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Blasphemy and Free Speech – Part III

In 13 History on 2012/10/27 at 9:11 AM

The encroachment of de facto blasphemy restrictions in the West threatens free speech and the free exchange of ideas. Nor will it bring social peace and harmony. As comedian Rowan Atkinson warns, such laws produce “a veneer of tolerance concealing a snake pit of unaired and unchallenged views.” Norway’s far- reaching restrictions on “hate speech” did not prevent Anders Behring Breivik from slaughtering over 70

people because of his antipathy to Islam: indeed, his writings suggest that he engaged in violence because he believed that he could not otherwise be heard.

In the Muslim world, such restrictions enable Islamists to crush debate. After Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was murdered early last year by his bodyguards for opposing blasphemy laws, his daughter Sara observed: “This is a message to every liberal to shut up or be shot.” Or in the words of Nasr Abu-Zayd, a Muslim scholar driven out of Egypt: “Charges of apostasy and blasphemy are key weapons in the fundamentalists’ arsenal, strategically employed to prevent reform of Muslim societies, and instead confine the world’s Muslim population to a bleak, colourless prison of socio-cultural and political conformity.”

President Obama should put an end to discussion of speech with the OIC. He should declare clearly that in free societies, all views and all religions are subject to criticism and contradiction. As the late Abdurrahman Wahid, former president of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, and head of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization, wrote in his foreword to Silenced, blasphemy laws

. . . narrow the bounds of acceptable discourse. . . not only about religion, but also about vast spheres of life, literature, science, and culture in general. . . . Rather than legally stifle criticism and debate— which will only encourage Muslim fundamentalists in their efforts to impose a spiritually void, harsh, and monolithic understanding of Islam upon all the world—Western authorities should instead firmly defend freedom of expression. . . .

America’s Founders, who had broken with an old order that was rife with religious persecution and warfare, forbade laws impeding free exercise of religion, abridging freedom of speech, or infringing freedom of the press. We today must do likewise.

Paul Marshall is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. He has published widely in newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, First Things, The New Republic, and The Weekly Standard. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books on religion and politics, including Their Blood Cries Out, Religious Freedom in the World, and Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion. Most recently he is the co-author, with Nina Shea, of Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide.

The preceding was adapted from a lecture delivered at Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C., on February 3, 2012.

Copyrighted 2012 Hillsdale College

Reprinted with permission

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Blasphemy and Free Speech – Part II

In 13 History on 2012/10/26 at 9:11 AM

Muslim reformers cannot escape being attacked even in the West. In 2006, a group called Al-Munasirun li Rasul al Allah emailed over 30 prominent reformers in the West, threatening to kill them unless they repented. Among its targets was Egyptian Saad Eddin Ibrahim, perhaps the best known human rights activist in the Arab world. Another was Ahmad Subhy Mansour, an imam who was imprisoned and had to flee Egypt, in part for his arguments against the death penalty for apostasy. The targets were pronounced “guilty of apostasy, unbelief, and denial of the Islamic established facts” and given three days to “announce their repentance.” The message included their addresses and the names of their spouses and children.

Mimount Bousakla, a Belgian senator and daughter of Moroccan immigrants, was forced into hiding by threats of “ritual slaughter” for her criticism of the treatment of women in Muslim communities and of fundamentalist influences in Belgian mosques. Turkish-born Ekin Deligoz, the first Muslim member of Germany’s Parliament, received death threats and was placed under police protection after she called for Muslim women to “take off the head scarf.”

But the story gets worse. Western governments have begun to give in to demands from the Saudi-based OIC and others for controls on speech.

In Austria, for instance, Elisabeth Sabbaditsch-Wolf has been convicted of “denigrating religious beliefs” for her comments about Mohammed during a seminar on radical Islam. Canada’s grossly misnamed “human rights commissions” have hauled writers—including Mark Steyn, who teaches as a distinguished fellow in journalism at Hillsdale College—before tribunals to interrogate them about their writings on Islam. And in Holland and Finland, respectively, politicians Geert Wilders and Jussi Hallaaho have been prosecuted for their comments on Islam in political speeches.

In America, the First Amendment still protects against the criminalization of criticizing Islam. But we face at least two threats still. The first is extra-legal intimidation of a kind already endemic in the Muslim world and increasing in Europe.

In 2009, Yale University Press, in consultation with Yale University, removed all illustrations of Mohammed from its book by Jytte Klausen on the Danish cartoon crisis. It also removed Gustave Doré’s 19th-century illustration of Mohammed in hell from Dante’s Inferno. Yale’s formal press statement stressed the earlier refusal by American media outlets to show the cartoons, and noted that their “republication…has repeatedly resulted in violence around the world.”

Another publisher, Random House, rejected at the last minute a historical romance novel about Mohammed’s wife, Jewel of Medina, by American writer Sherry Jones. They did so to protect

“the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel.”

The comedy show South Park refused to show an image of Mohammed in a bear suit, although it mocked figures from other religions. In response, Molly Norris, a cartoonist for the Seattle

Weekly, suggested an “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.” She quickly withdrew the suggestion and implied that she had been joking. But after several death threats, including from Al-Qaeda, the FBI advised her that she should go into hiding—which she has now done under a new name.

In 2010, Zachary Chesser, a young convert to Islam, pleaded guilty to threatening the creators of South Park. And on October 3, 2011, approximately 800 newspapers refused to run a “Non Sequitur” cartoon drawn by Wiley Miller that merely contained a bucolic scene with the caption “Where’s Muhammad?”

Many in our media claim to be self-censoring out of sensitivity to religious feelings, but that claim is repeatedly undercut by their willingness to mock and criticize religions other than Islam. As British comedian Ben Elton observed: “The BBC will let vicar gags pass, but they would not let imam gags pass. They might pretend that it’s, you know, something to do with their moral sensibilities, but it isn’t. It’s because they’re scared.”

The second threat we face is the specter of cooperation between our government and the OIC to shape speech about Islam. A first indication of this came in President Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009, when he declared that he has a responsibilty to “fight against negative stereotypes of Islam whenever they appear.” Then in July of last year in Istanbul, Secretary of State Clinton co-chaired—with the OIC—a “High-Level Meeting on Combating Religious Intolerance.” There, Mrs. Clinton announced another conference with the OIC, this one in Washington, to “exchange ideas” and discuss “imple- mentation” measures our government might take to combat negative stereotyping of Islam. This would not restrict free speech, she said. But the mere fact of U.S. government partnership with the OIC is troublesome. Certainly it sends a dangerous signal, as suggested by the OIC’s Secretary-General, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, when he commented in Istanbul that the Obama administration stands “united” with the OIC on speech issues.

The OIC’s charter commits it “to com- bat defamation of Islam.” Its current action plan calls for “deterrent punishments” to counter “Islamophobia.” In 2009, an official OIC organ, the “International Islamic Fiqh [Jurisprudence] Academy,” issued fatwas calling for speech bans, including “international legislation,” to protect “the interests and values of [Islamic] society.” The OIC does not define what speech should be outlawed, but the repressive practices of its leading member states speak for themselves.

The conference Secretary Clinton announced in Istanbul was held in Washington on December 12-14, 2011, and was closed to the public, with the “Chatham House Rule” restricting the participants (this rule prohibits the identification of who says what, although general content is not confidential). Presentations reportedly focused on America’s deficiencies in its treatment of Muslims and stressed that the U.S. has something to learn in this regard from the other delegations—including Saudi Arabia, despite its ban on Christian churches, its repression of its Shiite population, its textbooks teaching that Jews should be killed, and the fact that it beheaded a woman for sorcery on the opening day of the conference.

Continued