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TAG | blasphemy and defamation of religion

Jun/17

14

Facing Death for Blasphemy

Technology may progress, but there is no right side of history, no rule than man is  going to progress:

New York Times:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — An antiterrorism court in Pakistan has sentenced a Shiite man to death for committing blasphemy in posts on social media. The man, Taimoor Raza, 30, was found guilty of making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad, his wives and others on Facebook and WhatsApp.

Mr. Raza was sentenced to death on Saturday by Judge Bashir Ahmed in Punjab Province. It was the first time anyone has been given the death penalty for blasphemy on social media in Pakistan. Mr. Raza can appeal the sentence…

Mr. Raza was initially charged under a section of the penal code that punishes derogatory remarks about other religious personalities for up to two years. Later, during the course of the investigations, he was charged under a law that focuses specifically on derogatory acts against the Prophet Muhammad, which carries a death penalty.

Mr. Raza’s sentence comes amid a widening crackdown against blasphemous content on social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. This year, the country’s interior minister asked Facebook to identify people suspected of committing blasphemy so that they could be prosecuted.

Critics say the government’s move has spread fear and intimidation, leading to vigilante justice and violence.

In April, a university student in northern Pakistan was tortured and shot to death by fellow students. The student, Mashal Khan, who attended Abdul Wali Khan University, was accused of posting blasphemous content on Facebook…

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Cross-posted on the Corner.

The New York Times (my emphasis added):

A 42-year-old man who burned a Quran and posted a video of it on Facebook has been charged with blasphemy in Denmark, a striking decision by prosecutors in a country that is largely secular but has grappled with the role of Islam in public life…

The decision to charge the Quran burner was made by a regional prosecutor in Viborg, on the Jutland peninsula, and had to be approved by the country’s attorney general.

The blasphemy law has been invoked only a handful of times since its creation in 1866, most recently in 1971, when two people broadcast a song mocking Christianity and stirred a debate over female sexuality. They were acquitted. No one has been convicted of the crime since 1946, when a man dressed himself up as a priest and mock-baptized a doll at a masquerade ball.

In the current case, the suspect, who was not identified by the authorities but called himself John Salvesen on Facebook, uploaded video footage of a Quran being burned in his backyard. In the 4-minute, 15-second clip, the clicking sounds of a lighter are heard before flames engulf the large leather-bound book.

The video was posted on Dec. 27, 2015, to a Facebook group called “Yes to Freedom — No to Islam.” Above the video, shared 415 times, were the words: “Consider your neighbor, it stinks when it burns.” One commenter wrote: “If I had the Quran I’d also burn it, that’s the only thing it’s good for. Gives a bit of heat.”

The man’s Facebook page was full of messages critical of Islam, refugees and women. In one post, he even wrote, “I hate children.”

Not the most likable of individuals, it seems, but that, in this context, is neither here nor there.  A decade or so ago, shortly after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published the Mohammed cartoons, I wrote an article examining the reaction elsewhere in Europe to Denmark’s defense of free speech:

Denmark, and its tradition of free speech, has been left to twist in the wind, trashed, abused, and betrayed. An article published in Jyllands-Posten (yes, them again) on Friday revealed clear frustration over the way that the country is being treated. It’s in Danish only, but one phrase (“Ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed. Der er intet men.”) stands out, and it deserves to be translated and repeated again, and again, and again: “Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”

That was then.

After the Charlie-Hebdo massacre all but one of Denmark’s major newspapers published some of the French magazine’s edgier cartoons. The one that did not was Jyllands-Posten, citing security concerns, a decision, the newspaper explained, showed that “violence works”.

Back to The New York Times (again, my emphasis added):

Jacob Mchangama, director of Justitia, a Danish civil liberties group, called the decision to file charges the latest sign of a declining respect for free speech in Europe. “It’s a sad development but one that mirrors developments elsewhere,” he said.

Mr. Mchangama said he thought the prosecutor was motivated by a desire to fend off the threat of terrorist attacks. “Danish authorities are afraid that the Quran burning could spark a new crisis, and if they say that they’ve actually charged this person, this is a way to appease or at least avoid such a crisis,” he said.

Violence works.

The Times writes brightly that ‘only’ five EU countries have blasphemy laws on the books (not nothing, I reckon, in a union of 28), but fails to note how European authorities in a number of other member-states have sometimes used ‘hate crimes’ legislation as a de facto blasphemy law. Lest we forget: Free speech is not a #EuropeanValue .

Oh yes, according to the Koran-burner’s defence lawyer, in 1997 a Danish artist burned a copy of the Bible on a news show by a state broadcaster. There was no prosecution.

