Blasphemy in Greece

Here’s an interesting report from NPR on two recent prosecutions for the crime of blasphemy in Greece. In the first, the government brought a blasphemy charge against the poster of a Facebook page that mocks a famous Orthodox monk; the government has since dropped the blasphemy charge but has maintained a prosecution for the separate crime of “insulting religion.” In the second, the government is prosecuting the producers of a Greek translation of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, a play that depicts Jesus and his disciples as a group of gay men in Texas.

Most European states have abolished the crime of blasphemy. The UK did so in 2008. Nonetheless, the European Court of Human Rights has held more than once that states may criminalize blasphemy in order to protect human dignity — that is, in order to protect the religious sensibilities of listeners from gratuitous and substantial offense. States can’t ban all criticism of religion, of course, only criticism that is insulting or abusive. Obviously, this is not an easy line to draw. In the US, in fact, the Supreme Court has suggested strongly that blasphemy laws are unconstitutional, in part because of the line-drawing problems.

What about the Greek prosecutions in these cases? I can’t read Greek, but the Facebook page in question, which you can access from the NPR story, seems more tongue-in-cheek than anything else. I’m not surprised the government dropped the blasphemy prosecution, though, of course, the prosecution for “insulting religion” continues. The Corpus Christi case seems closer to those in which the European Court has allowed blasphemy prosecutions in the past. In the 1990s, the court allowed Austria to ban a film that depicted sexual tensions between Christ and the Virgin Mary, and allowed the UK to ban a film depicting the vision of St. Theresa of Avila in erotic terms. So the Court might be inclined to allow prosecution in the Corpus Christi case, too, if the case ever reaches Strasbourg. Then again, Greece doesn’t stand so high in the opinion of European institutions these days.

Pakistan Court Acquits Girl in Quran-Burning Case

A court in Pakistan today acquitted Rimsha Masih, the teenage girl whose arrest on blasphemy charges this summer drew worldwide attention. A local mullah had accused Masih, who has Downs Syndrome, of burning pages from a Quran. The case against her fell apart, however, when associates accused the mullah of planting the incriminating evidence. Masih has been out on bail at an undisclosed location. The case has shed light on Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which, detractors claim, is often used as a pretext for settling scores with Christians and other religious minorities. The Wall Street Journal has the story here.

Sherwood, “Biblical Blaspheming”

Last month, Cambridge University Press published Biblical Blaspheming: Trials of the Sacred for the Secular Age by Yvonne Sherwood (University of Glasgow).  The publisher’s description follows.

This book explores the strange persistence of ‘blasphemy’ in modern secular democracies by examining how accepted and prohibited ways of talking and thinking about the Bible and religion have changed over time. In a series of wide-ranging studies engaging disciplines such as politics, literature and visual theory, Yvonne Sherwood brings the Bible into dialogue with a host of interlocutors including John Locke, John Donne and the 9/11 hijackers, as well as artists such as Sarah Lucas and René Magritte. Questions addressed include:  What is the origin of the common belief that the Bible, as opposed to the Qur’an, underpins liberal democratic values?  What kind of artworks does the biblical God specialise in?  If pre-modern Jewish, Christian and Islamic responses to scripture can be more ‘critical’ than contemporary speech about religion, how does this affect our understanding of secularity, modernity and critique?

WEIRD Values

At a lawyers conference I attended recently, the conversation turned to “The Innocence of Muslims,” the offensive YouTube video that has sparked riots throughout the Muslim world. “Why do they react this way?” a partner at a major law firm asked, referring to Muslim societies. The idea that people would take such offense at an inept video, and blame American society in general rather than the individuals who produced the film, was incomprehensible to this American lawyer: “We would never react that way.” The other lawyers agreed.

