Blasphemy Laws In Action: PASTA IS OFFENSIVE Edition

Law, Politics & Current Events

The push for modern blasphemy laws — the argument that governments should individually or collectively punish expression that offends subjective and frequently manufactured-for-effect religious sensibilities — may be servile. It may be contemptible. It may be trading the Western birthright of freedom and autonomy for the mess of pottage that is the right not to be offended.

But it is not a fringe idea. It is a genuine threat. Its proponents include Western law professors, the highest level of the United Nations, and religious leaders of all sorts.

What does it look like in action?

Well, consider an incident last week from the "cradle of Democracy," Greece, where a man has apparently been arrested for mildly satirizing a beloved Eastern Orthodox monk. Accordingly to one translation of a press release:

Cyber Crime Unit arrested 27-year old domestic for malicious blasphemy and religious kathyvrisi through Facebook

The 27 year old managed page on Facebook with profane and abusive content for Elder Paisios and Orthodox Christianity

Damn you, Google Translate!

Explains another source relying upon the same Business Insider article:

The Greek man from the Island of Evia has been charged with “malicious blasphemy and insulting of religion” through Facebook, Keep Talking Greece reported. His arrest followed thousands of e-complaints to the Cyber Crime Unit for the creation of a Facebook page “Geron Pastitsios” (Elder Pastitsios), a mock name for Greek Athos monk, Elder Paisios, of the Greek Orthodox Church. Pastitsio is a Greek food dish.

The Facebook page is, at the time of this writing, unavailable. Some sources are claiming that the Greek Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party was instrumental in influencing Greek authorities to make the arrest. I'd like to see more proof of that, but it would not surprise me: blasphemy always has been and always will be a political crime, the prosecution of which will be determined by the relative power of offended and offender.

The satirist here is fortunate to live in Greece — he won't be executed by the state for wordplay that offends the professionally offended, and his chances of being murdered by a mob are far lower than they would be in a country like Pakistan.

The forces advocating worldwide blasphemy laws want to turn Western countries more like Greece, where you can be arrested for a pun. This has the natural and probable effect of emboldening violence and therefore turning more countries into places like Pakistan, where you can be stoned to death or burned alive if someone accuses you of dissing Muhammad.

People who want these things require more than our indifference or even our unspoken contempt. They require vibrant, vocal, vigorous defiance. We must call them out and fight them.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

52 Comments

48 Comments

  1. SamLR  •  Sep 24, 2012 @7:56 am

    Talking of pasta would love to know (in a hypothetical way) how a blasphemy law would cope with the flying spagetti monster. Created to mock (possibly even blaspheme if you want to read it like that) yet now widely 'worshiped' (and would FSM be covered by blasphemy laws?)

  2. Ken  •  Sep 24, 2012 @8:13 am

    @SamLR: Well, I submit that blasphemy laws in particular, and subjective laws in general, are always implemented against the powerless/disliked by the powerful/liked. So: I would expect blasphemy laws to be used against Pastafarians, unless a local unpopular person could be prosecuted upon the pretext of offending Pastafarians.

  3. Lizard  •  Sep 24, 2012 @8:30 am

    I keep thinking that one tactic which might be effective is showing that American does not prevent, ban, or limit "blasphemy" against Jews or Christians or anyone else. Perhaps we could get someone to translate "Life of Brian" (yes, I know it's British) and broadcast that to these backwater nations, or any South Park featuring Jesus' talk show, or any of the zillions of things that mock Emperor Popatine, etc, etc, etc. Based on comments I've seen posted, it seems many people in foreign lands think Islam is being singled out by Americans for mockery and that other faiths are protected. Disabusing them of that notion would be a good first step towards making them see how silly their demands look to us, and how repressed they are by their own governments.

  4. Constantine von Hoffman  •  Sep 24, 2012 @8:40 am

    As a believer in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I salute the Greek government for its actions and call for an international crackdown on all non-religious references to pasta. We are not an intolerant creed: You may still discuss sauces, meatballs and Parmesan.

  5. En Passant  •  Sep 24, 2012 @8:41 am

    Ken wrote in OP:

    …blasphemy always has been and always will be a political crime, the prosecution of which will be determined by the relative power of offended and offender.

