After all the grandstanding by various Muslim leaders at the recent U.N. General Assembly meeting, and by the Organization of Islamic Conference, on the need for global anti-blasphemy laws, the Egyptian legal system has been thoughtful enough to provide us with a timely demonstration of what such restrictions look like in practice. Two Coptic Christian children Nabil Nagy Rizk, 10, and Mina Nady Farag, 9, were arrested yesterdayon charges of “insulting religion” in the governorate of Beni Suef. The two children are being held in a juvenile detention center awaiting further investigation and possible criminal prosecution.
The children stand accused by the Imam of a local mosque of destroying papers, including some containing Quranic verses. The incident is disturbingly reminiscent of an ongoing scandal in Pakistan in which a Christian girl is being persecuted for allegedly destroying copies or pages of the Quran.
This is what anti-blasphemy laws inevitably lead to: the arrest and persecution of religious minorities, including children, in order to “protect sensibilities” of religious majorities. What it shows is that anti-blasphemy laws have nothing to do with “respect” or “sensitivity” to religious sentiments but are all about authority, control and social domination.
Because these laws appeal to extra-legal and extra-constitutional sentiments, values and principles that exist above and beyond the law itself, they lend themselves perfectly to abusive and discriminatory application. In the case of prosecutions regarding the dissemination of the inflammatory, offensive anti-Islam online video clip “The Innocence of Muslims,” a Coptic Christian named Albert Saber has been arrested and remains in detention for allegedly posting the clip online. But no measures have been taken against the Salafist Al-Nas television station that broadcast significant portions of the video to its large audience in the earliest effort to whip up a public frenzy that led directly to the violent incidents that rocked the Middle East a few weeks ago.
Al-Nas defended its actions as responsibly alerting the public to a “threat” to Islam, but in fact it was the principal vehicle for disseminating the content of the clip in the Arab world. Had they ignored it, the ensuing chaos might well never have come to pass. The channel cynically served as the main public relations vehicle for the video, because the Saudi-funded extremist station and its radical backers understood that their political allies would be the direct beneficiaries of public outrage, which they were delighted to stoke to a fever pitch.
Yet they have not been prosecuted under Egypt’s anti-blasphemy laws, because they are extremist Muslims purporting to act “in defense of Islam.” So anti-blasphemy laws are again revealed to be entirely about social and political context, authority and control, and nothing to do with content.
Amazingly, there has been virtually no pushback or reaction to remarks by the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani in his recent U.N. speech, which sought to place the blame for the violence entirely at the feet of the authors of the video and implicitly exonerated the rioters and extremist organizations behind them for the deaths for which they were directly responsible. He alleged that “freedom should not cross reasonable limits and become a tool to hurt and insult the dignity of others and of religions and faiths and sacred beliefs as we have seen lately, which regrettably led to the killing of innocent people who have not committed any crime.”
This is a perfect window into the through-the-looking-glass world of blasphemy-ban advocates. In this reality, those who engage in offensive speech (and there’s no question that the video is patently Islamophobic and hateful) bear the full responsibility if others cynically exploit their intentional, calculated provocations for their own political and social purposes. If people are killed, that’s the fault of the provocateurs, not the killers. These statements implicitly absolve extremist and violent reactions to provocative speech and suggest that the proper response is not to denounce and yet still protect offensive expression, but to suppress it in order to prevent a violent reaction.
The Emir, in effect, was making common cause with the violent extremists, using their deplorable and criminal behavior as a rationalization for the suppression of offensive speech. It’s a thinly-disguised exercise in bullying, and an updated version of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s old “madman” diplomatic strategy: if you don’t make an agreement with me on my terms, you’ll bear the full responsibility for what those other crazy people do.
Of course, it’s an even worse form of bullying to arrest children on trumped up charges of “blasphemy.” Yet this is happening, time and again, in several Muslim-majority states. The latest examples from Egypt are only the most recent.
That’s what the push for a global anti-blasphemy ban—which will not and must not succeed—is ultimately designed to do: rationalize such oppressive restrictions in those Muslim-majority states where they actually apply. And, in practice, that means religious minorities, including children, will inevitably be subjected to grotesque abuses. If this isn’t a wake-up call for everybody who thinks they are committed to freedom and democracy, I don’t know what will be.