The following is adapted from a lecture delivered at Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C., on February 3, 2012.
A growing threat to our freedom of speech is the attempt to stifle religious discussion in the name of preventing “defamation of” or “insults to” religion, especially Islam. Resulting restrictions represent, in effect, a revival of blasphemy laws.
Few in the West were concerned with such laws 20 years ago. Even if still on some statute books, they were only of historical interest. That began to change in 1989, when the late Ayatollah Khomeini, then Iran’s Supreme Leader, declared it the duty of every Muslim to kill British-based writer Salman Rushdie on the grounds that his novel, The Satanic Verses, was blasphemous. Rushdie has survived by living his life in hiding. Others connected with the book were not so fortunate: its Japanese translator was assassinated, its Italian translator was stabbed, its Norwegian publisher was shot, and 35 guests at a hotel hosting its Turkish publisher were burned to death in an arson attack.
More recently, we have seen eruptions of violence in reaction to Theo van Gogh’s and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s film Submission, Danish and Swedish cartoons depicting Mohammed, the speech at Regensburg by Pope Benedict XVI on the topic of faith, reason, and religious violence, Geert Wilders’ film Fitna, and a false Newsweek report that the U.S. military had desecrated Korans at Guantanamo. A declaration by Terry Jones—a deservedly obscure Florida pastor with a congregation of less than 50—that he would burn a Koran on September 11, 2010, achieved a perfect media storm, combining American publicity-seeking, Muslim outrage, and the demands of 24 hour news coverage. It even drew the attention of President Obama and senior U.S. military leaders. Dozens of people were murdered as a result.
Repression based on charges of blasphemy and apostasy, of course, goes far beyond the stories typically covered in our media.
In America, the First Amendment still protects against the criminalization of criticizing Islam. But we face at least two threats still. The first is extra-legal intimidation of a kind already endemic in the Muslim world and increasing in Europe.
The second threat we face is the specter of cooperation between our government and the OIC to shape speech about Islam. A first indication of this came in President Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009, when he declared that he has a responsibility to “fight against negative stereotypes of Islam whenever they appear.” Then in July of last year in Istanbul, Secretary of State Clinton co-chaired—with the OIC—a “High-Level Meeting on Combating Religious Intolerance.” There, Mrs. Clinton announced another conference with the OIC, this one in Washington, to “exchange ideas” and discuss “implementation” measures our government might take to combat negative stereotyping of Islam. This would not restrict free speech, she said. But the mere fact of U.S. government partnership with the OIC is troublesome. Certainly it sends a dangerous signal, as suggested by the OIC’s Secretary-General, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, when he commented in Istanbul that the Obama administration stands “united” with the OIC on speech issues.
The OIC’s charter commits it “to combat defamation of Islam.” Its current action plan calls for “deterrent punishments” to counter “Islamophobia.” In 2009, an official OIC organ, the “International Islamic Fiqh [Jurisprudence] Academy,” issued fatwas calling for speech bans, including “international legislation,” to protect “the interests and values of [Islamic] society.” The OIC does not define what speech should be outlawed, but the repressive practices of its leading member states speak for themselves.
The conference Secretary Clinton announced in Istanbul was held in Washington on December 12-14, 2011, and was closed to the public, with the “Chatham House Rule” restricting the participants (this rule prohibits the identification of who says what, although general content is not confidential). Presentations reportedly focused on America’s deficiencies in its treatment of Muslims and stressed that the U.S. has something to learn in this regard from the other delegations—including Saudi Arabia, despite its ban on Christian churches, its repression of its Shiite population, its textbooks teaching that Jews should be killed, and the fact that it beheaded a woman for sorcery on the opening day of the conference.
…The encroachment of de facto blasphemy restrictions in the West threatens free speech and the free exchange of ideas.
Such violence in response to purported religious insults is not simply spontaneous. It is also stoked and channeled by governments for political purposes. And the objects and victims of accusations of religious insults are not usually Westerners, but minorities and dissidents in the Muslim world. As Nina Shea and I show in our recent book Silenced, accusations of blasphemy or insulting Islam are used systematically in much of that world to send individuals to jail or to bring about intimidation through threats, beatings, and killings.
In the Muslim world, such restrictions enable Islamists to crush debate. After Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was murdered early last year by his bodyguards for opposing blasphemy laws, his daughter Sara observed: “This is a message to every liberal to shut up or be shot.” Or in the words of Nasr Abu-Zayd, a Muslim scholar driven out of Egypt: “Charges of apostasy and blasphemy are key weapons in the fundamentalists’ arsenal, strategically employed to prevent reform of Muslim societies, and instead confine the world’s Muslim population to a bleak, colourless prison of socio-cultural and political conformity.”
Read it all and the many examples we’ve covered over the years.
“Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.”