted on appeal in 2018, religious hardliners called for the murder of Bibi and the judges involved in mass protests. In the meantime she has been finally acquitted and has emigrated to Canada.

In a total of 6 countries, namely: Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Somalia, convicts face the death penalty.

Germany - § 116 StGB - an encouragement to use the law of the thumb?

The legal situation in Germany with regard to activities or statements classified as blasphemous is currently as follows:

There is a risk of up to 3 years imprisonment for blasphemous statements or activities if these are likely to disturb the public peace. The object of protection is actually public peace, not the commitment as such or the mere feelings of its followers, even if this is of considerable relevance in practice. The question therefore arises whether this justification is so tenable. In recent years there have been repeated incidents that triggered a discussion about the usefulness of this paragraph. So z. B. the "dispute over the Mohammed cartoons" in 2005. In response to the publication of images of the Muslim prophet Mohammed (which many Muslims reject because of a ban on images widespread in Islam), there were demonstrations and violent ones Riots in the course of which over 100 people died and several European embassies in Muslim countries were attacked and partially destroyed.

The terrorist attacks on the editorial office of the French satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” in 2015, which resulted in 28 deaths, were also committed by the perpetrators in retaliation for what they saw as a lack of respect for Mohammed. One reaction to these events was, on the one hand, the call for a tightening of § 166 StGB, for example from the domestic political spokesman for the Union parliamentary group, Stephan Mayer (CSU), in order to avoid such violent reactions in the future. This demand was in turn rejected by numerous secular representatives as undermining freedom of expression.

The German philosopher and spokesman for the Giordano-Bruno Foundation, Michael-Schmidt Salomon, called for the state to protect artistic freedom and not the feelings of religious fanatics. "The public peace is not disturbed by artists who satirically target religions, but by fanatics who cannot react appropriately to criticism." In fact, the German § 166 StGB represents an additional motivation for religious fundamentalists rather than a functioning deterrent , because the victims of such excesses are turned into perpetrators. The more violent the reaction to an act that is perceived as blasphemous, the higher the punishment for the “originator” and this, e.g. B. can also be silenced in the context of appropriate criticism of religion, ultimately also out of self-protection. Accordingly, the Giordano Bruno Foundation also submitted a petition to the Bundestag in which it called for the legislature to delete Section 166 of the Criminal Code without replacement, also with reference to the demand of the UN Human Rights Committee. This petition was rejected as “not relevant”, in particular with reference to the protected object, “public peace”. Michael-Schmidt Salomon criticized this decision as “unrealistic” and warned against “encouraging the use of the law of the thumb”. It is true that Section 166 of the Criminal Code no longer criminalizes mere criticism or insults of a religion, but only those forms of criticism that are capable of endangering public peace (...). Paradoxically, however, it is precisely this protection of public peace that jeopardizes public peace. According to its wording, § 166 StGB also incites believers to take militant action against satirical art. Only in this way can they prove that the alleged violation of their religious feelings is endangering public peace. According to the argumentation of the petition, the legislature must make it unequivocally clear that in a modern, open society, greater weight is to be attached to the freedom of art than to the "hurt feelings of religious fundamentalists". With Thomas Fischer, the former presiding judge at the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe, one of the leading German lawyers has also commented on Section 166 of the Criminal Code and also called for it to be deleted without replacement. He described it as "superfluous and backward for an enlightened state".

Future development

In Germany, Section 166 of the Criminal Code was last extensively revised in 1969 as part of the 1st Penal Reform Act and liberalized with the focus on “public peace” as an object of protection. However, the further development cannot yet be foreseen. In the German party spectrum, all positions are represented with regard to § 166 StGB. The Greens, the Left and the FDP traditionally advocate its abolition, the SPD and CDU plead for it to be retained and the CSU argues for a tightening of the paragraph. The AfD has not yet clearly positioned itself in this regard. The current government coalition is therefore in favor of retaining Section 166 of the Criminal Code in its current form.

From a global perspective, a clear trend towards secularization can be observed, especially in western countries, and other countries have decided to remove blasphemy clauses from their legal systems. This has recently been implemented by countries such as the Netherlands (2012), Norway (2015), Iceland and Denmark (2017), as well as Canada and Ireland (2018). In many of these states, the blasphemy paragraphs have hardly been used in legal practice in the recent past. In strongly Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Iran or Saudi Arabia, but also in Asian countries such as India, liberalization in this regard, as shown by the extensive prosecution and punishment of violations of the respective blasphemy laws, is hardly to be expected .