Who gets to say what about religion? When does free speech verge into something more insidious — insult, offense, even blasphemy? These questions remain highly contested across much of the contemporary world. In Pakistan, a mob accosted a woman falsely accused of having Qur’anic verses blasphemously printed on her garments. In the United States, the Baphomet statues of the Satanic Temple provoke public outcry. In India this year alone, there has been controversy around a Netflix movie that allegedly wounded Hindu sentiments by depicting the daughter of a Hindu priest eating meat while competing on Top Chef, and another complaint around mated zoo lions named Akbar and Sita, for marrying the Mughal emperor to the Ramayana heroine, albeit in feline form.

Media commentators struggle with how to discuss such events. Too often, they fall back on hackneyed tropes about religion versus secular modernity — forgetting that religion and modernity are so thoroughly intertwined as to be mutually constitutive. Media outlets also, by representing national histories of blasphemy as separate from each other, obscure the interconnected transnational history of the contemporary world’s blasphemy debates.

As I show in my recent book, the histories of “the West” and “the rest” are mutually entangled in blasphemy matters, just asreligious speech is inextricably entangled with secular law. Wounded religious feelings grow from this legal bramble, a sour fruit — and a mobile one.

When politicians, public intellectuals, and media pundits opine about blasphemy and free speech, they often act as though such speech floats above actual historical circumstance. Insulated against history, free speech can appear almost religious, at least in one critic’s sense of that term. For example, in a 2020 comment on the Charlie Hebdo affair French prime minister Emmanuel Macron affirmed that the French people‘s “freedom to blaspheme” legitimizes a satirical newspaper lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. Here, Macron speaks about freedoms and French values with almost philosophical abstraction, as though they somehow stand above the political specificities of the controversy at hand— the afterlives of empire, the economic marginalization of twenty-first century French Muslims.

Such abstraction participates in what I call “high secularism.” As Saba Mahmood has argued, secularism structurally pairs its “promise of freedom,” its investment in the rights of the citizen, with an equally important but oft-disavowed “regulatory impulse.” Even when committed to the rights-bearing citizen, that abstract entity, secularism also deploys “religion” as a category for mapping and managing empirical populations. The latter impulse, which I dub “low secularism,” was especially apparent in colonial contexts, where the “world religions” paradigm undergirded regimes of “apartheid comparative religion.” It has also been integral to secular governance in the metropole.

There is no “secular West” without empire, as the case of Britain makes abundantly clear. British secularism was arguably invented in the colonies, especially India, and only later imported back home, where it prompted gradualist reforms of the Anglican state.

Take the case of blasphemy law. Blaspheming against Christianity remained a criminal offense in Britain until 2008, despite a two-century-long campaign for its abolition. A man was jailed for blasphemy as recently as 1921 and another heavily fined in 1977. During the 1989­–90 Salman Rushdie affair, the U.K. Action Committee on Islamic Affairs joined with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth to ask that blasphemy law be broadened to protect all religions, including Islam. The House of Lords rejected their request: British blasphemy law protected only Anglicanism. That would change, however, in the next century. The alarming increase in anti-Muslim violence in Britain during the period of joint U.S.-British wars in Iraq and Afghanistan prompted Parliament, in 2006, to enact a “Racial and Religious Hatred Act.” Two years later, Parliament abolished the common law offense of blasphemy. “Hate speech,” a phrase that dates to the 1980s, had made “blasphemy” redundant, ushering in a new legal logic for regulating insults to religion.

Meanwhile, in India, the British and then postcolonial states had administered something like hate speech laws for a century and a half. The Indian Penal Code makes it a criminal offense to utter words with the deliberate intent of wounding religious feelings (s.298) or to otherwise outrage religious feelings through insults to religion or religious belief (s.295A), as well as to propagate “enmity or hatred” between groups (s.153A). Today, this genealogically intertwined trio of laws is often invoked together by persons alleging wounded religious sentiments. Taking “hatred” as the yardstick for assessing offense, the Code does not aim to protect religion per se, but to regulate violent feelings and thus prevent actual violence. The irony is that, in its attempt to repress injury, the Indian Penal Code seems to have had the perverse effect of exciting more injurious speech. Secular law has become a tool for the cultivation of wounded religious feelings.

