Blasphemy's Assault on Free Speech

By Marshall, Paul | USA TODAY, July 2012 | Go to article overview

Blasphemy's Assault on Free Speech


Marshall, Paul, USA TODAY


A 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 survived by living--at least until the last few years-Mils 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 Muhammad; the speech at Regensburg (in Bavaria, Germany) by Pope Benedict XVI on the topic of faith, reason, and religious violence; Germany Wilders' film "Fitna"; and a false Newsweek report that the U.S. military had desecrated Korans at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. A declaration by Terry Jones--a deservedly obscure Florida pastor with a congregation of less than 50--that he would burn a Koran on Sept. 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 Pres. Barack 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 also is stoked and channeled by governments for political purposes--and the objects and victims of accusations of religious insults usually are not Westerners, but minorities and dissidents in the Muslim world. As Nina Shea and I show in Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide, 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 Muhammad 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 until 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 only was in February 2006 that Muslims across Africa, Asia, and the Mideast set out from Friday prayers for often violent demonstrations, killing more than 200 people.

The highly controlled media in Egypt and Jordan raised the cartoon issue so persistently that an astonishing 98% of Egyptians and 99% of Jordanians--knowing little else of Denmark--had heard of them. Saudi Arabia and Egypt urged boycotts of Danish products, ban 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 Wilders' 2008 film 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. …

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