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Blasphemy and Free Speech by Paul Marshall, Hudson Institute – Part I

In 13 History on 2012/10/25 at 9:11 AM

A growing threat to our freedom of speech is the attempt to stifle religious discussion in the name of preventing “defamation of” or “insults to” religion, especially Islam. Resulting restrictions represent, in effect, a revival of blasphemy laws.

Few in the West were concerned with such laws 20 years ago. Even if still on some statute books, they were only of historical interest. That began to change in 1989, when the late Ayatollah Khomeini, then Iran’s Supreme Leader, declared it the duty of every Muslim to kill British-based writer Salman Rushdie on the grounds that his novel, The Satanic Verses, was blasphemous. Rushdie has survived by living his life in hiding. Others connected with the book were not so fortunate: its Japanese translator was assassinated, its Italian translator was stabbed, its Norwegian publisher was shot, and 35 guests at a hotel hosting its Turkish publisher were burned to death in an arson attack.

More recently, we have seen eruptions of violence in reaction to Theo van Gogh’s and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s film Submission, Danish and Swedish cartoons depicting Mohammed, the speech at Regensburg by Pope Benedict XVI on the topic of faith, reason, and Hillsdale College: Pursuing TruTH • defending liberTy sinCe 1844

religious violence, Geert Wilders’ film Fitna, and a false Newsweek report that the U.S. military had desecrated Korans at Guantanamo. A declaration by Terry Jones—a deservedly obscure Florida pastor with a congregation of less than 50—that he would burn a Koran on September 11, 2010, achieved a perfect media storm, combining American publicity-seeking, Muslim outrage, and the demands of 24 hour news coverage. It even drew the attention of President Obama and senior U.S. military leaders. Dozens of people were murdered as a result.

Such violence in response to purported religious insults is not simply spontaneous. It is also stoked and channeled by governments for political purposes. And the objects and victims of accusations of religious insults are not usually Westerners, but minorities and dissidents in the Muslim world. As Nina Shea and I show in our recent book Silenced, accusations of blasphemy or insulting Islam are used systematically in much of that world to send individuals to jail or to bring about intimidation through threats, beatings, and killings.

The Danish cartoons of Mohammed were published in Denmark’s largest newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in September 2005. Some were reproduced by newspapers in Muslim countries in order to criticize them. There was no violent response. Violence only erupted after a December 2005 summit in Saudi Arabia of the Organization of the Islamic Conference—now the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The summit was convened to discuss sectarian violence and terrorism, but seized on the cartoons and urged its member states to rouse opposition. It was only in February 2006—five months after the cartoons were published—that Muslims across Africa, Asia, and the Mideast set out from Friday prayers for often violent demonstrations, killing over 200 people.

The highly controlled media in Egypt and Jordan raised the cartoon issue so persistently that an astonishing 98 percent of Egyptians and 99 percent of Jordanians—knowing little else of Denmark—had heard of them. Saudi Arabia and Egypt urged boycotts of Danish products. Iran and Syria manipulated riots partly to deflect attention from their nuclear projects. Turkey used the cartoons as bargaining chips in negotiations with the U.S. over appointments to NATO. Editors in Algeria, Jordan, India, and Yemen were arrested—and in Syria, journalist Adel Mahfouz was charged with “insulting public religious sentiment”—for suggesting a peaceful response to the controversy. Lars Vilks’ later and more offensive 2007 Swedish cartoons and Geert Wilders’ 2008 film Fitna led to comparatively little outcry, demonstrating further that public reactions are government-driven.

Repression based on charges of blasphemy and apostasy, of course, goes far beyond the stories typically covered in our media. Currently, millions of Baha’is and Ahmadis— followers of religions or interpretations that arose after Islam—are condemned en masse as insulters of Islam, and are subject to discriminatory laws and attacks by mobs, vigilantes, and terrorists. The Baha’i leadership in Iran is in prison, and there is no penalty in Iran for kill- ing a Baha’i. In Somalia, al Shebaab, an Islamist group that controls much of that country, is systematically hunting down and killing Christians. In 2009, after allegations that a Koran had been torn,

a 1,000-strong mob with Taliban links rampaged through Christian neighbor- hoods in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, killing seven people, six of whom, including two children, were burned alive. Pakistani police did not intervene.

Throughout the Muslim world, Sunni, Shia, and Sufi Muslims may be persecuted for differing from the version of Islam promulgated by locally hegemonic religious authorities. Saudi Arabia represses Shiites, especially Ismailis. Iran represses Sunnis and Sufis. In Egypt, Shia leaders have been imprisoned and tortured.

In Afghanistan, Shia scholar Ali Mohaqeq Nasab, editor of Haqooq-i-Zen magazine, was imprisoned by the govern- ment for publishing “un-Islamic” articles that criticized stoning as a punishment for adultery. Saudi democracy activists Ali al-Demaini, Abdullah al-Hamed, and Matruk al-Faleh were imprisoned for using “un-Islamic terminology,” such as “democracy” and “human rights,” when calling for a written constitution. Saudi teacher Mohammed al-Harbi was sentenced to 40 months in jail and 750 lashes for “mocking religion” after discussing the Bible in class and making pro-Jewish remarks. Egyptian Nobel prize winner in literature Naguib Mahfouz reluctantly abandoned his lifelong resistance to censorship and sought permission from the clerics of Al-Azhar University to publish his novel Children of Gebelawi, hitherto banned for blasphemy. Mahfouz subse- quently lived under constant protection after being stabbed by a young Islamist, leaving him partly paralyzed.

After Mohammed Younas Shaikh, a member of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, raised questions about Pakistan’s policies in Kashmir, he was charged with having blasphemed in one of his classes. In Bangladesh, Salahuddin

Choudhury was imprisoned for hurting “religious feelings” by advocating peaceful relations with Israel. In Iran, Ayatollah Boroujerdi was imprisoned for arguing that “political leadership by clergy” was contrary to Islam, and cleric Mohsen Kadivar was imprisoned for “publishing untruths and disturbing public minds” after writing Theories of the State in Shiite Jurisprudence, which questioned the

legal basis of Ayatollah Khomeini’s view of government. Other charges brought against Iranians include “fighting against God,” “dissension from religious dogma,” “insulting Islam,” “propagation of spiritual liberalism,” “promoting pluralism,” and, my favorite, “creating anxiety in the minds of … Iranian officials.”

Continued

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