The entire Muslim world . . . is agitating for the United Nations to pass an anti blasphemy law. The rest of the civilized world must oppose this at every turn.
—Mahfooz Kanwar, Calgary Herald
It seemed the whole world was marking International Blasphemy Rights Day (September 30). Debates about free speech and criticism of religions had been consuming the news agenda for days. The inept and insulting Internet video Innocence of Muslims—or more precisely, its inept and insulting fourteen-minute trailer—was thought to have triggered September 11 riots in Benghazi that claimed the life of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The Benghazi attack is now understood as an al-Qaeda strike for which outrage over the video was merely pretext. But in the immediate aftermath of the consulate attack, calls for new curbs on speech critical of religion resounded worldwide. Fortunately, so did vigorous defenses of the principle of free speech.
Conspicuous among the latter is the ongoing Campaign for Free Expression (CFE), relaunched on International Blasphemy Rights Day by the Council for Secular Humanism’s supporting organization, the Center for Inquiry (CFI). The campaign, which will continue into early 2013, is meant to “fight the efforts of governments to criminalize speech critical of religion and to push back against calls for global restrictions on free speech” while it seeks to “inspire the global community to stand up in defense of free speech.” (To learn more, visit http://www.centerforinquiry.net/cfe.)
“Blasphemy” was once understood as an insult to a deity. Today it is fashionable to redefine it as an insult or offense against a group of religious believers. As Austin Dacey reports in his article in this issue (one of four essays following this one that comprise a mini-feature on the controversy), much of the world’s human-rights community has now embraced this revised definition of blasphemy, not the least of whose problems is that it makes “blasphemy” mean whatever its self-labeled victims decide it means. Adherents call for policies or new international laws to legitimate the suppression of speech insulting to religious communities.
Since 1999, the fifty-seven-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC, formerly the Organisation of the Islamic Conference) pressed the United Nations (UN) to criminalize what it calls “defamation of religions.” In recent years, CFI and others have actively opposed these initiatives.
With the Innocence controversy, the OIC vastly expanded its activism. It had plenty of company. In rapid succession, Sunni Islam’s highest legal authority urged the UN to criminalize blasphemy toward Islam. The vice-chair of the International Union of Muslim Scholars demanded that the world body “criminalize the denigration of religious symbols.” Lebanon’s highest-ranking Catholic leader urged the UN to “ban denigrating religions.” Even UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wound up conceding that curbs on free speech could be acceptable when speech is “used to provoke or humiliate.”
What these proposals share is a willingness to set aside free-speech norms where religion is concerned—in effect, to create a special right not to be insulted that exists for religious believers and them alone. Turkey’s prime minister has declared that “freedom of thought and belief ends where the freedom of thought and belief of others start,” while Yemen’s president urged the General Assembly to create “limits for the freedom of expression, especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures.” Chillingly, Pakistan’s president called on the global community to “criminalize such acts that . . . endanger world security by freedom of expression.”
Surprisingly, some calls to suppress Innocence of Muslims or sanction its creators came from American sources. Shortly after the Benghazi attack, Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, called, in USA Today, for the video maker, then known only as “Sam Bacile,” to be arrested because “the ‘free speech’ in Bacile’s film is not about expressing a personal opinion about Islam. It denigrates the religion. . . .” Sarah Chayes, a former special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a resident associate at the Carnegie Endowment, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Innocence of Muslims might be treated as an incitement to violence unworthy of free-speech protections even on American soil.
And Eric Posner, son of the famous judge and a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, wrote at Slate.com that “Americans need to learn that the rest of the world—and not just Muslims—see no sense in the First Amendment.”
It has been heartening to see how rapidly—and capably—such contentions have been rebutted. Within a day, Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education replied on the Huffington Post, ridiculing Posner’s claim that “blasphemy could function as some small, manageable exception to our national guarantee of freedom of expression and belief.” On the contrary: “The brilliance of our system is that we placed freedom of speech, the free exercise of religion, and the freedom from established religion in the same clause. In one sentence, the Bill of Rights attempted to eliminate some of the most consistent reasons for particularly brutal bloodshed in human history.”
As Michael De Dora, CFI’s director of public policy, expressed it: “No one has the right not to be offended, and centuries-dead religious figures certainly need no protection from insult.”
Ultimately, this debate will turn on two key questions:
Is free speech a fundamental right? In her column, Shadia Drury makes a humanist case for viewing free speech as a domestic good, justifiably treasured at home but difficult to export without at least the appearance of imperialist hubris. It’s important to understand this argument, but I think many secular humanists will join with me in respectfully rejecting it.
In part, this reflects secular humanism’s commitment to ethical objectivism. Are moral judgments nothing more than expressions of opinion, ultimately reflecting only the likes and prejudices of the individual or community that propounds them? If so, there’s no problem if Americans prefer free expression while Pakistanis fancy curbs on speech to shield the Prophet and his religion. No one’s right, no one’s wrong; let a thousand flowers bloom. Pakistani cricket star and politician Imran Khan exemplified this stance when he said, “You can’t come into a society and say ‘this should be painful and this should not be painful.’ What is painful to us is painful to us. And we expect countries to recognize that.” Pious critics often accuse nonbelievers of embracing just this sort of relativism in the moral arena. But secular humanism has always firmly rejected that approach, explicitly blending nontheism with the view that ethical norms can be evaluated objectively in terms of how effectively they support human flourishing.