    True, and it raises a second question about Americans (or Westerners generally) who support blasphemy laws: What are those who live in the most powerful countries with the best educated populace on the planet actually saying when they support prosecution for blasphemy to protect the delicate sensibilities of the most ignorant, belligerent and violence prone fanatics on the planet?

    I think those self-appointed spokesmen for supposedly oppressed peoples expose themselves as pusillanimous purveyors of pedantic pap.

  6. Gavin  •  Sep 24, 2012 @8:49 am

    Hmm, that youtube video I made of my feet in a bowl of pasta isn't generating the buzz I was hoping for. I was expecting an uprising in Atheistia against our embassy there.

  7. Grifter  •  Sep 24, 2012 @8:52 am

    It seems like a natural extension of the "fighting words" concept that came up recently, not that I agree with it.

  8. Tarrou  •  Sep 24, 2012 @8:56 am

    Cheers to En Passant for the best alliteration yet today.

  9. Ken  •  Sep 24, 2012 @9:00 am

    @Grifter: I take it you mean "recently" here on the blog, as the fighting words concept is old. But it isn't a principled or logical extension of the purported fighting words exception, because it lacks the narrowing elements of face-to-face expression and imminence.

  10. Caleb  •  Sep 24, 2012 @9:15 am

    I believe fighting words also mainly functioned as a limit to the liability of the aggressor who attacked the speaker as a result of the fighting words, and/or hold the speaker partially liable for the resulting fight. I don't believe the a speaker could be held liable for speaking fighting words. (This is outside the context of incitement, which is different.)

  11. Grifter  •  Sep 24, 2012 @9:19 am

    @Ken:

    I do mean recently here, sorry to be unclear.

    And that's a good point, as regards to the imminence and face-to-face. I was more thinking, though, of the philosophical grounding of "if you say something that someone really doesn't like, then you're in the wrong and can be arrested", based on a presumption that people "just can't be expected" to deal like reasonable people if they hear speech that really upsets them. That's what seemed to me to be the fundamental grounding of the "fighting words" doctrine as it was originally expressed, though it has since been limited.

  12. Phanatic  •  Sep 24, 2012 @9:24 am

    I'm not tremendously familiar with the interaction of EU law and the laws of the respective member states. How do states with laws prohibiting the expression of certain ideas, such as 'The Holocaust Didn't Happen,' or 'I think it would be funny to compare the name of an orthodox priest to that of a plate of noodles,' reconcile enforcing those laws with the guarantee of freedom of expression under the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights?

    I'm guessing this reconciliation takes the form of "Well we're going to ignore that document for these purposes."

  13. delurking  •  Sep 24, 2012 @9:28 am

    Did you know that Pastitsio is a pasta dish, or did you have to look it up?

  14. Josh C  •  Sep 24, 2012 @9:31 am

    @ lizard: unlikely. Jesus is also venerated in Islam, so "life of Brian" would probably provoke the same outrage. That's pretty much true across the Christian and Jewish board.
    You could probably show that we mock e.g. Scientology also, but I don't think that proves anything useful.
    I'm not any sort of expert though.

  15. Lizard  •  Sep 24, 2012 @9:56 am

    @Phanatic: As Ken notes, when two "freedoms" come into conflict, the winner is whoever has the most political/social clout, or, as in the case of Islam, has the most thugs lined up to riot on command. If you have "freedom of speech" and "anti-blasphemy" laws in the same society, you ultimately end up with "the freedom to say anything which no one finds offensive", which is a "freedom" even the most tyrannical societies permit. It is especially pernicious and disgusting when people claim that offensive speech is somehow an "abuse" of freedom of speech, instead of THE ENTIRE FRAKKING PURPOSE OF IT.

  16. Gavin  •  Sep 24, 2012 @10:00 am

    @Josh C,

    I know that Jesus is considered a prophet in Islam but depictions of him have historically been preserved. I know that Muhammad allowed Christian and Jewish statues/buildings/icons to survive while he destroyed everything else so they have precedence for not responding to depictions of Jesus like they would of their Prophet.

