The incendiary film ""The Innocence of Muslims" was merely an unconvincing pretext for a terrorist attack, not the true cause of the attack. Yet the film has spurred new discussions of American free speech exceptionalism, and led some to question whether we should hew to the First Amendment in the face of worldwide demands for an international ban on blasphemy.
Eric Posner wrote in Slate that we ought to consider that other societies believe that "free speech must yield to other values and the need for order." Anthea Butler, a professor at Penn, defended calls for the arrest of the man who made the film, suggesting that it had "inflamed" people across the globe, putting Americans at risk. Garrett Epps wrote that blasphemy is not the "essence of free speech" and that other nations understand freedom differently than we do. Professor Peter Spiro reacted to the film by suggesting that "international norms" about hate speech should prevail over our relatively absolutist free speech values.
We should address such views, not ignore them. But as we consider them — as we evaluate whether anti-blasphemy laws will ever be consistent with the modern American values embodied in our First Amendment precedents — we should examine what the competing values truly are. What are the "other values" which other societies believe outweigh free speech? What sorts of things "inflame" people in those societies? If other societies understand free expression differently than we do, how do they understand it? What "international norms" are emerging on blasphemy?
I decided to try to answer those questions by looking at how the nations of the world have treated blasphemy during one year: October 2011 through September 2012. In other words, I decided to examine how one year reflected the competing values concerning free speech and blasphemy.
A word about methodology
I gathered the following information by using Google to search web sites and news sources week by week for that year. Though "mainstream" journalists are hardly above question, I preferred reports from media sources to unconfirmed reports on blogs and special-interest web sites. I generally avoided sites that I would characterize as deliberately and explicitly anti-Muslim. Moreover, though accusations of blasphemy against Islam predominated, I neither sought them out or evaluated; I generally looked through the first five pages of articles and web sites that came up during each week.
I confined my search to posts and articles about accusations of blasphemy. Therefore this list does not cover the the related concept of apostasy, which can lead to your execution (and the imprisonment of even the lawyers defending you) under the competing values of some countries that punish blasphemy. I also didn't pick up stories about people being punished for "sorcery" or "witchcraft" — usually by decapitation — even though I see that as part of the culture that demands anti-blasphemy laws. Finally, I didn't address cases involving the far broader category of "hate speech" — I eschewed prosecutions for speech disrespecting groups in favor of prosecutions for speech disrespecting religions and religious figures.
Without further ado, I give you a year in blasphemy.
In the United States, "Underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty on the second day of his trial for attempting to blow up a plane carrying 300 people. He explained that if the United States continues "to persist and promote the blasphemy of Muhammad and the prophets," it risks "a great calamity … through the hands of the mujahedeen soon."
In Pakistan, a young Christian woman charged with blasphemy after a dispute with Muslim women in her village was beaten in prison by her guard.
Also in Pakistan, a man sentenced to a month in prison for blaspheming the family of Mohammed found his sentence increased to three years by an appellate court.
In Egypt, a man was sentenced to three years at hard labor for mocking Islam on Facebook.
In France, the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was firebombed after the magazine announced an issue lampooning Mohammed. The magazine's web site was hacked, with rhetoric in Turkish added: "You keep abusing Islam's almighty Prophet with disgusting and disgraceful cartoons using excuses of freedom of speech. Be God's curse upon you!"
In Pakistan, an advocate for reform of blasphemy laws was appointed as ambassador to the United States. If she moves to the United States, she might not have to live in hiding:
Rehman, 50, lives under protection after receiving numerous death threats over unsuccessful legislation she introduced in parliament to reform the country's widely abused blasphemy laws, which have been used to prosecute Christians and other religious minorities for allegedly denigrating Islam. Earlier this year, two other politicians from the Pakistan Peoples Party were gunned down by extremists over the same issue. Following those killings, the debate in Pakistan over blasphemy was snuffed out.
Critics of the appointment asserted that appointing someone opposed to blasphemy laws represented yielding to the United States and the "Jewish lobby."
Also in Pakistan, government authorities released a list of words that telecommunications companies must ban in text messages, including "condom," "flatulence," "monkey crotch" and "Jesus Christ." With respect to the name of Jesus Christ, the government indicated that speech could be restricted "in the interest and glory of Islam."