This conversation came back to me this week as I read Jonathan Haidt’s very worthwhile new book, The Righteous Mind. Mostly, the book explores the different moral psychologies of American conservatives and liberals.  (Haidt argues that the differences are largely innate — “pre-wired,” he says — thus confirming Iolanthe’s famous observation that “every boy and every gal/ That’s born into the world alive/Is either a little Liberal /Or else a little Conservative!”). One chapter, though, compares American moral intuitions with those of other societies. America, Haidt says, has what psychologists call a WEIRD culture — Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. WEIRD cultures have a strong “ethic of autonomy”: they hold that “people are, first and foremost, autonomous individuals with wants, needs, and preferences” which, barring direct harm to others, should be fulfilled. In such cultures, as Jean Bethke Elshtain remarked at First Things’s annual Erasmus Lecture this week, “loyalty” principally means “being true to oneself.” The First Amendment reflects this ethic: it promotes the widest possible range of individual expression and advises offended listeners to avoid harm by turning away.

Largely through American influence, WEIRD values increasingly dominate international human rights discourse. This is ironic, because WEIRD cultures are global outliers — and America is the farthest outlier of all. Most of the world does not see autonomy as the most important value and does not privilege individual expression to the extent we do. Many cultures, Haidt says, have an Continue reading

Offensive Speech in NYC

Living in New York City, one develops a taste for irony. This past week, residents were treated to an unusually good display. In remarks at the UN on Tuesday, President Barack Obama gave an eloquent defense of American free speech principles, which prohibit government from restricting religiously offensive speech as long as there is no threat of imminent violence. Government may state its own views, however, and President Obama roundly condemned, on behalf of the US Government, “The Innocence of Muslims,” that “crude and disgusting video” that has “sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world.” In a widely quoted passage, the President declared,

The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam.  But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied.

Now, as it happens, at a swanky gallery near where President Obama was speaking, an exhibition of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, the infamous photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass of urine, was under way. Neither President Obama nor anyone else in his administration, as far as I know, thought that credibility required them to condemn this particular example of religiously offensive speech. Why not? Because, of course, nobody was complaining about it, much less rioting. (That’s not quite  Continue reading

Confusion About the Freedom of Speech and Incitement to Violence

I’m having a hard time understanding the claim — if it is a claim, or perhaps it’s just the suggestion of a claim — by some in the media that the video, “The Innocence of Muslims” (discussed by my colleague Mark) is not protected by the freedom of speech.  But I’m not a speech scholar, and the byways of speech law are as byzantine as any in the law.

What is it about the video that would not warrant free speech protection?  I have not watched it, but I believe that the speech here relates to criticism — crude, ignorant, and thoughtless criticism, to be sure — of Islam, Muslim countries, and Muslim people.  I will also assume that it is offensive to Muslims. 

Offensiveness to particular constituencies, including religious constituencies, is not the test for speech protection.  How could it be?  One only has to read the newspaper to see offensive and ignorant commentary about religion and religious people produced all the time.  That speech is clearly protected, and nobody — certainly not the LA Times — would ever suggest otherwise. 

The claim in the LA Times piece seems to be that speech which is intended to incite violence is unprotected.  The author of the op-ed is relying on the exception set out in the Brandenburg case, which permits regulation of speech where (1) the violence or illegal activity is imminent; (2) the speaker intends to cause the violence or illegal activity; and (3) the speech is likely to cause the violence or illegal activity.  But I have questions about this. 

First, what is the evidence that the video’s makers actually did intend to incite violence, as opposed to intending to say something provocative?  In fact, I doubt that anybody intended to incite a violent mob to murder our diplomatic personnel in Libya, but before doing away with speech protections here, I’d like to see the evidence that they did.  Second, what is the evidence of “imminence”?  The best that the op-ed writer can come up with is that the video was published around September 11, and that “the timeline of similar events after recent burnings of religious materials indicates that reactions typically come within two weeks.”  I had not thought that “imminence” is as context-dependent as this author suggests.  In the law of self-defense, imminent means imminent, as in right now, immediate, not two weeks later, or perhaps even later than that.  Third, I’ve always been curious about the third leg of the Brandenburg test.  Why should a greater likelihood that a particular constituency will rise up in violence in response to provocative speech mean that the speech itself is less deserving of protection than speech which targets a constituency which is not likely to react violently to the offense?  Does the third leg of the test not reward the sort of behavior that we have been witnessing?  Does it not stimulate similar behavior?  Perhaps a free speech expert can help me out.