    Though I recall one of the Caliphates also destroyed Christian symbols so I'm not 100% on modern beliefs regarding it and I think there's some dispute on the matter according to region. I know the Qur`an is pretty unhappy with Christians calling Jesus "God" or the "Son of God" (5th Surah) because they reject His divinity.

  17. M.  •  Sep 24, 2012 @10:01 am

    Very nice use of Biblical metaphor, Ken.

  18. Gavin  •  Sep 24, 2012 @10:02 am

    @Josh C,

    But yeah, anything mocking one of the prophets listed in their Qur`an would probably not have the desired impact. I also don't think showing them the movie would translate into showing them how we respond to it.

  19. different Jess  •  Sep 24, 2012 @10:17 am

    I must say, a "Golden Dawn party" doesn't sound like an event you'd attend with your grandmother.

  20. Joe Pullen  •  Sep 24, 2012 @10:18 am

    @SamLR, just remember, if you choose to pray to the Flying Spagetti Monster, make sure to end all your prayers with RAmen.

  21. Roscoe  •  Sep 24, 2012 @11:14 am

    At least in this country I think things are getting better on the free speech front. Could you imagine what would have happened to the makers of "Life of Brian" if they tried to distribute that movie in 1945? Banned in Boston at a minimum.

    I agree that there is a present push by the smart folks that there be some mechanism to force us to be nicer to the Muslims. However I expect these people to be firmly shouted down by the bobos, who see it as pretty well established that it is legal to make fun of religion.

  22. Ken  •  Sep 24, 2012 @11:20 am

    Roscoe, Life of Brian was actually banned in some places in Ole Blighty. Previous coverage.

  23. tthoro  •  Sep 24, 2012 @11:44 am

    Blasphemy laws may be the line drawn in the sand for how much the religious people could impose on the rest of us. Maybe because it so easily hits back on themselves.

  24. tthoro  •  Sep 24, 2012 @11:49 am

    Roscoe, my country (Norway) was one of those banning Life of Brian for quite a few years. Passion of Christ was also highly controversial in many countries, and I believe banned. This is – and was – of course ridiculous. However, you never saw any violence breaking out around the movie. No riots, no burnings, no killings. After all, that is quite a fundamental difference.

  25. Gavin  •  Sep 24, 2012 @11:57 am

    Christianity doesn't explicitly forbid the portrayal of Jesus. Islam does (for Muhammad) but it certainly doesn't say anything about killing some guy because some other guy across the world did something offensive.

  26. Orv  •  Sep 24, 2012 @12:04 pm

    I think the American equivalent of this sort of thing are the "food libel laws" in various states, e.g. the Texas law that protects the beef industry from criticism. It says something about American culture that we legally protect wealthy industries from "blasphemy," instead of religions…

  27. Grandy  •  Sep 24, 2012 @12:10 pm

    Repression – Gonna start on Tuesday
    Repression – gonna be a Dalek
    Repression – I am a robot
    Repression – I obey

  28. Shane  •  Sep 24, 2012 @12:19 pm

    Hmmm late in the afternoon … prophet -> popehat

    Ken is there something you are not tell us?

  29. Ghost  •  Sep 24, 2012 @12:22 pm

    I think it was Voltaire who said, "if you want to know who rules you, find out who you are not allowed to offend."

  30. Robert White  •  Sep 24, 2012 @12:29 pm

    Islam only forbids _the_ _faithful_ from making images of Muhammad, and it does so because that is considered fodder for the rise of Idolatry.

    The ironies here are twofold.

    First, the "absence of his image" has become an idol that the "faithful" find defamed by others creating the presence of same. (it's very feng shui, you know, I have a an empty frame and your attempt to fill it is throwing off the entire flow of my religion.)

    Second is that "reinterpreting" the worlds of The Prophet™ is a blasphemy, so all those people who are demanding the absence of the image of Muhammad are committing a blasphemy by changing his words to include the non-faithful in the prohibition.

    Indeed, if there were an anti-blasphemy law, every single demonstrator and modern jihadist would be guilty of several violations of that very law.

    Irony!

  31. Jack B.  •  Sep 24, 2012 @12:40 pm

    I must say, a "Golden Dawn party" doesn't sound like an event you'd attend with your grandmother.

