The organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is once again trying to pressure the United Nations into introducing legislation that would make blasphemy a criminal offense. The occasion is the meeting of the Third Committee of the General Assembly, which addresses social, religious, and humanitarian issues. The OIC has been pursuing this objective since 1999, but the issue takes on greater relevance at a time when a Pakistani Christian, Asia Bibi, faces a death sentence after being found guilty by a court of criticizing the prophet Mohammed.
The UN debate runs the risk of transmitting the mistaken message that the use of the death penalty is a controversial international question only with respect to religion. The reality is that there is no real debate over the issue, and nor should there be. The death penalty is unacceptable under any circumstance. There is no question of it being applied to issues such as freedom of speech, which is at the heart of the issue. The OIC and the UN General Assembly would do better to call for the death penalty handed down to Asia Bibi to be commuted.
To include blasphemy among the list of crimes to which the death penalty be applied is to confuse the role of legislators and judges with that of theologians and inquisitors. Because it is the latter, and not the administrators of justice, who so zealously watch over the criteria that determine whether God has been offended or not.
Regardless of the extent to which a religion's arguments regarding blasphemy may fit into how that religion is upheld, they remain simply that: arguments, not an unmovable truth to which all other freedoms must be subject, including that of choosing one faith over another, or rejecting all faiths.
Killing is no defense of doctrine
Those who call for penal codes to include punishment for blasphemy - who are not only to be found among the ranks of Islam, but also in other monotheistic religions - believe that they have found the means to overcome the imperfection of humanity's laws.
Contrary to what they think, making blasphemy a criminal offense would not improve the law, it would simply make it crueler; and even more so if the punishment is to be death.
In the fifteenth century, Sebastián Castellio successfully argued that to kill a human being is not to defend a doctrine, but simply to kill a human being. It is somewhat disheartening to discover, five centuries later, that his words need repeating in the United Nations while a woman sits on death row in Pakistan.