Blasphemy or Creative Expression?
Why attempts to neutralise them often do more harm than good. By Jo Arrem.
A study conducted a few years ago on children from both Eastern and Western cultures asked them to rank the severity of different types of harm. Children from Western cultures ranked physical violence as the worst type of harm that could be done to someone, while those from Eastern cultures ranked affronts to dignity, such as insults to family or honour, as the most severe form of harm.
This striking cultural difference sheds light on the virulent reactions that blasphemous words, acts and art have elicited from Muslims over the years, to the bewilderment of many in the West who cannot comprehend how books or cartoons can lead to riots, the burning of embassies, death threats and, sadly, some deaths.
Blasphemy is the deliberate act of insulting or offending God, sacred objects or holy personalities. It has also applied in instances of insulting a religion or committing practices or rituals considered to be sacrilegious. In fact, the subjective nature of blasphemy has resulted in a wide array of words and actions being deemed blasphemous — from the 17th-century religious practices of the Quakers, followers of an offshoot of Christianity, to the more recent depictions of Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist in offensive comic strips.
One of the first global instances of a blasphemy charge in the Muslim world, which led to widespread riots and a fatwa calling for the accused’s death, was the case of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for his execution. This order led to widespread violence resulting in several bookstores being firebombed, death threats, killings and the breakdown of diplomatic relations between Britain and Iran.
More recent cases that have caused violent global reactions include the publication of offensive drawings of Prophet Muhammad in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and, just last November, the firebombing of the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. A drawing of the Prophet had appeared on its latest cover and inside was a farcical story of the victory of an Islamist Party in Tunisian elections. In Sudan, a British teacher was sentenced to imprisonment in 2007 for allowing her students to name a teddy bear ‘Muhammad’. Aside from being charged and imprisoned, street protests in Sudan called for her to be put to death and led to fears for her safety. The list goes on and on.
Harsh legislation against blasphemy is in place in many Muslim countries, with some arguing that these laws are becoming increasingly draconian. Kuwait, for example, is considering a law that would impose the death penalty against Muslims who exercise their freedom of speech in a way that is deemed blasphemous. Egypt and Tunisia have also recently enacted similar laws.
While fully acknowledging the offence and hurt that acts of blasphemy cause to Muslims around the world, there is a case to be made for moderating the reactions to these incidences away from violence and bloodshed. This applies both to the formal laws against blasphemy and the more informal fatwas and sermons that incite riots and the destruction of property and life.
First, the truth is that severely violent reactions or harsh legislation directed at people deemed culpable of blasphemy are rarely effective in changing hearts and minds. Certainly, these forms of penalisation are intimidating and invoke fear. People may be scared and dare not delve anywhere near discourse, or even creative expressions, that could be interpreted as blasphemous. Nevertheless, one would think that a more desirable outcome would be to engage, educate and build a culture of mutual respect for the things that we all hold sacred. Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom and Expression, put it eloquently in an interview early this year.
‘For me, blasphemy is a horrible cultural phenomenon but, again, should not be censored or limited by criminal law. I would like to oppose blasphemy in general by being respectful, but that’s something you build in the culture and the traditions and the habits of the people, but not something you put in the criminal code. Then it becomes censorship.’
In many instances, violent reactions against individuals or groups accused of blasphemy have served only to reinforce negative impressions and stereotypes of Muslims.
A second danger of anti-blasphemy legislation lies in the incredibly subjective nature of its interpretation. Any law that seeks to legislate something that cannot be held up to objective evaluation runs the risk of being manipulated and abused.
Indeed, in some countries, politicians have been accused of invoking anti-blasphemy laws against religious minorities in order to placate extremist groups or for other politically skewed reasons.
Advocating an end to violent and punitive reactions to blasphemy does not mean Muslims should take offences to their God, Prophet and religion lying down. Rather, the idea is to tackle this offence through dialogue, education and setting good examples. Azizah al-Hibri, a professor of law and member of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, reminds us about the long tradition of education of interfaith understanding and collaborative community building in the Middle East. It might also be worth reminding ourselves of the teachings from the Qur’an that call on Muslims to restrain their anger and forgive others. Educating offenders and others on Islam through websites, school education and other similar means is a more effective way of defeating hate, ignorance and prejudice.
Indonesians Want Official Sacked for Divorcing Wife by SMS in Global Snapshots
Yemenis Celebrate Uprising’s Second Anniversary in Global Snapshots
Dealing with Misconceptions about Muslims in Global Snapshots
Bahrain Marks Uprising Anniversary, Teen Killed in Global Snapshots
Pro-hijab Protest Lands 8 Activists in Prison in Global Snapshots
‘Honour’ Killings in Global Snapshots