    Wasn't "Golden Dawn" the bad guys in Tropic Thunder? Either that, or it's the greatest hits CD by Tony Orlando's backup singers…

  32. Matthew Cline  •  Sep 24, 2012 @1:01 pm

    Some of the reports makes it sound like that satirizing the monk, in and of itself, was illegal, while other reports make it sound like that the satire incidentally contained statements which, stirpped or the context of the satire against the monk, would still be considered blasphemous. Does anyone know which it really was? (I'm not trying to imply that one of those situations would actually be okay; I'm just curious)

  33. Roscoe  •  Sep 24, 2012 @1:10 pm

    On the subject of how people in this country (at least) recognize that religions are fair game for a bit of mockery, I really like the Mormon Church's reaction to the play "The Book of Mormon?" No riots or calls for legal action, instead they took out an advertisement in the Playbill which reads "The Book is always better." Pretty cool response, I think.

  34. Charles  •  Sep 24, 2012 @1:17 pm

    *cancels Athens production of Pope Ratzatouille*

  35. M.  •  Sep 24, 2012 @3:45 pm

    Religion, you so boring.

  36. Malc  •  Sep 24, 2012 @6:43 pm

    Following up on "M"s comment, the more I think about this sort of thing, the more I conclude that a necessary step for any truly just society is to actively outlaw any special treatment for religion or religious institutions. At all.

    If one makes the state blind to religion, then it cannot have any say in what is, or is not, blasphemous. This seems like a better state of affairs than the current deceitful US approach of pretending there's a separation of church and state, yet still invoking "god" all over the place.

  37. Joe Pullen  •  Sep 24, 2012 @7:37 pm

    Robert, the fact that such irony is lost on the Islamic Jihadist is in of itself ironic.

    I'm also impressed with Kens’ reference to Pastafarians. Given the basic Pastafarian beliefs (pirates as divine beings, heaven having a beer volcano and stripper factory, etc), I'm not sure it's possible to actually offend a real practicing Pastafarian but I could see how other religions could be offended by a Pastafarian.

    I’m thinking about converting.

  38. piperTom  •  Sep 25, 2012 @6:14 am

    The rioters and blasphemy proponents are themselves denigrating Islam, declaring that their beliefs are too weak to stand up in a marketplace of ideas.

    Whatever you hold scared is (or might be) profane to someone else. Whatever is your foulest sin is someone's sacrament. A "fair" blasphemy law would make a crime of any expression of any opinion remotely concerned with religion. What the blasphemy law proponents really want is for the government to choose (or Establish) certain beliefs for a privileged position in law.

    RAmen

  39. David  •  Sep 25, 2012 @6:41 am

    @Malc That's a formula for religious persecution. Is that really where you'd like to go? If the state is wholly blind to religion, then the state trumps religion wherever the two disagree: freedom from religion rather than free exercise of religion.

  40. David  •  Sep 25, 2012 @6:43 am

    Very nice use of Biblical metaphor, Ken.

    He's an actual deacon, or has been such. Occasions for apt biblical metaphors are the perq that drew him in.

  41. Gavin  •  Sep 25, 2012 @8:26 am

    @Robert White and Joe,

    Unfortunately it does not just apply to the faithful. Muhammad started the tradition of imposing iconoclasm on non-Muslim people when they invaded Mecca. Interestingly enough, he allowed Christian icons to survive and anything related to Judaism because of their status as children of the book. There are numerous additional references but the best known is the Yazid Caliphate (think Islamic Pope/Ruler) which not only included the destruction of Christian icons but was even responsible for the final Christian ecumenical council in 787 a.c.e. that was made to specifically reject iconoclasm (see works on Byzantine Iconoclasm in the 8th century).

    So Islam, specifically the Sunni iteration of it, has a significant history of applying this particular belief to people outside of their religion. The thing about the Sunni (The term Sunni comes from Sunnah, or Hadiths) is that they make up 75-90% of all of Islam and equate 6 major Hadith sources to nigh Qur`anic level, hence their name identifying them by the acceptance of Sunnah/Hadith. This is what makes the actions of the prophets and many of the Caliphates legitimate instructions on how to live. This is also what Sharia Law is largely based on. This is comparable to how the Roman Catholic Church is not Sola Scriptura and uses historical/tradition to inform some of its current dogma (such as a position of "priest" or its requirement to be celibate in apparent contradiction to verses requiring Bishops/Deacons to be husbands of one wife with well-behaving children, 1 Tim 3:1-13). The idea that the Bible is the only source of authority is pretty much just found in the protestant tradition.