And there wouldn’t be now I reckon, which is how it should be. But the fact that there wouldn’t is simultaneously a double standard, patronizing (Muslim sensitivities apparently need special protection) and, yet again, a recognition that violence works.

So, usually, does intimidation by the state. According to the Times, “a trial has been scheduled for June. If convicted, the defendant faces up to four months in prison or a fine.”  But a conviction and any penalty are not really the point. The process itself, with its expense, anxiety and more, is both punishment and a message that the authorities want to send out to any Dane thinking of expressing the wrong sort of thoughts about Islam in the wrong way.

Meanwhile, Trine Bramsen, a member of Parliament and a spokeswoman of the Social Democrats (the leading party of Denmark’s center-left) has, the Times reports, defended the blasphemy law:

“I struggle to see how that we’ll achieve a stronger society, or how we’ll enrich the public debate, if the burning of holy books was permitted”.

So what? Burning the Koran may add nothing (or less than nothing) to the debate, but the idea that controversial expressions of opinion can only be permitted if they are in the interests of a “stronger society” (whatever that is) or “enrich the public debate” (whoever decides that) is entirely at odds with the idea of truly free speech.

And so, needless to say, are blasphemy laws.

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Nov/15

29

Free Speech is not a ‘European Value’

VaginaprotestThe Local (Spain):

[Three Spanish feminists] are facing charges for crimes against religion for mimicking Spain’s Easter processions – replacing the Virgin Mary with a giant plastic vagina. Three women who carried a giant plastic vagina during a march to celebrate Worker’s Day, held every year on May 1st, are facing charges of “crimes against religious sentiment”.

The three women, who have not been named, allegedly mimicked Spain’s famous Holy Week processions that take place in the run up to Easter. The women “carried a plastic vagina a couple of metres high in the style of the Virgin Mary,” said the Seville-based judge.

Many Spanish religious festivals feature processions during which locals carry a statue of the Virgin Mary above their shoulders. The prosecution argue that the women made a mockery of this religious practice by lifting the plastic vagina onto their shoulders and parading it during a march organized by the Spanish union the General Workers’ Confederation (CGT) on May 1st 2014.

Some of the women also wore mantillas, the black lace veils commonly worn by devout Catholic women during religious celebrations in Spain while others sported the conical hoods commonly worn by the members of religious brotherhoods over Easter. The three women have been ordered to appear in court in February 2016 for a crime against religious sentiments….

Childish?  Sure, but it should not be criminal.

And as for the precedent that is being set, well…

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Nov/15

20

Multiculturalism, Free Speech: Choose One?

blasphemyNational Secular Society:

Labour MP Keith Vaz has expressed his support for the reintroduction of UK blasphemy laws – provided they “apply equally to everybody.”
His comments were reportedly made at an event organised by the Muslim Council of Britain to explore responses to terrorism and extremism, held in London on 12 November. During discussions on how to respond to ‘slurs’ and “grossly irresponsible” coverage of Muslim issues in the media, attendees called for Britain’s Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) to use its powers to pursue complaints of discrimination against groups of people, such as those of Muslim faith, even if no individual is specified in an offending article.

Miqdaad Versi, Assistant Secretary General of the MCB, said “Muslim communities need to be able to respond to accusations [against] Muslims, or against the Prophet, in a more effective way.”

He added: “Whether there should be legislation is something that really is a more complicated question.”

But in response to discussion on new blasphemy legislation, Vaz, who is the chairman of the influential Home Affairs Select Committee, told Al Arabiya that under certain conditions he would have “no problem” with the reintroduction of blasphemy laws in the UK.

“Religions are very special to people. And therefore I have no objection to [a blasphemy law] … but it must apply equally to everybody,” the longstanding Labour MP added.

Free speech, it seems, is not so “very special”.

Aug/15

23

Bangladesh: Darkness Falls

ChakrabartiWhen a sub-headline begins like this…:

Niloy Chakrabarti was only the latest atheist blogger to be hacked to death in the country this year.

That refers to the murder of Chakrabarti, slaughtered by a group of attackers in his appartment earlier this month.

A long piece in today’s Guardian explains what’s been going on.

Here’s an extract:

[Avijit] Roy, who held dual US and Bangladeshi nationality, was the most prominent atheist writer to be attacked in Bangladesh, but he was not the first – or the last. On 30 March, a month after Roy’s murder, another blogger, Washiqur Rahman Babu, was set upon by a group of masked assailants. On 12 May, Ananta Bijoy Das, who wrote for Mukto-Mona on rationalism and science, was attacked in his hometown of Sylhet. On 7 August, men with machetes broke into the Dhaka home of Niloy Chakrabarti, a blogger who used the pen name Niloy Neel. All three men died.

