The Continuing Battle Over Blasphemy Laws

I'm surprised to still be writing about blasphemy laws, but it seems the idea just won't die. At the United Nations this week, the elected leaders of newly democratic Egypt and Yemen called for restrictions on free speech, in addition to similar demands from Turkey and other Islamic-majority nations. Russia, too, is advocating for laws that would criminalize criticism of religion, saying that "the feelings of the faithful must be protected by the state" (HT: IHEU). Unfortunately this doesn't surprise me, since under Vladimir Putin, Russia has basically reverted to the theocratic dictatorship it was in the days of the czars. Even Greece is prosecuting a man for the most harmless poke at religion imaginable, using archaic blasphemy laws.


It's cropping up in my home city too: in New York, a right-wing group called the American Freedom Defense Initiative wanted to put an anti-Islam ad in the subways that read: "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad." The MTA initially refused to run the ad, so its backers sued and won - and that, I think, was the correct decision. I think the message of these ads is deplorable, but it's not the government's business to decide whether or not it should be permitted. The proper response to bad speech is better speech, not censorship or violence. (Almost as soon as the ads were up, the Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy was arrested for spray-painting one of them. While I don't advocate vandalism as a rule, I think peaceful civil disobedience is a legitimate tactic of protest, so long as the person doing it willingly accepts the consequences.)

I need to draw a careful distinction here: I unequivocally reject the idea that Muslims are "savages" and Israelis are "civilized". This is black-and-white thinking at its worst, bigotry of the most obvious kind. On the other hand, I agree with David Silverman, president of American Atheists, who took some flak on Twitter for saying that "Islam is barbaric". I agree, Islam is barbaric: just look at the violence and the human-rights outrages it's justified, just look at what happens in countries where it gains secular power. (Using this same reasoning, would I say that other major religions are also barbaric? Yes, absolutely.)

But this isn't the same thing as saying that Muslims are barbaric. A belief or a belief system can be judged, for better or for worse, about its overall effect on the world. But it's unfair and prejudiced to make such sweeping condemnations of people, since there will inevitably be much diversity of opinion among any sufficiently large group.

As I've said in the past, I think Muslims should have exactly the same rights as other people - a statement that seems incredibly obvious to me, but that apparently sets me apart from many people for one reason or another. I don't believe that Muslims should have fewer rights than anyone else, in that I don't believe they should be treated as second-class citizens or as inherently suspicious or villainous. But I also don't believe that Muslims should have more rights than anyone else, in that they shouldn't be shielded from criticism or satire even if that criticism is expressed in a way they find blasphemous.

As astonished as I am to find myself quoting Thomas Friedman, he has a point: Islamic clerics, political parties and regimes, despite demanding a ban on speech that insults their religious feelings, routinely make hateful proclamations against Jews, Christians, and even other sects of Islam they believe are unorthodox. (The persecution of Baha'i in Iran or Ahmadiyya in Indonesia would be two other cases in point.) This just goes to show that blasphemy laws are never applied equally; they're always used by the powerful against the powerless. In particular, they're often used by fundamentalist zealots to silence the voices of moderates, liberals and secular reformers.

But even if a blasphemy law was passed with the best intentions in the world, it's still unworkable, due to the undecidable question of what happens when there are two groups of people whose beliefs offend each other. The only solution that makes sense is that it's impossible to protect everyone from seeing speech that offends them, and so we shouldn't even try. I'd be surprised that this simple logic has escaped so many people, if it weren't so obvious that their reactions are being driven by raw emotion and political cynicism, rather than any reasoned consideration of what would be best for human society.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
      Patriotic.

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.


    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.