UAE Puts a Ban on “Offending God”

New Law Creates Concern Among Secularists

At the end of July 2015, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) passed a law that prohibits discrimination against religion. 

Under the new law, it is an offence to commit an act that insults God, Islam, Christianity, Judaism or houses of worship, among other things. A breach of the law, which would include speech that criticises religious beliefs or expresses doubt about the existence of God, could result in harsh penalties. The possible penalties include a 10-year prison term and considerable fines. 

The law has been presented by the UAE as an “anti-hate” or “anti-discrimination” law that prohibits discrimination or attacks based on religion, ethnicity and race. Sexuality was not listed. 

 The Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, announced the law “guarantees the freedom of individuals from religious intolerance”. 

Nonetheless, it has been met with some condemnation from the western world. Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, criticised the law as being a means of pushing a “theocratic and Islamist agenda, with ambitions that it is enforced not just in Saudi Arabia, but across the world”. 

He also noted at a meeting of the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics that “there has been a 15-year project by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to have defamation made an international law.” 

However, Otago law lecturer Stephen Smith commented: “The true impetus of the law probably comes from the opposite end of the spectrum: a concern regarding the growing influence of ISIS and other religiously motivated extremist groups in the Middle East who would criticise average citizens for not being Islamic enough.” 

The law can be seen as an attempt to enable the UAE to effectively subdue any extremist movements that might arise in the country.

 Some protesters have voiced concern over the consequences of the law on basic human rights, in particular freedom of speech and religion. President of the National Secular Society, Terry Sanderson, remarked: “It is dispiriting, and sadly unsurprising, to see yet another crackdown on religious freedom and freedom of speech in the Islamic world.” 

According to Smith, the law can be regarded as the “UAE being the UAE” in terms of vigorous restrictions on freedom of religion and expression.

The UAE has never signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a 1966 multilateral treaty that includes principles relating to rights of freedom of expression and religion. The recent law is said to reflect the previous stance taken in the UAE regarding these rights.

This article first appeared in Issue 20, 2015.
Posted 11:34am Sunday 16th August 2015 by Emily Duncan.