The four murders in 2015 were brutal and happened in quick succession, prompting police action. Three people have been arrested – including a British citizen, Touhidur Rahman – over the deaths of Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Das.

A British citizen: I’ll just interrupt to note that fact.

But the violence goes back further. It began on 15 January 2013, when atheist blogger and political activist Asif Mohiuddin was on his way to work and was attacked from behind by a group of men with machetes. “I [thought] I would die,” he tells me over Skype from his new home in Germany. “But somehow I survived.” He spent weeks in intensive care, and still finds it difficult to move his neck. “I think I will carry this problem all my life.”

A month later, another blogger critical of Islamic fundamentalism, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was attacked in the same way outside his house in Dhaka. He did not survive. In August 2014, someone broke into the Dhaka home of TV personality Nurul Islam Faruqi, who had criticised fundamentalist groups on air, and slit his throat. A humanist academic, Professor Shafiul Islam, who had pushed for a ban on full-face veils for students, was murdered near Rajshahi University in west Bangladesh in November.

These brutal crimes have gone unpunished; arrests have not led to prosecutions. The government appears unwilling, or unable, to stand with atheists. Instead, in an attempt to appease Islamists, it has ramped up its own actions against “blasphemous” bloggers….

Read the whole thing.

Links
http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/07/asia/bangladesh-blogger-niloy-neel-killed/
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/22/brutal-fight-of-bangladeshs-secular-voices-to-be-heard

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Jun/15

18

Britain’s Government: #PasCharlie

Raif BadawiThe presence of British Prime Minister David Cameron, no friend of free speech, at the march in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo killings was, in the scheme of things, a comparatively minor moment of hypocrisy.

Nevertheless, it’s always helpful to have reminders of where his government really stands.

Writing in The Independent, Francis Wheen:

Three years ago today, Saudi Arabian police arrested Raif Badawi for the crime of running a website “that propagates liberal thought”. His blog had put the case for secularism in observations such as this: “States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear.”

As if to prove his point, a Sharia court hauled Badawi back into the fearful circle, sentencing him to 600 lashes and seven years in jail for “going beyond the realm of obedience”. Last year, deciding that he had been let off too lightly, a judge upped the punishment to 1,000 lashes and 10 years’ imprisonment plus a fine of one million riyal (about £170,000).
What does our government think of this?

Asked about the flogging and jailing of Badawi, the Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay said in the Lords last week: “We maintain our view that freedom of religion and belief and freedom of expression are core rights that lead to long-term stability and good governance.”

But? Yes, of course there was a but, and one to take the breath away: “My Lords, I think we have to recognise that the actions of the Saudi government in these respects have the support of the vast majority of the Saudi population.”

Do they? Last Friday I asked the Foreign Office how the minister could be so sure. No answer has yet been forthcoming. Perhaps the “vast majority” of Saudis are indeed fanatical sadists who rejoice to see liberal bloggers whipped. Or, then again, perhaps they aren’t. No one knows: this is an absolute monarchy, not a marginal in the West Midlands being polled by Lord Ashcroft.

If I had to guess, the grotesque treatment of Badawi probably worries few in Saudi Arabia, but why Anelay had to say what she did, well…

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/saudi-arabia-is-teaching-isis-a-lesson-in-cruelty-yet-the-uk-continues-to-defend-them-10324161.html

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Apr/15

28

PEN and Sword

hebdoCross-posted on the Corner

Pen International is an association of writers intended both to promote literature and to defend it.

In May, PEN America will be holding its annual gala, an event set to include the award to Charlie Hebdo of PEN America’s annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award, citing the French magazine’s “dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory.”

PEN America added:

The day after the attack, the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo magazine vowed to continue publication, releasing their next edition on time with a print run expanded from 40,000 to over eight million under the mantra ‘All is Forgiven,’ donating all proceeds to the families of the victims. The Charlie Hebdo attacks dealt a blow to the bedrock principle that no act of expression, no matter how provocative or offensive, can justify violence.

Indeed it did. PEN America also made the obvious point that it was not necessarily endorsing the cartoons, merely the right to publish them (without, it had no need to add, being murdered).

But, the Guardian reports:

Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi announced on Sunday that they had withdrawn from next month’s PEN American Center gala, citing objections to the literary and human rights organisation’s honouring of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo…. [Francine] Prose told the Associated Press that… she was in favour of “freedom of speech without limitations” and “deplored” the shootings at Charlie Hebdo

But….

…the award signified “admiration and respect” for its work and “I couldn’t imagine being in the audience when they have a standing ovation for Charlie Hebdo”.

