Historically, blasphemy laws, or laws which penalise offending religious figures, objects or feelings, were commonplace. Mainly these laws were created to protect and reinforce the power of an established state church. National churches were tied in with the political and judicial systems, so enforcing a uniform faith, or at least forbidding criticism towards it, was a useful tool for maintaining social order. Unsurprisingly, apostasy from the main religion was also commonly outlawed, and severely punished.

Today, most secular countries have abolished their historical blasphemy laws, or reformed them into laws governing hate-speech or defamation of religions in general. More often than not, the principles of freedom of speech and expression are held to be more important than sheltering people from possible offence. Out of the 45 European countries, only 8 have laws criminalising blasphemy and of these, The Netherlands and Ireland are set to reform their laws in the near future.

Less secular countries are a different matter. In the Middle East and North Africa, 13 of the 20 countries in the region have extensive blasphemy laws. Also, in 11 of these countries apostasy remains illegal. Currently, blasphemy laws are also found in several Asian nations, as well as in some African countries. Often, where there is no specific blasphemy law (for instance in Tunisia), punitive "hate speech" or "public decency" statutes operate as de facto blasphemy laws.

There have been numerous calls for an international blasphemy (or defamation of religion) law. Most recently the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation petitioned the United Nations to criminalise the defamation of religion, following the controversy and violence around the Innocence of Muslims film in September 2012. They are likely to remain unsuccessful, as such legislation is widely opposed. Indeed, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief recently called for the abolishment of all national laws criminalising blasphemy and apostasy.

What then is wrong with criminalising blasphemy? First of all, it sets a limit to freedom of speech and expression. Laws criminalising blasphemy are mainly vague bans on “insulting religion/prophets” or “offending religious feelings”, without much indication on what actually amounts to an insult or offence. It thus deters any expression of non-mainstream opinions, because one can never be sure if an act, a piece of art, or just a personal opinion will be considered blasphemous or not.

In addition, such vagueness gives the authorities the dangerous power to determine case by case what makes a crime. This power is indeed commonly used to oppress threatening opposition, minority groups, or individuals deemed dangerous to the existing order.

Finally, allowing blasphemy to be considered an actual criminal offence gives legitimacy to vigilante action. It is too often the case that even if authorities choose not to punish individuals accused of blasphemy, or only hand out minor sentences, the alleged criminal will become the target of violent attacks of fervent believers.

In today’s world, the word blasphemy is used to mask censorship, personal vendettas and outright acts of political oppression. It is used to silence dissent, and to incite hatred. It may be invoked by already fading traditional institutions trying to hang on to any power they have left. Or it may be used by overly powerful entities to suppress any development of the rights of women, minorities, homosexuals, or whoever is seen as threatening to the current order. People certainly have a right to consider others’ opinions insulting, but it is not for the state or the church to define which offence is also an insult to the god currently preferred.

Anna Vesterinen's first World of Blasphemy post, on Tunisia, is online now. Profiles of more countries will follow in the coming days. If we’ve missed anything, or you have new information please let us know in the comments.