In France, riot police responded when angry Catholic activists targeted a theater featuring a play that they labeled as blasphemous. The theater — and others showing similar plays — experienced death threats, attacks on their security system, eggs thrown at theatergoers, stinkbombs, and protestors rushing the stage.
In Pakistan, three Ahmedis — members of a minority religious sect — were arrested and charged with various forms of blasphemy. A father was accused of registering his son as a Muslim on a school form, the son was accused of making derogatory comments about Mohammed (which carries the death penalty), and a school headmaster was accused of snatching religious books from the hands of students cheating on a test and hurling the books into a pond.
Also in Pakistan, a 23-year-old Christian laborer was charged with blasphemy for desecrating the Quran based on accusations levied by his Muslim landlord, with whom the defendant had just had a dispute about rent. Another Pakistani Christian — who had previously been acquitted of blasphemy charges — was arrested in church at Christmas services for blasphemy. Previously his wife and son were kidnapped by Muslim village elders in an effort to extort him into converting to Islam.
In Turkey, a court cited "the right to respect for one's religious feelings" in upholding an indictment of a man for "ridiculing Muslim prayer rituals and the Islamic belief that the universe was created by God" in comments on a website.
In Saudi Arabia, an Australian man on a pilgrimage to Mecca was detained, accused of blaspheming the companions of Mohammed, and sentenced to a year in prison and 500 lashes. This sentence was later reduced to 75 lashes over a leather jacket.
In Poland, a court fined singer "Doda" the equivalent of $1,450 for "offending religious feelings" for saying that "she doubted the Bible 'because it’s hard to believe in something that was written by someone drunk on wine and smoking some herbs.'”
In England, in the wake of controversy over cartoons depicting Mohammed, the London School of Economics Student Union passed an anti-blasphemy law condemning and vowing to investigate "Islamaphobia."
Also in England, the film "Visions of Ecstasy", the only film to be banned in the United Kingdom on grounds of blasphemy, is finally given a rating 20 years after being submitted for one.
In India, sharia law courts indicted two priests — the Rev Chander Mani Khanna of the Church of North India and Fr. Jim Borst, a Roman Catholic missionary — for blasphemy because they baptized Muslims converting to Christianity.
Also in India, Muslim leaders called for Salman Rushdie to be denied entry into India to prevent him from attending a literary festival in light of his past blasphemy.
In Malaysia, Saudia journalist Hamza Kashgari was detained at the request of Saudi Arabia on blasphemy charges based on his tweeting imagined conversations with Mohammed. “I love many things about you and hate others, and there are many things about you I don’t understand.” Facebook pages demanding his execution had more fans than one asking for changes to be dropped. Saudi authorities reportedly investigated people who posted support for Kashgari online.
28-year-old Dildar Yousaf, a Christian, was arrested for blasphemy after he defended his 8-year-old nephew from a crowd of kids demanding that the nephew convert to Islam; his accusers claimed he defamed Mohammed during the confrontation.
In Kuwait, authorities arrested a man for blasphemy on accusations that he "slandered the Prophet Mohammad, his companions and his wife" on Twitter.
In Pakistan, a Christian woman who resisted family pressure to convert to Islam was charged with blasphemy based on accusations by Muslim neighbors.
Also in Pakistan, after street protests complaining of a lack of charges, authorities charged a man with sending blasphemous text messages to religious leaders.
In India, authorities arrested skeptic Sanal Edamaruku for blasphemy at the insistence of Catholic Church officials after he revealed how a "miraculous" weeping cross actually worked.
In Kuwait, Parliament voted to make blasphemy punishable by death after a man was accused of blaspheming Mohammed on Twitter.
In Egypt, a teen who posted cartoons of Mohammed on Facebook was sentenced to three years in prison.
In Pakistan, an 80-year-old man acquitted of blasphemy was shot dead by the complaining witness, who had accused him after an argument.
In Indonesia, authorities contemplating moving the trial of a Shiite accused of blasphemy, possibly because the blasphemy allegations were being used to incite crowds to attack Shia citizens.
In Tunisia, two young men were sentenced to seven years in prison "for transgressing morality, defamation and disrupting public order" after publishing caricatures of Mohammed.
In Pakistan, the government shut down access to Twitter after Twitter refused to remove tweets referring readers to a Facebook page containing images of Mohammed.
Also in Pakistan, UN officials reported that Pakistani judges are pressured to convict and sentence to death those accused of blasphemy, and lawyers are reluctant to represent the accused because of threats.