Peter Carey (AFP reports) conceded that “A hideous crime was committed….

But

“All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”

Salman Rushdie made the obvious point:

If PEN as a free-speech organisation can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organisation is not worth the name.

I’ll just take the opportunity to quote yet again from an article published in Jyllands-Posten in the aftermath of its publication of the original Mohammed cartoons, an article which included this phrase: “Ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed. Der er intet men.”

The translation? “Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”

Indeed there should not be.

Jyllands-Posten is singing a different tune these days, made all the bleaker by its bluntness.

As I noted in a post earlier this year, the newspaper declined to republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons after the Paris murders, saying this:

“We have lived with the fear of a terrorist attack for nine years, and yes, that is the explanation why we do not reprint the cartoons, whether it be our own or Charlie Hebdo’s,” Jyllands-Posten said. “We are also aware that we therefore bow to violence and intimidation.”

That sad surrender makes it all the more important that PEN America took the stand that it has, and that it has stuck with it. As for authors actually attacking PEN America for standing up for the, yes, sometimes uncomfortable principle of free expression, well…

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Feb/15

16

‘But’

Lars VilksCross-posted on the Corner.

A writer for the Guardian, on cue (my emphasis added):

We are in perilous territory. Slaughter as political protest cannot be defended. Free speech as legal and moral pre-requisites in a free society must be defended. But there are also other obligations to be laid upon those who wish to live in peaceful, reasonably harmonious societies. Even after Paris, even after Denmark we must guard against the understandable temptation to be provocative in the publication of these cartoons if the sole objective is to establish that we can do so. With rights to free speech come responsibilities.

Ah yes.

“Responsibilities.”

After the uproar that followed the appearance of the original Mohammed cartoons, an article was published in Jyllands-Posten (the newspaper that first published those cartoons) included this phrase: “Ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed. Der er intet men.”

The translation? “Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”

But there is.

As I noted the other day, Jyllands-Posten is singing a different tune these days, made all the bleaker by its bluntness. The newspaper declined to republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons after the Paris murders saying this:

“We have lived with the fear of a terrorist attack for nine years, and yes, that is the explanation why we do not reprint the cartoons, whether it be our own or Charlie Hebdo’s,” Jyllands-Posten said. “We are also aware that we therefore bow to violence and intimidation.”

In writing about the (first) Copenhagen murder last night, I linked to a 2010 Philadelphia Inquirer story that revealed how a number of the meetings due to be addressed by Lars Vilks (the artist whose event was attacked) had been canceled.

If I had to guess, I suspect that those who, however sadly, canceled those events, are today feeling, however sadly, that they did the right thing. Violence works.

There will be many more cancellations, many more invitations that go unissued, many more articles that do not get written, and many more cartoons that do not get drawn.

The noose tightens a bit more.

In a piece published by The Spectator before Copenhagen, Douglas Murray writes about a rally held in London a week or so ago:

Yesterday in London a crowd of more than a thousand British Muslims (carefully divided between males and females) gathered outside Downing Street. The rally – organised by something calling itself ‘The Muslim Action Forum’ – was a protest against freedom of speech, specifically to cartoons of Mohammed in the French publication Charlie Hebdo. Among the banners carried by protestors were ones that read, ‘I am a servant of holy prophet Muhammad (pbuh)’, the sinister ‘We love prophet Muhammad (pbuh) more than our lives’, ‘Jesus and Moses were prophets of Islam’ and the even more presumptuous ‘Learn some manners’. Among those holding a banner reading ‘Charlie and the abuse factory’ was a little boy. Others bore banners with the fantastically awful words spoken by the Pope last month: ‘Insult my mum and I will punch you (Pope Francis).’ A large banner hung beneath the stage from which speakers addressed the crowd carried the barely concealed threat: ‘Be careful with Muhammad.’

Meanwhile a group of tribal leaders presented a petition to Number 10 Downing Street which they said had been signed by 100,000 UK Muslims criticising publications which ‘sow the seeds of hatred’…. Among the speakers was one Shaykh Tauqir Ishaw, a spokesman for the organisers who said:

‘Perpetual mistakes by extremists, either by cold-blooded killers or uncivilised expressionists, cannot be the way forward for a civilised society. The peace-loving majority of people must become vociferous in promoting global civility and responsible debate. At this time of heightened tension and emotion, it is crucial that both sides show restraint to prevent further incidents of this nature occurring.’

“Restraint.” “Responsibilities.” “But.”

