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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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