Blasphemy, protest and freedom

Blasphemy is back. For decades mocking God has been a dead letter, although fossilized blasphemy statutes still exist in some American states. The last time anyone was jailed in Britain for ridiculing God was in 1921. The incongruously-named John William Gott, trouser salesman, member of the Freethought Socialist League and persistent public blasphemer was tossed in the clink for nine months. His appeal was dismissed by the Lord Chief Justice with the bleak comment: “It does not require a person of strong religious feelings to be outraged by a description of Jesus Christ entering Jerusalem ‘like a circus clown on the back of two donkeys’.”
But blasphemy is hardly a dead letter for Muslims. Not at all. Scurrilous reference to the Prophet Muhammad or to Allah is an offence punishable by death. This week, the Muslim world was ablaze with rage over the publication of 12 cartoons caricaturing Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, and subsequently reproduced in other countries. Mobs in Damascus torched the embassies of Denmark and Norway. Several people died in riots in Afghanistan. Parliamentarians in Nigeria burned the Danish flag. Protestors in London carried placards saying "Massacre those who insult Islam", "Europe you will pay, your 9/11 is on the way" and "Freedom of expression go to hell".
This is not the first time that Muslims have been outraged by what they see as Western blasphemies. Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses earned him a fatwa from the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. Its Italian translator and Norwegian publisher survived assassination attempts. Its Japanese translator did not. In 2004 the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was savagely murdered for vilifying Muslims. There were riots around the world when Muslims heard that the Qu’ran had allegedly been desecrated by American interrogators in Guantanamo Bay.
Most of the 12 sketches are not particularly funny or clever. The most offensive depicts the Prophet wearing a turban shaped like a bomb. But provocation was deliberate. The culture editor of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in Denmark heard that local artists were afraid to illustrate a new book on Islam. So late last year, he challenged Danish newspaper cartoonists to draw Muhammad as they saw him. No crystal ball was required to foresee what would happen in Denmark.
Unfortunately he did not foresee what would happen overseas. After the newspaper and the government refused to apologise, a senior Danish imam, Ahmed Abu Laban, dispatched a delegation to Lebanon and Egypt to publicise the outrage. To add spice to the dozen cartoons, he added several far more offensive, but never published, illustrations. A tsunami of rage spread across the Muslim world.
And across the Western media as well. Columnists and letter writers denounced not just the Muslim mobs but all of Muslim culture as backward and oppressive. Melanie Phillips, a conservative columnist for the UK’s Daily Mail, inveighed against “clerical fascists”. It was now clear, she said, that Islamists are angry because “that their religious culture is not in power across the world”. [1] Writer and public intellectual Christopher Hitchens summed up what many Westerners are thinking:

Those of us who believe in enlightenment and free speech also have unalterable principles which we will not give up. We have to listen all the time to piratical-looking mullahs calling our Jewish friends pigs and demanding the censorship of The Satanic Verses and we find this fantastically insulting, but we don’t behave like babies. They are making a puerile spectacle of themselves. We should say, how dare you behave in this way? They can put themselves under laws and taboos if they wish, but it is nothing to do with me or anybody else. They are completely out of order. [2]
Exasperation in the West is growing, with more and more voices sounding like Oriana Fallaci, the prickly Italian journalist who has warned that Europe, besieged by Islam, is in danger of becoming Eurabia.
The “cartoon jihad” is, to put it mildly, an inauspicious development. On one side is a religion of 1.2 billion people who believe ardently in the possibility of blaspheming against a transcendent God and describe it as the worst of crimes. On the other is an intelligentsia which has been educated in Enlightenment values. It denies the existence of a transcendent being and deifies personal autonomy. Blasphemy is merely “whatever a society abhors and has the power to prosecute”[3]. Freedom of speech is its highest value, with religion dismissed as a private idiosyncrasy. In the words of Australian columnist Janet Albrechtson:
When we’re talking about ideas – and religion is, after all, just an idea – the touchstone of free speech should be that old nursery rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” [4]
For many Muslims, this is literally incomprehensible. Religion is not just an idea; it is the highest honour and duty of man on this earth. But the dark side of Islam is that it has less respect for personal freedom and finds it hard to tolerate other views of God. It is impossible to live as a Christian in Saudi Arabia, for instance. And back in 2001 the Islamist Taliban outraged the world by blowing up two gigantic statues of Buddha which had been listed amongst UNESCO’s world heritage sites.
On the other hand, non-religious journalists in the West profess absolute values which they refuse to debate rationally: an unqualified right to abortion, gay rights, freedom of speech and so on. In many Western countries there are complaints that so-called “political correctness” has gone mad. A Swedish clergyman, for instance, is facing a two-year jail term for declaring that homosexuality was "deep cancer tumour" on society.[5] The Iranian press knows how to cock a snook at this grab-bag of taboos. Its largest newspaper is organising an international competition for cartoons ridiculing the Holocaust.
After this incident it seems clear that Enlightenment values will not enable the West to open a dialogue with Islam. Both sides are set to become increasingly antagonistic, suspicious and unforgiving. Is there a way forward? Is it possible to reach a tolerant and respectful accommodation?
It is, but only through Christianity, the hidden foundation of Western culture. Although Islam and Christianity have been at loggerheads in the past, Christianity provides a philosophical and theological framework to establish a dialogue with Muslims. It knows how to live with blasphemy without slaying the blasphemer.
One striking example of this is known to half of the planet: The Da Vinci Code. With nearly 40 million copies in print, and translations in dozens of languages, this novel is one of the all-time best-sellers. Yet its theme, by Christian standards, is as clear an example of blasphemy as one could wish for. It suggests that Christ was not God, that he fathered a child and that the Catholic Church has engineered a conspiracy of lies which has lasted for two thousand years. The leaders of Christianity are corrupt, its doctrines are lies, and its rituals are meaningless babble. The other half of the planet will learn all this when the film is released in May.
Yet there has been no violence from Christians. Indignation, of course, but no petrol bombs, no ransacking of offices, no burning the author in effigy -- just indignation. In fact, the initial reaction of Church leaders was to ignore the book. Later, a spate of books was published refuting the claims made by the novel. Although the offence offered by the novel makes the controversial cartoons look utterly trivial by comparison, the Christian reaction was relatively courteous, patient and respectful. The author’s claims were subjected to a robust analysis by a number of critics. They were rebutted and ridiculed without hatred or violence. Obviously Christians under attack have learned how to cope with blasphemy without grovelling in the trenches or coming over the top with bayonets.
In fact, Christianity preaches respect for other persons, even if they are in error or guilty of wrong-doing. It also preaches forgiveness, just as the Christian God forgives, and pours mercy on wounds, not the acid of hatred. Christian justice is not revenge, but an attempt to correct and restore goodness.

It is common for Christianity’s critics to deride it as intolerant and dogmatic. Indeed, in the distant past, blasphemy was not treated so lightly, even in England. In Elizabethan times, for instance, with the monarch as supreme ruler of both Church and State, blasphemy was tantamount to treason and punishable by death. But part of the genius of Christianity is that it is supple and adaptive. Perhaps because its founder set a boundary between Church and State which does not exist in Islam. Perhaps because it knows how to distinguish between faith and reason. Whatever the explanation maybe, it is indisputable that without changing its doctrines, Christianity has managed to adapt successfully to democratic and multi-cultural societies of the modern world.

Islamic values and Western values are likely to be in the ring for many more rounds --for at least as long as the war on terrorism lasts. If Western governments and media are to learn how to deal with their growing Muslim minorities, they ought to look to Christianity as a model of how to combine profound respect for a transcendent divinity with contemporary freedoms.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet

[1] Melanie Phillips. The Cartoon Jihad. Feb 5, 2006.
[2] “Focus: Freedom v faith: the firestorm”. London Sunday Times. Feb 5, 2006.
[3] David Lawton. Blasphemy. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1993.
[4] Janet Albrechtson. “Free speech has liberals tongue-tied”. Australian. Feb 8, 2006.
[5] Swedish court hears 'hate' case. BBC. Nov 9, 2005.  


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  • Sheila Liaugminas