Enacted in 1860, the Indian Penal Code remains in effect across former British India, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Variants of it were also imposed on a host of other British colonies, including Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Zanzibar, Zambia, Gambia, Yemen, Cyprus, Fiji, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Solomon Islands, the Seychelles, and Nigeria. It also, via an intermediary text, shaped criminal law in the settler colonies of Australia and Canada. Secular-legal documents like the Indian Penal Code provide the affective infrastructure for global religion in the twenty-first century. In Pakistan, for instance, contemporary debates around blasphemy are produced via the Code, to which new sections were added during the 1980s to protect the Prophet Muhammad, the Qur’an, and other sacred personages of Islam. These sections created a culturally hybrid offense, shot through with the legacies of colonial law.

Back in Britain, the 1860 Indian Penal Code became a leitmotif in debates about blasphemy, providing a kind of outer limit for what a fully secularized blasphemy law could look like. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, reformers sporadically proposed adapting its religion sections for Britain. As recently as 2002, the House of Lords solicited an official statement from Indian attorney-general Soli Sorabjee on the Code’s outcomes. Sorabjee’s report was emphatically negative. The Code, he said, had fostered “intolerance, divisiveness, and unreasonable interference with freedom of expression,” amplifying conflict by prompting “fundamentalists” to “invoke the criminal machinery against each other’s religions.” Many scholars would agree with this assessment. In attempting to protect “religious feelings,” the Code ended up further inflaming them.

The Indian Penal Code’s sections on religious injury were, I am suggesting, hate speech laws avant la lettre — but with a key difference. Whereas contemporary hate speech laws are designed with the objective of protecting vulnerable groups from violence, the Indian Penal Code was designed to protect the colonial state.

To see why, let us turn to the 1830s, when the Code was originally drafted. Its author was Thomas Babington Macaulay—a man now mostly remembered for his infamous remark that the entire combined literatures of India and Arabia were worth less than one shelf of a good English library. Macaulay was sent to India by Utilitarian philosopher James Mill to create a codified criminal law based on the radical ideas of Jeremy Bentham. For blasphemy, at least, Macaulay seems to have done just that. His Code regulated religious speech, but did so on grounds that even the atheist philosopher would have approved.

The Code was a self-consciously secular and archly imperial document. “There is perhaps no country” but India, wrote Macaulay, where “government has so much to apprehend from religious excitement among the people.” Its “millions of Mahometans” and “tens of millions of Hindoos” were ruled by a tiny minority of British Christians — a situation “pregnant with dangers.” Deploying Orientalist tropes of India as excessively and irrationally religious, Macaulay stoked paranoia that sudden eruptions of religious violence could endanger British rule. His Code sought to regulate religious sentiment to tame India’s teeming masses.

Macaulay’s masses were not just Indian, however. Like other colonial ideologues, Macaulay tended to conflate the colonized with the English working classes, and vice versa. Blasphemy debates in 1810s and 20s Britain foregrounded elite fears that working-class radicals armed with Enlightenment tracts might foment a French-style revolution. Macaulay carried that class politics to Calcutta. His Indian Penal Code prohibited oral, pictorial, and performative blasphemy, but carefully preserved the right to blaspheme in print and in private, bourgeois spaces. The elite should be free to say what they want; not so, the crowd. Macaulay’s failure to restrict printed blasphemy contributed to the addition of a new section (295A) to the Code in 1927. Classed imperatives shaped that legislation, too. The Indian and British members of the Legislative Assembly felt sure they could handle religious insults appropriately; they created the new law to control the “man in the street.” The mob was a site of classed fear.

The afterlives of this colonial history live on in the present. Secularism was never just about freedoms for the individual. Janus-faced, it was also about regulating the crowd. Since the early modern period, the crowd has been a persistent site of anxiety for democratic theory in its effort to figure “the people,” and it has reemerged in the twenty-first century as a newly urgent problem-space linked to the global rise of populism. These populist formations and their affective politics are, in turn, a determining framework for contemporary accusations of blasphemy and religious insult. Macaulay’s crowd politics has resurfaced in new form, calibrated to a new historical moment. There is no way to see this current conjuncture clearly, however, unless we excavate blasphemy law’s surprisingly transnational history. Even the digitally mediated feelings of the twenty-first century rely on the legal infrastructures left behind by the previous century’s erstwhile empires.