Murray:

Of course much though these fanatics may like to pretend otherwise there are no ‘two sides’ of the same coin going on here. The ‘expressionists’ and the ‘terrorists’ are not ‘as bad as each other’. The only two things which are in fact conjoined are the people who use guns and bombs to terrorise people for exercising their rights as free Europeans and the very large number of people from the ‘moderate majority’ who back up such violence (even while, like yesterday’s speakers, claiming to deplore it) with warnings that non-Muslims should be ‘careful’ when addressing their religion.

Quite.

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Jan/15

11

Too Dangerous a Historical Debate

Mohammed_receiving_revelation_from_the_angel_GabrielWriting in the Guardian, Nick Cohen on self-censorship:

Unless we find the courage to overcome fear, the self-censorship will spread, and not only in the media.

Colleagues who wanted historians at a London museum to talk about the long history of depictions of Muhammad in Islamic art last week were met with panicking press officers trying to shut them up. Historian Tom Holland, who received death threats after he challenged the creation myths of Islam, said: “I cannot think of any other area of history where debate is so nervous.” He hopes that historians will continue to say that the Koran was a manmade creation, but doubts that journalists will be keen to take their work to the public.

This is not a small capitulation. In the 19th century, the textual criticism of German scholars revealed that the supposed word of God in the Bible was a mess of competing stories. It did as much damage to Christianity and Judaism as Darwinism. Anyone hoping to repeat the exercise by taking apart the Koran and the hadiths today will be restrained by the fear that they will end up as dead as satirists who try to do the same with anti-clerical humour.

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Jan/15

11

#PasCharlie 2

ParisCross-posted on the Corner (yesterday):

Tomorrow Paris will play host to a march designed to show France’s unity in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

The Guardian explains:

Je suis Charlie. Nous sommes Charlie. La France est Charlie.

Under the banner of Tous Unis! (All United!), France’s Socialist government has called for a show of national unity after three days of bloodshed that were felt as a direct blow to the republican values of liberté, egalité, fraternité.

On Sunday David Cameron and Angela Merkel, as well as the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, president Matteo Renzi of Italy and the Spanish premier, Mariano Rajoy – 30 world leaders in all – will take part in one of the most significant public occasions in the history of post-war France….

The Guardian continues:

While almost everyone is Charlie when it comes to defending the fundamental values of the French republic, there is less unity when it comes to dealing with threats to those values.

Everyone is Charlie?

No, everyone is not.

And the French state most definitely is not.

Writing for the Washington Post, Jonathan Turley argues (my emphasis added):

Indeed, if the French want to memorialize those killed at Charlie Hebdo, they could start by rescinding their laws criminalizing speech that insults, defames or incites hatred, discrimination or violence on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, sex or sexual orientation. These laws have been used to harass the satirical newspaper and threaten its staff for years. Speech has been conditioned on being used “responsibly” in France, suggesting that it is more of a privilege than a right for those who hold controversial views….

The cases have been wide-ranging and bizarre. In 2008, for example, Brigitte Bardot was convicted for writing a letter to then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy about how she thought Muslims and homosexuals were ruining France. In 2011, fashion designer John Galliano was found guilty of making anti-Semitic comments against at least three people in a Paris cafe. In 2012, the government criminalized denial of the Armenian genocide (a law later overturned by the courts, but Holocaust denial remains a crime). In 2013, a French mother was sentenced for “glorifying a crime” after she allowed her son, named Jihad, to go to school wearing a shirt that said “I am a bomb.” Last year, Interior Minister Manuel Valls moved to ban performances by comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, declaring that he was “no longer a comedian” but was rather an “anti-Semite and racist.” It is easy to silence speakers who spew hate or obnoxious words, but censorship rarely ends with those on the margins of our society…

Recently, speech regulation in France has expanded into non-hate speech, with courts routinely intervening in matters of opinion. For example, last year, a French court fined blogger Caroline Doudet and ordered her to change a headline to reduce its prominence on Google — for her negative review of a restaurant.

While France long ago got rid of its blasphemy laws, there is precious little difference for speakers and authors in prosecutions for defamation or hate speech. There may also be little difference perceived by extremists, like those in Paris, who mete out their own justice for speech the government defines as a crime. To them, this is only a matter of degree in responding to what the government has called unlawful provocations.

And as Turley points out, it’s not just France:

The French, of course, have not been alone in rolling back protections on free speech. Britain, Canada and other nations have joined them. We have similar rumblings here in the United States. In 2009, the Obama administration shockingly supported Muslim allies trying to establish a new international blasphemy standard.

And ask yourself this: What would have been the reaction on an American campus, Brandeis say, or Yale, if (before this week) some of its students had retweeted some of those Charlie Hebdo covers or, maybe, horrors, invited the magazine’s now murdered editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, to speak?

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