    So it is a misunderstanding of Islam to think that all of their laws apply to just believers or that the Qur`an is the only source of laws (Only the Qur`anists specifically reject all hadiths and this group is less than 5% of Islam, last I heard). Many hadiths deal specifically with interactions of members of other faiths and not all of it is pleasant. It usually involves taxing them though, moreso than violence unless they're at war. The Shi'ites have a more lax disposition towards such icons because they follow a seperate hadith source and disagree with who the caliphates should have been (so the Yazid Caliphate was illegitimate to them). I believe the Shi'ites actually depict Muhammad themselves from time to time if I'm not mistaken. They are the second largest group at 10-25% of Islam. My advice to you, if you ever enter a mosque, do not wear a shirt with a picture of any living thing on it.

    FYI: Judaism also encourages the destruction of idols being used by others around you who aren't adherrents. Imposing religions beliefs on others is incredibly common and Christianity isn't void of it historically either.

  42. Gavin  •  Sep 25, 2012 @8:32 am

    TL;DR:

    There is a historical and legal precedent for Sunni expression of Islam imposing their Iconoclastic practices on non-believers. Other expressions are typically more lax about it but the Sunni expression = 75-90% of the entire faith so it's not uncommon to see them in the media.

  43. corporal lint  •  Sep 25, 2012 @3:35 pm

    There are numerous additional references but the best known is the Yazid Caliphate (think Islamic Pope/Ruler) which not only included the destruction of Christian icons but was even responsible for the final Christian ecumenical council in 787 a.c.e. that was made to specifically reject iconoclasm (see works on Byzantine Iconoclasm in the 8th century).

    FWIW, Second Nicaea was a response to Byzantine Iconoclasm, promulgated by Byzantines against Byzantines. If Islam is relevant here it's at best only indirectly.

  44. Gavin  •  Sep 26, 2012 @6:27 am

    @Corporal lint,

    Yeah, I shouldn't have said they were responsible for it, per se. I'd say they laid the ground work for iconoclasm in the Christian circles within the Byzantine Empire and that was the direct cause.

    The Muslims (Saracen) and the Jews were listed as the primary cause of the existence of Iconoclasm in the area. I believe Manichaeans were refererenced here too but I'm not certain what role they would have played, being a group specifically persecuted by all the other faiths at the time.You can find this reference in the Fifth session of that council. Muslim iconoclasm was at the world forefront in these days with the caliphate I mentioned who began coming against Christian icons in particular. Before then, Christian icons had been safe and Muhammad had even let just Christian statues remain safely in Mecca. I don't think these two events are so seperated as to not claim at least a strong link (if not indirect) to the cause of the council, but the council was indeed only held because Christians had begun to do it themselves and because of a pseudo council affirming iconoclasm.

  45. Gavin  •  Sep 26, 2012 @6:28 am

    My point though, is merely that iconoclasm in Islam is not intended to be solely held by believers, but to be enforced on those around them. Specifically within the Sunni expression of the faith.

  46. Orv  •  Sep 26, 2012 @10:48 am

    @David – The religious can lobby and vote for the state to act in their interests just like the rest of us have to. Ideas shouldn't get special consideration just because they're put forward by a religion.

  47. James Pollock  •  Sep 26, 2012 @8:56 pm

    Gavin, about ten years ago, before they were forcefully removed from power, the Taliban started destroying some ancient Buddhist statues. My question would be, if the destruction of idols of foreign faiths is so central to their religion, why didn't any of the Muslims of the previous 13 centuries feel the need to destroy these statues? (OK, partial credit for noting that not all the statues have been there since Mohammed's time, and Muslims haven't controlled Afghanistan for that whole time, either. But, they were still there in 2001 for the Taliban to come after them… why hadn't they all been taken care of long before then?)

  48. Connie  •  Sep 28, 2012 @4:30 pm

    Oh god, now I want a big fat plate of pastitso. It's SO GOOD.

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