If This Be Blasphemy, Let Us Make the Most of It

Tom Flynn

International Blasphemy Rights Day is September 30. As that date draws near, it’s appropriate to reflect on the shifting landscape for free speech critical of religion.

In 1999, Free Inquiry under then-editor Lewis Vaughn ran a provocative cover:

Your eyes are not deceiving you. The subhead really was “Digging Up Dirt on Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, & Buddha.” And yes, the cover included a picture of Muhammad. The issue appeared in better bookstores and newsstands nationwide and in other countries (to say nothing of subscribers’ mailboxes). Yet it fomented no controversy. Zilch. Nada. Not a single angry letter or e-mail, not one concerned news story, no frightened vendor whisking the issue off the shelves.

And Muhammad was on the cover.


Free Inquiry Cover

In 2006, Free Inquiry ran four of the twelve famously controversial Danish Muhammad cartoons inside the April/May issue. (Charles Darwin was on the cover.) While European publications including Charlie Hebdo had rushed to reprint the cartoons in solidarity with Jyllands-Posten, the Danish tabloid that originally commissioned them, U.S. media adopted a policy of visual silence, reporting avidly about the cartoon controversy but never showing the cartoons themselves.

Free Inquiry was apparently the first U.S. periodical of national circulation to publish any of the cartoons. Controversy followed. The late, lamented U.S. bookstore chain Borders pulled the issue from its shelves, precipitating a media/blogosphere firestorm in which Borders was roundly drubbed for censorship. Oddly, the Canadian chains Coles, Chapters, and Indigo (then recently absorbed into common ownership) took no action regarding the April/May issue that included the Muhammad cartoons. Instead, the chains stripped from their shelves the next issue, which did not contain Muhammad cartoons. You can guess what happened next; it took just a few days of clobbering by a national newspaper columnist and a gaggle of bloggers before Coles/Chapters/Indigo restocked the issue and issued an unconvincing claim that its removal had been “accidental.”

Soon after that, the major monthly Harper’s published a sprawling cover feature on the cartoons. Penned by the Jewish cartoonist Art Spiegelman (famed for the graphic novel Maus), the feature printed all twelve Danish cartoons repeatedly, once in a sidebar along with Spiegelman’s arch review of each cartoon. He rated them not with stars but with one to five “fatwa bombs.” For good measure, Spiegelman added additional blasphemous cartoons, including one of his own: an ironic, full-page, anti-Semitic cartoon set in a concentration camp. (You read that right; Spiegelman understood the first principle of effective blasphemy: namely, blaspheming your own creed as avidly as you do others.)

Borders sold the June 2006 issue of Harper’s. Coles/Chapters/Indigo censored it. Draw your own conclusions.

Obviously, between 1999 and 2006, much had changed in the way both the general public and pundits perceived blasphemy. The groundwork had been laid earlier, of course; it was in the wake of Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, that many Westerners first experienced the now-predictable rhetoric of pained outrage, real or feigned, when Islam or its prophet are putatively maligned. More disturbingly, this crisis delivered our first broad-scale understanding that many in the West were prepared to value solicitousness toward religion above freedom of expression. Dismaying numbers of politicians, writers, and academics sided not with Rushdie but, in effect, with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, dismissing free expression as indefensible when it affronted religious sensitivities. American bookstore chains (which were then still plural) dithered about selling Rushdie’s book, acquiring spinal fortitude only after best-selling author Stephen King, then at the height of his popularity, threatened to remove his own books from any bookseller that declined to sell Rushdie. (For more on the Rushdie affair and its implications, see “The Importance of Being Blasphemous: Literature, Self-Censorship, and the Legacy of The Satanic Verses” by Stephen R. Welch in this issue.)

Still, during the nineties and shortly beyond, the controversy over what we now call “defamation of religion” mostly smoldered. Islamic terror attacks made headlines: the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and the USS Coleattack of 2000 targeted American interests. Jihadi violence in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe intensified but engaged only sporadic attention stateside. Humanists and writers did mobilize in response to the plight of Taslima Nasrin (interviewed in this issue by Point of Inquiry cohost Lindsay Beyerstein), driven from her native Bangladesh in 1994 by mobs demanding her death for blasphemy.

But for most Americans, it was the attacks of September 11, 2001, that drove home the destructive power of Islamic extremism. In their shadow, controversies over free expression critical of Islam lurched into the form we know today, making it all but inevitable that FI’s 2006 issue republishing four Danish cartoons would spark greater controversy than its 1999 issue that blasphemed Muhammad on its cover.