In the new introduction to the second edition of his book Forbidden Fruit, FREE INQUIRY founder Paul Kurtz noted that there are “prima facie general rules that we can discover in human experience and reflection and in which common social virtues appear . . . common moral decencies that cut across cultures. . . . This is most likely due to the fact that human beings face similar problems and as a consequence share basic common needs.”In other words, because all societies are comprised of human beings whose natures and psychologies are broadly similar, through patient observation and unbiased analysis we can hope to discover ethical precepts valid for every society, not only for some.
In fact, this process has been ongoing for centuries, and freedom of expression has emerged as one of the universal human values it reveals. In announcing the new Campaign for Free Expression, CFI President Ronald A. Lindsay aptly termed it “a fundamental human right.”
This view has prominent defenders outside of our movement, including U.S. President Barack Obama. In remarks to the UN General Assembly on September 25, Obama said bluntly that the principles of free speech “are not simply American values or Western values—they are universal values.”
And if free speech is a universal value, then, as Edward Tabash asserts in his column in this issue, “blasphemy is a human right.”
That brings us back to our second question. Is it proper to treat religious believers differently because of their heightened sensitivities? If free speech is a universal right, then the answer to this question must always be no. As blogmaster Ed Brayton summed up, “If we are not free to criticize your religious views, we do not have free speech.” FREE INQUIRY, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Center for Inquiry have always been outspoken in insisting that no religious proposition, personage, or image can be held immune from responsible criticism, satire, or even ridicule.
Religious teachings, figures, and beliefs should be accorded the same respect and protection we accord to, say, opinions about politics or economics—but no more. Indeed, a secular humanist argument can be made that religious viewpoints deserve less protection than other views rooted in more sophisticated ways of knowing. As Kurtz noted in a 1995 FREE INQUIRY editorial, “You cannot find a defense of human rights in the Bible or the Koran. They have emerged only with the democratic and humanist revolutions of the modern era.”
A September 25 Chicago Tribune editorial wisely admonished the UN against suggesting “that people in free countries, ours included, need to curb their own rights in order to placate the sensibilities of those who permit their anger to become actionable.” It’s time to stand up for free speech, volubly and quickly, before this essential human value is degraded—degraded in part by knaves, in part by reformers blinded by the best intentions. One starting point is the firm insistence that, intellectual fashions notwithstanding, blasphemy remains a victimless crime.
Interestingly, on October 15 the head of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation said that it would stop agitating for a UN ban on insults to religion because Western nations’ objections on the basis of free speech could not be overcome. Apparently principled resistance has met with some success.
President Obama declared that “the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech—the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.” With the proviso that blasphemy is often legitimate, three cheers.
Thanks to Andrea Szalanski and Paul Fidalgo for research assistance.
Tom Flynn is the editor of FREE INQUIRY and the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.
Some thirty countries currently have blasphemy laws. Section 295(a) of the Indian Penal Code forbids “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” As Ryan Shaffer reports in this issue, this law is now being wielded against rationalist campaigner Sanal Edamaruku after he angered some Indian Catholics by debunking a “miracle” statue of Jesus in a church. Paragraph 166 of Germany’s Penal Code provides up to three years in prison or a fine for one who “publically, or via the dissemination of writings, slanders the religious confession of another person.” In Egypt, blasphemy charges are pending against an ultra-conservative Muslim activist who allegedly tore up and burned copies of the New Testament at an anti-American protest, an unusual application of Egypt’s law in defense of a religion other than Islam.
According to a 2010 Freedom House report, blasphemy laws are often praised as antidiscrimination measures but are more frequently used by rulers as one more tool of control. The Chicago Tribune called them “a useful, if unintended gift to dictators and repressive regimes worldwide.” In any case, they don’t work. As philosopher Austin Dacey notes in this issue, no evidence suggests that states can compel “ethical behavior by the force of law. Bigotry is flourishing across Europe, for example, despite its robust hate-speech laws.”
What about blasphemy laws at home? Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania still have such laws on their books. Some of them date from Colonial times, though Pennsylvania’s was enacted in 1977. It is highly questionable whether any of these laws would be enforceable under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as it is interpreted today. Even in the past, prosecutions have been infrequent. No one has been jailed for blasphemy in the United States since Arkansas briefly incarcerated atheist activist Charles Lee Smith in 1928. A number of states have formally repealed their blasphemy laws, among them Arkansas and New York. Interestingly, at the height of the Innocence controversy, Oklahoma lawmaker Randy Grau announced that he planned to file legislation repealing that state’s 1909 anti-blasphemy law, which he called outdated and un-American.
— Tom Flynn
One might expect believers in Muhammad to welcome Innocence of Muslims, as it documents a miracle by the Prophet Muhammad that generations of commentators had overlooked. In this still from the controversial trailer, the Prophet and founder of Islam (pictured) is shown performing the miracle of the two suns. Outdoor light shines onto his face from the viewer’s left but onto his keffiyeh from the viewer’s right, while it illumines the dunescape behind him solely from the latter direction. Then again, it may be just inept video making.