The New Blasphemy; Britain Debates the Limits of Religious Free Speech
Pepper, Tara, Newsweek International
Byline: Tara Pepper
Omar Marzouk, a Muslim comedian from Denmark, had but one request at last month's Edinburgh Fringe Festival. "Tell me if you don't find my jokes funny," he told his audience. "I don't want to die--I'm not that kind of Muslim."
Poking fun at the world's religions was de rigueur at Edinburgh's annual stage jamboree. Reason: fears that a controversial new "anti-blasphemy" law could curtail freedom of speech. The proposed legislation, to be debated by Britain's House of Lords next month, allows prosecution in cases where behavior or written material--such as a book, play or broadcast--could potentially incite religious hatred. Home Office officials say the law would not bar legitimate criticism of religion--nor comedians' lampooning of faiths--but argue that there must be some defense against speech motivated by religious hatred. With religion intruding into politics and the arts across Europe, though, many worry the legislation is a step too far.
Europeans have long had laws against blasphemy. Most are holdovers from the late 17th century and, until recently, were all but dead. But lately religious groups have seized upon them. In Italy, journalist Oriana Fallaci, whose criticism of the country's Muslims has won support from the conservative, anti-immigration right, is awaiting trial on charges of vilifying Islam. French bishops have taken legal action against a Marithe + Francois Girbaud ad they say mocks the Last Supper. In Denmark, Muslims filed complaints against two state TV stations after they broadcast excerpts of "Submission," by the murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, portraying violence against women as endemic in Islam. …