This week in France, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has run a piece with sexual caricatures of Muhammad, thus courting mob violence, murder, and firebombing.
Those risks are not hypothetical or abstract. This month, of course, we've seen mobs cite an anti-Muslim video as an occasion or excuse for violence, a view likely manipulated by extremists for political ends. Plus, Charlie Hebdo got firebombed last year when they merely mentioned their intent to run such a piece. Prior publications of cartoons about Muhammad have been used as excuses for widespread violence (not to mention legal thuggery, stupidity, and rank cowardice), leading many, including us, to run cartoons or drawings in defiance.
In reading the coverage of the Charlie Hebdo drawings, I noticed perhaps the best and most credible argument for blasphemy laws yet:
In Egypt, where protesters last week attacked the American Embassy, the Muslim Brotherhood said the cartoons were blasphemous and hurtful, and called upon the French judiciary to condemn the newspaper. Mahmoud Ghozlan, a spokesman, noted that French law prohibited Holocaust denial. Similar provisions might be made for comments deemed blasphemous under Islam, he suggested.
“If anyone doubts the Holocaust happened, they are imprisoned,” Mr. Ghozlan told Reuters. “It is not fair or logical” that the same not be the case for those who insult Islam, he said.
You know what? He's right.
Laws that censor the expression of ideas are the best and most convincing arguments for other laws that censor the expression of ideas. When you make it a crime to question the Holocaust, you offer a splendid and convincing argument by analogy for a law criminalizing speech that offends the religious. When you prosecute nutty old women for offending Muslims, you offer the next group of offended persons powerful arguments that their offense should be redressed by the criminal justice system as well. When you advocate an amendment to the Constitution to allow criminal prosecution of flag-burners, you give a head start to everyone who argues that blasphemy should be criminalized.
I've heard the arguments that Holocaust-denial laws are special or different because of the historical experience of Europeans. I'm unconvinced. The next Holocaust will not be prevented by laws prohibiting people from bad-mouthing the last one. The next Holocaust will be prevented by firmly entrenched cultural and legal norms limiting the state's power over the individual and recognizing the inviolability of the individual. Laws allowing the state to criminalize ideas undermine those norms rather than promote them.
So. If you're spending the month denouncing the calls for blasphemy laws coming from extremists and apologists and fellow-travelers, ask yourself: how is your nation already making the argument for those who demand broad censorship?
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