In Iraq, a de facto blasphemy law criminalizes “insults” to religious sects, their practices, and their beliefs with up to three years in prison and/or fines. Individuals must register their religion with the state, and Muslims may not change their religious designation by law. There are no laws explicitly criminalizing apostasy or atheism, but such individuals may face a risk of prosecution from the blasphemy law, if rarely. Purported blasphemers or apostates may also find themselves at risk of vigilante violence.
The lands that today encompass the state of Iraq have historically been subject to the control of several political entities, often divided and not always Islamic. However, its legacy is inseparable from that of the most successful early Islamic empires: it briefly housed the capital of the Rashidun caliphate in the seventh century, and Baghdad became the capital of the great Abbasid caliphate and the largest city in the world in the Islamic Golden Age. A center of conflict between competing powers, it was later claimed by the Safavids, Ottomans, and, in the twentieth century, British forces. As a result of this history, Iraq today is overwhelmingly Muslim, but almost evenly divided between Shias and Sunnis. It is primarily Arabic, but it is also home to a large Kurdish minority.
Development of blasphemy laws
In early Islamic caliphates, Islamic religious law—which holds that blasphemy and apostasy are punishable by death—reigned. As the Abbasids’ power and influence in the region eroded, smaller Islamic dynasties often ruled over different sections of Iraq. Though Islamic rule was sometimes interrupted—most significantly after Mongols sacked Baghdad and toppled the Abbasid caliphate in the 13th century—this history lent Iraq a predominantly Islamic character it never lost.
Remaining a turbulent region, the Ottoman Empire took most of Iraq in the 16th century. Ever a sought-after prize, it changed hands multiple times, but primarily between different Islamic powers vying for control. As a result, it retained its Islamic legacy even as the Ottomans’ legal system took on more Western influences, especially in 1858, when the Empire adopted a penal code almost identical to that of the French.
After the First World War and the end of the Ottoman Empire, the British exercised de facto control over Iraq for a time. In 1932, it was granted independence as a kingdom. After this, Iraq plunged back into a period of prolonged political instability, culminating in the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party’s seizure of power in 1968. The Ba’athists installed a republic which would endure for the remainder of the 20th century. In 1969, this government adopted a penal code which still serves as the basis for Iraqi law today.
The current penal code punishes “anyone who publicly abuses the beliefs of any religious community, or insults any of its rituals” or “anyone who publicly insults a symbol or person who constitutes an object of sanctification, glorification, and respect to a religious community.” Violators can be saddled with up to three years' imprisonment or with fines of up to 300 dinars.
In 2005, a new Iraqi constitution was adopted, stipulating that Islam is the state religion, as well as a principal source of law, and that no law contradicting the “established provisions of Islam” may be passed. Though reports indicate that the blasphemy law is not often enforced, it is also legally impossible to be an atheist, which, as recently as 2013, led to the arrest, torture, and imprisonment of Amed Sherwan.