. . . The More They Stay the Same

More than nine years have passed since the Danish cartoon controversy. Over that time, the controversy and its rhetoric have remained oddly static. Too few Western voices still speak out for free expression, the freedom to criticize religion, and secularism. Too many Westerners still murmur that religious sensibilities must be protected and that sacrificing one of our core liberties is an acceptable price to pay for doing so. All the while, Islamic ideologues continue pressing their arguments in international forums that religions should be held beyond criticism, that so-called defamation of religion threatens human welfare more seriously than the stifling of free expression. First it was the Council of Europe, then the United Nations Human Rights Council—the settings change, but the arguments vary little. The sole new wrinkle concerns the role of national blasphemy legislation. A new antidiscrimination law passed by the United Arab Emirates forbids not only hate speech but any speech disparaging religion—and for good measure, any speech that insults the UAE. A Senior Saudi minister further upped the ante by urging all nations to “intensify efforts to criminalize insulting heavenly religions, prophets, holy books, religious symbols and places of worship.” That’s exactly the wrong solution; for the right solution, we need look only to Iceland, which responded to the Charlie Hebdo attacks by repealing its anti-blasphemy law.

I’ve been reviewing galley proofs for the newest Best of Free Inquiry anthology, The Harm Done by Religion. One of the articles included was a 2006 essay by the venerable UK atheist activist Barbara Smoker. Titled “Should We Respect Religion?,” it presented her reflections on a debate at Oxford at which she and Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned the Danish Muhammad cartoons, defended the freedom to speak critically of sacred things. The essay astonished with its freshness and trenchancy. A more unsettling realization followed: Smoker’s essay remains so relevant because the terms of the controversy have changed so little.

I meant for this editorial to offer an impassioned defense of free expression, especially the freedom to blaspheme. And so it shall, though I turn the bully pulpit over to Barbara Smoker. Nine years ago, she said what needs to be said today:

Should we, then, respect religious faith? Certainly not. But should we respect religious people? Yes—as long as they are not antisocial and do not aim to impose their religious views on others.

However, even if we respect them as good-living people, we cannot respect their beliefs. Faith, which means firm belief in the absence of evidence, betrays human intelligence, undermines science-based knowledge, and compromises ordinary morality. If there were objective evidence for its doctrines, it would no longer be faith; it would be knowledge.

We have to excuse the medieval skeptics who pretended to respect Christianity rather than risk being burned at the stake, and likewise the apostate Muslims of today who pay lip-service to Islam in those Islamic countries where apostasy is still a capital offense; but we who live in a comparatively liberal society have no such excuse. In fact, it is all the more incumbent upon us to give our support to victims of religious oppression everywhere by coming out of the respectful closet and speaking our minds. Freedom of speech is more important than respect. . . .

There can be no real freedom of religion without freedom from religion, which is part of the whole concept of free speech. As J. S. Mill wrote, no idea can be justified unless it is open to opposition—which means free speech and free expression. And free speech must include the right to laugh at absurd ideas. Indeed, ridicule—including satirical cartoons—has always been an important element of the free exchange of ideas on everything, not least religion. Without that free exchange, there can be no advance in knowledge and no social progress.

Totalitarian extremists, of whatever religion or sect, invariably put faith first and freedom nowhere. Censorship, including insidious self-censorship, is then the order of the day, followed closely by violence. In a society where religious orthodoxy rules, there is no freedom of religion. . . .

No one would denounce the ridiculing of political views, which are open to free debate. In fact, true respect for religion would allow it to be opened up in the same way, relying on the truth emerging. But at present it is shielded from honest scrutiny. This suggests that the faithful realize it could not stand up to it. . . .

It is obviously impossible to genuinely respect an ideology that our reason rejects as superstition, let alone dangerous superstition; so what the motion that we should respect it actually means is that we should pretend to respect religion for the sake of political correctness. . . .

Muslims, we are told, are sensitive and are really hurt when their religion is joked about. Don’t they credit their supposed creator god with any sense of humor? Didn’t he actually invent laughter? And is he too weak to withstand a joke without some humorless cleric rushing to his defense? Or is their own faith so weak that they fear its contamination? . . . Claiming to be ultrasensitive and really hurt by mere words or pictures is, of course, a way of gaining privilege. Everyone else has to speak softly so as not to hurt you. . . .

