This paper critiques the phenomena of religious violence in Arab and Islamic States from a human rights perspective. It highlights the tendency of Islamists who engage in violence to justify their actions by reference to the religious doctrine of ‘apostasy’. The inherent conflict between the notion that apostasy is a punishable crime and universal human rights norms (such as freedom of conscience and religion) is explored. It is argued that one way out of the cycle of religious violence and sectarian hatred is for Arab and Muslim States to adopt non-discriminatory laws modelled on the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which most of these States have ratified). By moving towards a universal human rights based approach to law and punishment, religion becomes a matter of personal conscience and belief. In time the danger of violent abuse of religion by State and non-State actors is likely to recede as there is a cultural shift away from the justification of violence by reference to religion. The thesis advanced below may not appeal to everyone. However so long as the status quo prevails, religious minorities and others will continue to be exposed to discrimination and in some cases violence from religious extremists - be they State or non-State actors - who justify their actions by reference to religious laws that permit violent punishment of ‘apostates’ and ‘heretics’.


Published in Full, freedom of religion, terrorism, human rights, non-discrimination

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