Egypt Issues Arrest Warrants for American Filmmaker and Others

According to the AP, Egyptian prosecutors have issued arrest warrants for several American citizens connected with the production and distribution of the YouTube video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” that has sparked violent protests in that country and throughout the Muslim world.  Egypt charges the defendants — who include the video’s maker and publicist, assorted Coptic Orthodox Christians, and Florida pastor Terry Jones — with “harming national unity, insulting and publicly attacking Islam, and spreading false information.” Some of the charges carry the death penalty.

What happens now? Some reports indicate that Egypt has contacted Interpol, the  international police cooperation organization in Lyon, France, for help in executing the warrants. In a press release, however, Interpol says  it has  not received any such request and that, in any case, its Constitution forbids it from undertakings “of a political, military, religious or racial character.” The strong implication: don’t expect us to help. The US and Egypt have an extradition treaty that dates back to Ottoman times, but, according to this unofficial version on the web, the treaty doesn’t cover offenses of the sort Egypt alleges here. Anyway, it’s inconceivable that the State Department would assist Egypt any more than Interpol, or that American courts would ever allow these defendants to be transferred to Cairo. Observers expect Egypt will end up trying them in absentia.

Girl in Pakistani Quran-Burning Case to be Released on Bail

Rimsha Masih, the Pakistani Christian teenager who has been in prison for weeks on blasphemy charges, will be freed on bail to await trial, the Guardian reports. A local mullah had accused Masih, who has Down’s Syndrome, of burning pages from a Quran. This week, however, the mullah’s colleagues accused him of framing Masih by planting incriminating evidence on her as part of a plot to drive Christians from the neighborhood. A senior Muslim cleric subsequently spoke in Masih’s defense and personally guaranteed her safety if the court were to release her. The case has shed light on Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which, detractors claim, is often used as a pretext for settling scores with Christians and other religious minorities. Ali Dayan Hasan, the Pakistani director of Human Rights Watch, says that he hopes the Masih case will lead to re-examination of the law, but other experts have expressed doubt about the possibility of reform. The law enjoys great popular support in Pakistan.

Developments in Pakistani Quran-Burning Case

Some interesting developments in the case of Rimsha Masih, the 13-year old mentally handicapped Pakistani girl currently under arrest for violating that country’s blasphemy law. Masih is in custody on charges that she burned pages from a Quran; as a result of threatened reprisals, 900 of her fellow Christians have fled their neighborhood outside the capital of Islamabad. Yesterday, Pakistani police arrested one of the Masih’s  main accusers, a mullah named Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, on charges that he framed the girl by placing pages from a Quran in a trash bag she was carrying. Two of the mullah’s assistants have come forward to say that Chishti did this in order to drive Christians from the neighborhood, where Muslims wish to build a madrasa. Today, one of Pakistan’s senior Muslim clerics intervened in the controversy, condemning Chishiti and the plot to drive out Christians and personally guaranteeing the safety of Masih if she is released from prison.  The Guardian (why is the  American news media ignoring this story?) reports that the support for Masih “from the chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, a grouping of Islamic clerics, is being seen as a remarkable turn of events in a country where individuals accused of insulting Islam are almost never helped by powerful public figures.” Last year, a regional governor and cabinet minister were assassinated after they publicly criticized the country’s blasphemy law.

Girl in Pakistani Quran Case Ruled a Minor

The lawyer representing a Pakistani girl charged with blasphemy for allegedly desecrating  a Quran announced today that a medical review board has determined the girl is a minor. According to the Guardian, this determination may defuse the case. The accusations against the girl, discussed here, have ignited her neighborhood and caused 900 Christians to flee for fear of reprisals. The Guardian explains:

The case has once again put the spotlight on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which critics say can be used to settle vendettas or seek retribution. Many of Pakistan’s minorities, including Christians, live in fear of being accused of blasphemy.

Once someone is labelled a blasphemer, even if they are never convicted, they can face vigilante justice. In July, thousands of people dragged a Pakistani man accused of desecrating the Qur’an from a police station, beating him to death and setting his body alight.

The potential public backlash also means few people have spoken out to change or repeal the law. Last year two prominent politicians who criticised the blasphemy law were murdered, one by his own bodyguard, who then attracted adoring mobs.

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