Also in Pakistan, a young Christian man got into an argument with some young Muslim man after a game of billiards. They accused him of blasphemy, and he was arrested.
In Tunisia, a broadcast executive was convicted of blasphemy — though spared prison — for airing the movie Persepolis, a story of the Iranian revolution that includes a depiction of God as an old man.
In Kuwait, the man who inspired the effort to make blasphemy punishable by death was sentenced to ten years in prison for mocking Mohamed, insulting Islam, and insulting the rulers of Saudi Arabia on Twitter.
In Pakistan, a mob was turned back with tear gas when it attacked a police station in an effort to seize and lynch a man accused of blasphemy.
Also in Pakistan, a Christian woman was acquitted after four years imprisonment; she had been accused of blasphemy (on which she was initially acquitted) and of defiling the Quran by touching it "without ablution." The woman and her husband had been accused of blasphemy after their children got into a dispute with the children of a Muslim neighbor.
In Iran, a Christian who operated a church in his home was released after a year in custody for blasphemy and threatening "state security."
In Greece, three men were arrested for blasphemy for acting in the play "Corpus Christi."
In Pakistan, a homeless mentally ill man was dragged from police custody, beaten, and burned to death when he was accused of burning pages of the Quran.
Also in Pakistan, the country's first college of arts had its board dissolved by the government after it was accused of printing a blasphemous journal insulting Islam and promoting homosexuality.
In Pakistan, a Muslim cleric led a mob to surround a police station and pressure authorities to charge a Christian girl with blasphemy on accusations that she desecrated the Quran. Her defenders claim she is 11 and mentally disabled. The accuser's lawyer said that Muslims would "take matters into their own hands" if authorities did not convict the girl. Hundreds of Christians in the neighborhood fled their homes.
In Germany, in the wake of a satirical magazine printing a cover with an image of the Pope with a urine stain on his cassock (a reference to a leaking scandal), a bishop demanded blasphemy laws, saying those "who injure the souls of believers with scorn and derision must be put in their place and in some cases also punished.”
In Egypt, police arrested a Christian man for blasphemy for creating a Facebook page with images of Mohammed.
In Pakistan, police revealed that the clerical accuser of the 11-year-old-girl discussed above may have fabricated the evidence against her.
Also in Pakistan, a shopkeeper who failed to close his store for a protest against the "Innocence of Muslims" film was accused by protestors of blaspheming Mohammed and arrested.
In Moscow, a local theater shut down a production of "Jesus Christ, Superstar" after local prosecutors launched a blasphemy investigation at the request of offended Christians.
In Egypt, a man was arrested for blasphemy after a mob surrounding his house, accusing him of posting a clip from the "Innocence of Muslims" film. An Egyptian court affirmed the six-year blasphemy sentence of another man accused of posting pictures offensive to Muslims on Facebook and insulting President Morsi.
Finally, in Switzerland, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation renewed demands for worldwide blasphemy laws through the United Nations, calling for the West to "come out of hiding from behind the excuse of freedom of expression."
That Was The Year That Was
There you have it — a year of what Eric Posner might call "other values and the need for order," a year of what Anthea Butler might call incidents of people being "inflamed," a year of what Garrett Epps might say are different understandings of freedom and different views of the "essence" of free speech, a year of the competing "international norms" referred to by Professor Peter Spiro. These are the values to which we, as Americans, are invited to yield.
I think not.
As the Posners and Butlers and Eppses and Spiros of the nation have begun to speak in the wake of Benghazi, others have refuted them. Some have pointed out a truth illustrated by this year of blasphemy: anti-blasphemy laws are a tool for religious majorities to suppress religious minorities, and a mechanism for the more powerful to oppress the relatively powerless, and tend to be used in a lawless manner resembling modern witch hunts. That is the norm we are asked to embrace.
It is right and fit that any nation be prepared to examine its own values, and evaluate competing ones. But I feel no qualms whatsoever at rejecting the competing values embodied in that year of blasphemy. Instead, I will stand by the values embodied in the modern interpretation of the First Amendment. When others advocate that America ease protections for free expression to ease international relations or to protect feelings and sensibilities or to move towards some imagined international consensus or to achieve "progress," I will point to this year and ask: do you truly grasp what values you are promoting, and what values you are abandoning?
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