Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Reality of Anti-Blasphemy Laws

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.

Pakistani security personnel shift Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl accused of blasphemy, to a helicopter after her release from jail in Rawalpindi on September 8, 2012. (Farooq Naeem / AFP / GettyImages)
Pakistani security personnel shift Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl accused of blasphemy, to a helicopter after her release from jail in Rawalpindi on September 8, 2012. (Farooq Naeem / AFP / GettyImages)

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.

Western double standards and free speech

In my recent columns I’ve been critical of calls for a global “blasphemy” ban from the Organization of Islamic Conference and other Muslim leaders. But free-speech protections, if they are to be meaningful, must be universal. The greatest threat to them is double standards that are the bedrock of advocacy for the slippery slope of restrictions.

Some Muslims and their sympathizers point to anti-“hate speech” laws in Canada and some European countries as an example of double standards or how restricting the content of speech can be compatible with liberal values.

Precisely because these objections are plausible in the general Western, if not American, contexts, they again demonstrate how pernicious such bans are. The best defense has been that the United States, with its extremely permissive atmosphere on expression, provides a better aspirational model.

But even in the United States there are lurking threats to free speech designed to stifle political expression. One of the most troubling recent examples of this is an effort by members of the California State Assembly to urge or coerce public universities in California to crack down on “anti-Semitic hate speech” in the name of defending Jewish students and other supporters of Israel.

A recently passed non-binding resolution by the assembly includes a disturbingly over-broad definition of “anti-Semitism.” It includes numerous kinds of overtly political opinions, including calls to boycott, divest from or sanction Israel; suggestions that Israel is a racist, apartheid or Nazi-like state; or that Israel has engaged in crimes against humanity such as ethnic cleansing or genocide. Even more absurdly, it defines anti-Semitism as holding Israel to standards of behavior not required of “any other democratic nation,” or questioning the legitimacy or propriety of maintaining Israel as a Jewish state.

This dangerously over-broad definition of anti-Semitism is based on working documents published in 2005 by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia. Its orientation reflects a mistake common to anti-hate speech efforts. Rather than attempting to establish any kind of clear, coherent guideline for distinguishing between anti-Semitic speech and what is simply unpleasant or provocative speech, it functions as a catchall. It prefers to include anything that might conceivably be a vehicle for anti-Semitism, even when that’s probably not the case. There are analogous definitions of Islamophobia that are equally pernicious.

Even though much of what is described above, and in the resolution, isn’t necessarily, or even probably, genuinely anti-Semitic, this still begs the question of what the California legislature is doing pressuring public universities on the subject of speech. The controversy over the resolution, and its unworkable definition of anti-Semitism, demonstrates that the state, including public universities, has no business trying to regulate speech unless absolutely unavoidable. It reveals that, especially on questions involving Israel, what is labeled anti-Semitic is often highly subjective, and, worse still, highly politicized.

The California legislature was responding to recommendations by a campus committee on anti-Semitism that recommended a ban on “hate speech.” Phobic, abusive, fear or hate mongering, and highly offensive speech is a real problem in free societies. Measures to respond to it by restricting speech, however, are a perfect example of the purported cure that is worse than the perceived disease.

When the crackpot historian David Irving was given a prison sentence in Austria for lectures in which he questioned the historicity of the Holocaust, almost all mainstream Jewish-American groups condemned or distanced themselves from laws criminalizing such stupid and offensive opinions. Yet some of these same organizations have been strongly supportive of the California campus “hate speech” crackdown campaign.

Fortunately, it won’t work. Experience suggests that “hate speech” bans invariably fail and frequently boomerang on the groups initially pushing for them. Certainly in the United States, the default towards free speech is strong enough that a position advocating censorship is almost always a losing one, socially, politically and legally.

In Western societies that try to restrict “hate speech,” the enforcement of such laws is almost always a political struggle that illustrates the inherent subjectivity at play. The cases invariably highlight the tension between the value of free expression and misguided efforts to get the state to forcibly protect society from unpleasant, provocative, bigoted or racist opinions.

Muslim advocates of a global “blasphemy” ban are right that efforts to restrict “hate speech” undermine Western claims about free expression and raise the issue of double standards. But the answer isn’t to extend such restrictions even further to cover “blasphemy.” It is to recommit to the value of free speech.

No good can come from trying to use state power to suppress offensive expression. Those who politicize such efforts do the most harm, because their double standards are evident and motivations obvious. Muslims who would restrict speech to “protect Islam” have no greater allies than Jews who would do so to “protect Israel.”