Blasphemy has become the focus of attention, with ongoing turmoil in the Middle East sparked by a crude YouTube trailer for a possibly nonexistent movie mocking Islam.
Some, including the president of Egypt, and American associate professor of religious studies Anthea Butler of the University of Pennsylvania, suggest that speech that insults faith should be criminalized. Others assert that the violent reaction shows Islam’s intolerance and that the Obama administration’s condemnation of the movie as offensive is itself a dangerous capitulation. Still others argue that Christian extremists in our own society can be intolerant when their beliefs come under attack. And there are those who say that the Mideast protests aren’t about blasphemy but anger at U.S. foreign policy.
It’s true that the video — posted to YouTube in July, then publicized by hard-line Islamist propagandists — was in some ways only a pretext for the riots. Yet there is, undeniably, a radical element in many Muslim societies that responds with violence to claims of blasphemy. Often, this has nothing to do with U.S. policies. The backlash against Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel, “The Satanic Verses,” included not only a religious decree calling for the writer’s murder but also several terrorist acts. Last year, Pakistani provincial governor Salman Taseer was assassinated after criticizing blasphemy laws and speaking in defense of a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Mohammed. The assassin received support from many clerics and several political parties.
Fanaticism is hardly unique to Islam. Blasphemers were executed in Christian Europe just 300 years ago. In August, three women from the Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison for “desecrating” a Moscow cathedral with a vulgar protest song targeting the Kremlin regime and its ties to the Russian Orthodox Church. Some American conservatives, such as activist Janice Crouse, have defended the sentence and denounced support for the women as liberal anti-Christian bias.
Isolated acts of intimidation against religiously offensive speech have also occurred in this country — and religious groups have not always condemned them harshly enough. In 1998, a New York production of Terrence McNally’s play “Corpus Christi,” depicting a gay Jesus, was canceled over threats of bombing and murder; Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights president William Donohue disavowed the threats but claimed to be “delighted” by the cancellation.
Attempts to suppress distasteful speech are not limited to religion. Some on the right would ban flag burning. Some on the left would impose hate-speech codes targeting insults to their sacred values of equality. These are secular equivalents of blasphemy laws — indeed, modern-day attempts to criminalize blasphemy are often couched in hate-speech prohibitions.
But the parallels only go so far, and they shouldn’t lead us into the temptation of false equivalency. “Corpus Christi” eventually opened to entirely nonviolent protests. The same year, protests against the controversial movie “The Last Temptation of Christ” were peaceful except for one nondeadly attack on a French movie theater. Conservative Christians in the West who support penalties for sacrilege — and liberals who support bans on racist or sexist speech — do not advocate death for the offenders.
For whatever historical and cultural reasons, virulent intolerance in Islam today exists on a far larger scale than in any other major religion. Until moderate Muslims speak out — not only individually, as many have, but also collectively — this extremism will continue to threaten peace and progress, fanning anti-Muslim bigotry. We need to see more Muslims marching to protest deadly fanaticism, not just against insults to their prophet.
Harsh criticism of bigoted speech is certainly appropriate. But such criticism should never appear to reward those who respond to insults with violence.