Facebook and Google Remove Religious Images in Response to Indian Lawsuits

Reuters reports that Facebook and Google this week removed certain religious images from their Indian websites in response to lawsuits making their way through the Indian courts. Since enactment of a law last year making companies responsible for material they post on their websites, Indian plaintiffs have sued Google and Facebook, as well as other internet companies like Microsoft and Yahoo!,  for displaying offensive images of Jesus Christ, the Prophet Muhammad, and Hindu gods and goddesses. In one case, an Indian judge warned that, “like China,” he would order sites blocked if companies did not “take steps to protect religious sensibilities.” Indian free speech advocates have decried the new law and the recent lawsuits, but supporters point to India’s history of sectarian conflict and argue that offensive religious images pose risks to public order.

MacFarlane on Islamic Divorce

From Oxford University Press, a new book by Julie MacFarlane (Windsor Law – University of Windsor), Islamic Divorce in North America: A Shari’a Path in a Secular Society (forthcoming April 2012). The publisher’s description follows. 

Policy-makers and the public are increasingly attentive to the role oshari’a in the everyday lives of Western Muslims, with negative associations and public fears growing among their non-Muslim neighbors in the United States and Canada. The most common way North American Muslims relate to shari’a is in their observance of Muslim marriage and divorce rituals; recourse to traditional Islamic marriage and, to a lesser extent, divorce is widespread. Julie Macfarlane has conducted hundreds of interviews with Muslim couples, as well as with religious and community leaders and family conflict professionals. Her book describes how Muslim marriage and divorce processes are used in North America, and what they mean to those who embrace them as a part of their religious and cultural identity. The picture that emerges is of an idiosyncratic private ordering system that reflects a wide range of attitudes towards contemporary family values and changes in gender roles. Some women describe pervasive assumptions about restrictions on their role in the family system, as well as pressure to accept these values and to stay married. Others of both genders describe the gradual modernization of Islamic family traditions – and the subsequent emergence of a Western shari’a–but a continuing commitment to the rituals of Muslim marriage and divorce in their private lives. Readers will be challenged to consider how the secular state should respond in order to find a balance between state commitment to universal norms and formal equality, and the protection of religious freedom expressed in private religious and cultural practices.

Crimm on Muslim Relief Organizations

Nina Crimm (St. John’s) has posted Reframing the Issue and Cultivating U.S.-Based Muslim Humanitarian Relief Organizations. The abstract follows.

Funded by Muslim-American donors, legitimate U.S.-based Muslim charities for decades provided crucial funds and services in geographic areas ravaged by natural disasters, many with Muslim populations. These charities’ humanitarian aid, offered directly or through local non-governmental organizations, benefited the affected people, winning their gratitude and allegiance during the rescue, relief, recovery, and reconstruction operations following tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, and other such catastrophes. Their assistance also conserved and expanded opportunities to provide development aid to these same regions and individuals, not only to improve their communities and lives but also to secure their hearts and minds.

The U.S. government’s “war on terror” dramatically impacted these constructive influences and relationships. The post-9/11 counterterrorism laws and their stern enforcement fomented fear and anger among Muslim-Americans, substantially diminishing their goodwill toward the government. The government’s actions also engendered an inhospitable philanthropic environment for Muslim-Americans. These resulted in a significant reduction in Muslim- Read more

Fiddes on the Roots of Religious Freedom

Paul S. Fiddes (University of Oxford) has posted The Root of Religious Freedom: Interpreting Some Muslim and Christian Sacred Texts.  The abstract follows.

A comparison of a recent Open Letter from Islamic scholars entitled A Common Word Between Us and You (2007) with an earlier Christian text, A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity by Thomas Helwys (1612), shows that both locate a claim for religious freedom in a theological appeal to the sovereignty of God. Both also state or imply a claim for freedom of conscience with the same theological grounding. A Common Word proffers an exegesis of the Qur’anic text Aal ‘Imran 64 in which the phrase ‘that none of us should take others for lords besides God’ is understood as a defence of religious liberty. Three reasons are offered for this interpretation: consistency with the commentary tradition, the situational need for religious co-existence and a hermeneutic in which love is predominant. The Mistery of Iniquity proffers an exegesis of New Testament texts, and especially John 18:36 (‘My kingdom is not of this world’), which similarly roots religious freedom in the sovereign claims of God over human life. This ‘theological’ approach seems to have resonance with an unease about the anthropocentric nature of ‘human rights’ as expressed recently in some Christian theology. However, there are gains in setting a theological approach alongside an appeal to human rights rather than allowing one to suppress the other. Comparison of the two texts under consideration, and of the reasons why they adopt the hermeneutic they do, allows us to understand how an assertion of religious freedom might be framed in terms that carry conviction within different religious communities.

The Rhetoric and the Reality of Employment Division v. Smith

This column by Linda Greenhouse offering a defense of the HHS contraception mandate begins mistakenly, in my opinion, when it claims that the “obvious starting point” in considering the question of the claims of conscience being made against the mandate is “the 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women who, just like other American women, have exercised their own consciences and availed themselves of birth control at some point in their reproductive lives.”  I think that is not the right place to begin, but it’s territory that has been covered at length elsewhere.

The more interesting point that Greenhouse makes is that Employment Division v. Smith demonstrates that the claim made by those who are opposed to the contraception mandate — a claim “to conscience that trumps law” — is one which the Supreme Court emphatically rejected in Smith.  “[T]hat,” Greenhouse writes, “is not a principle that our legal system embraces.”

Both the way of posing the proposition and the conclusion seem, again, mistaken to me, but let’s concede the former and explore the latter.  Suppose it is really true that we are dealing with a claim that “conscience trumps law.”  “Our legal system,” in fact, “embraces” just this claim in a great variety of situations.  If it did not, the Roman Catholic Church would be compelled to appoint female priests; it would be forbidden from offering sacramental wine to children; religious communities would be compelled to hire those who don’t share their religious commitments.  Moreover, as Greenhouse recognizes later, “our legal system” responded to Smith by passing some statutes which make it highly likely that in some situations, “conscience trumps law.”  So it simply is not true that “our legal system” does not make any room for the protection of conscience when it conflicts with law.

Greenhouse’s praise for Smith also represents, I think, a widespread misconception about Smith.  The misconception is that Smith is an iron rule with no exceptions — that any law which appears “neutral” when considered in some sort of antiseptic laboratory (i.e., neutral by the plain meaning of the text) is permissible.  But in fact, that isn’t at all what Smith held.  As I have discussed here, Smith’s exceptions are, or are rapidly becoming, at least as important as its rule.  The rhetorical appeal of Smith’s hard-edged language has given people the misimpression that “our legal system” admits of no exceptions for religious conscience, ever.  And this, from my point of view, is another problem with Smith.  It confuses the discourse about religious liberty — it warps it by suggesting a hard, exceptionless rule as somehow constitutive of “our” political and legal traditions.  But that rule — and the values which underwrite it — have never, in fact, represented our approach to religious liberty.