Blasphemy: an indispensable human right

Blasphemy is an indispensable human right. Without the right to engage in blasphemy, there can be no freedom of inquiry, expression, conscience or religion.

As I predicted last week, the Organization of Islamic Conference has seized on the controversies regarding an anti-Islam video clip on YouTube and satirical cartoons about Mohammed in a French magazine to renew its call for a global ban on “blasphemy.” The OIC is, in effect, not only announcing that Muslim states in general have no intention of allowing real freedom of conscience and speech, but they want to bully the West into eliminating those freedoms as well.

OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu called on countries that respect free speech to “come out of hiding from behind the excuse of freedom of expression.” OIC governments apparently cannot resist the populist appeal of perversely posing as “defenders of Islam” by attacking free thought and free speech.

Who, after all, will be authorized to define “blasphemy”? Does anything that offends any religious sensibilities qualify as “blasphemy”? Will a critical mass of objections be seen as legitimate grounds for silencing critics of religious doctrine, scholarly inquiry into their origins, skeptical analysis of superstition and faith, iconoclasm, or mockery of religious claims, symbols, assertions, and shibboleths?

Iran is a member state of the OIC. It has just raised the bounty, issued decades ago, against Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. The novel, which is a fine one, is not, in fact, blasphemous by any reasonable definition. It probably would’ve been an even more interesting book if it had been. But it offended people, most of whom had not read it, was declared and widely considered “blasphemous,” and therefore presumably would be banned under the OIC’s proposals.

Pakistan says it’s going to press the issue of a global “blasphemy” ban at the UN and other multilateral institutions. This is the same country that is persecuting a teenage Christian girl for alleged blasphemy in a most horrifying and indefensible manner. Along with a number of other Muslim-majority states, Pakistan allows for the death penalty, at least theoretically, for “blasphemy” criminal offenses.

Several Arab states, including Egypt and Kuwait, have recently been toying with new criminal definitions of “blasphemy” that specifically ban insulting the wives and companions of the Prophet Mohammed, which is barely concealed code for the suppression of Shiite doctrinal criticism of Sunni Islam. The OIC is based in Saudi Arabia, a country that does not allow freedom of worship for any non-Muslims. The examples of the hypocrisy behind these calls are simply endless.

If freedom of religion, conscience and speech are to mean anything, religious doctrines, symbols and assertions must be open to inquiry, criticism and, indeed, ridicule. Otherwise, the human thought process will be shut down by force of law in order to protect the sensibilities of the superstitious, and free inquiry into the most central issues facing humanity since the birth of the species will be effectively foreclosed.

These calls reflect a paranoid worldview that is widespread among Muslims that their religion is under some kind of global assault. If so—because Islam is spreading faster than almost any other religion, with the possible exception of Mormonism—it’s an odd kind of siege. In reality, Islam is thriving in its countries of origin and spreading quickly into the West.

What this idea really bespeaks is a terror that most faiths contain at their core: that serious, skeptical, dispassionate evaluations of their specific claims will reveal them to be indefensible, hollow and easily debunked. Embracing modernity requires tolerating such fears without demanding the enforcement of religious orthodoxy, even of an ecumenical variety, through the power of the state.

In fact, and unfortunately, the devout of the world have little to fear. Sigmund Freud was right in his seminal 1927 tract on religion, “The Future of an Illusion,” that as long as people fear death and yearn, in an Oedipal manner, for an all-powerful supernatural father-figure to “exorcise the terrors of nature” and “reconcile men to the cruelty of Fate, particularly as it is shown in death,” we are likely to be stuck with metaphysical superstitions and religion. There is little chance, in short, that human society at large will ever be free of its grip.

Reason and skepticism, for good or ill, are not poised to overthrow faith. Islam is thriving in the modern world, both in its traditional lands and in its new adopted homes. Its politicized devotees are acquiring increasing power in post-dictatorship Arab societies. And on top of all of this, the OIC wants to globally shut down freedom of thought, conscience and speech to further “protect” Islam from perceived slights.

There is only one appropriate response to this, in language the devout should be able to easily understand: to hell with you.