Pressured by religious leaders sinking their differences in the common cause of authoritarianism, [Western and global institutions are] considering the introduction of legislation . . . to enforce “respect for religious feelings” internationally. Insertion of the word feelings lends this tendentious goal a semblance of humane empathy. But religion cannot, in all conscience, be intellectually respected if honesty is to prevail over hypocrisy—and giving it false respect would not just be obsequious and dishonest, but it would actually allow superstitions of the Dark Ages to triumph, destroying the whole range of social and individual freedoms courageously won over the past few centuries.

So, for the sake of liberty as well as truth, we must resist the indefensible furtherance of hypocritical respect. Far from being willing to moderate free speech by respect for religion, we should moderate respect for religion in favor of free speech.*


But Change Is Coming

If the thinking Barbara Smoker exemplifies was embattled in 2006, it is somewhat less so today. After years of stasis, realization genuinely seems to be growing that free expression cannot, mustnot, be curtailed in the name of offering a false courtesy to religious extremists who, if greater power were theirs, would extend no like courtesy to us. Free expression is an irreducible foundation stone of our civilization; at times it’s an issue of survival. Recent attacks on secularist bloggers in Bangladesh—especially the February 26 murder of Bangladeshi-American blogger (and FI contributor) Avijit Roy and the serious wounding of his wife, Rafida Ahmed Bonya—have galvanized awareness of the real stakes.

Another force for change is the humanist and secularist community, which has organized and engaged in activism as never before in defense of free expression and the right to blaspheme. This work is beginning to bear real fruits.

On June 9, the Center for Inquiry (FI’s copublisher) teamed with the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America to hold a Capitol Hill briefing for lawmakers and their staffs on the state of international religious freedom. The next day, Michael De Dora, CFI’s director of public policy, was back on the Hill for a briefing on extremism in Bangladesh cosponsored by the Hindu American Foundation. Only a week later, CFI was rallying support for a U.S. House of Representatives resolution encouraging repeal of blasphemy laws worldwide. Days later, CFI volunteer representative Roy Brown addressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, calling on governments to curb persecution of the nonreligious and to respect freedom of belief and expression. Meanwhile CFI continues to work with the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to aid secularists and skeptics charged with blasphemy and similar offenses in their home countries. (In related activism, CFI played a key role in bringing Taslima Nasrin to the United States when conditions in her adopted country of India became unsafe. CFI donors generously contributed to a Freethought Emergency Fund to meet her expenses and those of future bloggers, writers, and others who may require rescue from religious violence.)

And Finally . . .

It wouldn’t be a blasphemy-rights cover feature without Free Inquiry itself exercising those rights. As in 2006, I am pleased to present an image that U.S. media seem determined you should not see. (It’s findable on the web, but print and television appearances have been extremely rare.)

A bit of background: in May, the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), a Far-Right anti-Islam group, sponsored a “draw Muhammad” contest and associated conference in Garland, Texas. In a stunning demonstration that AFDI’s fevered rhetoric wasn’t wholly paranoid, two American-born jihadis wielding assault rifles tried to shoot their way into the conference facility. One security officer was wounded; another killed both assailants before they could enter. Despite the attack, contest organizers completed their judging and awarded a $12,500 cash prize to graphic novelist Bosch Fawstin, a Muslim-turned-atheist child of Albanian immigrants. AFDI later attempted to reproduce the winning image on transit ads in the nation’s capital, prompting the Washington, D.C., Metro system to take the unprecedented step of banning issue ads for the rest of 2015.

AFDI and its cofounder, conservative blogger Pamela Geller, excoriate Islam in florid language. (Cartoonist Fawstin’s rhetoric is not noticeably milder.) There is much intolerance there. But if only like a stopped clock that’s right twice a day, AFDI and its people do seem to understand the necessity for unbridled free expression, even—indeed, especially—when the topic is religion.

As for the winning cartoon, it is brilliant beyond its origins, capturing the conflict between religious extremism and freedom of expression boldly and with great vibrancy. Here it is. And if no one has wished you a happy International Blasphemy Rights Day, let me be the first.

'You can't draw me!' / 'That's why I draw you.'Bosch Fawstin’sBosch Fawstin’s prize-winning Muhammad cartoon.
Reprinted by permission of American Freedom Defense Initiative.


*Barbara Smoker, “Should We Respect Religion?” FI, October/November 2006; reprinted in Thomas Flynn, Ronald A Lindsay, Andrea Szalanski, and Nicole Scott, eds., The Harm Done by Religion (Amherst, N.Y.: Inquiry Press, forthcoming).



Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).