Hypocrisy Goes Global in the Blasphemy Law Campaign

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written by
Arch Puddington
Vice President for Research

Photo Description: Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Photo Credit | World Economic Forum

In 2006, in the midst of the furor over the publication of Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, Freedom House issued a statement that declared:

At the heart of the cartoon controversy is the right, now and in the future, of an independent and uncensored press—and artists and writers in other venues—to comment on the issues of the day without interference from the state or threat from discomfited or aggrieved groups.

We now find ourselves embroiled in yet another uproar over freedom of expression and the sensitivities of the Muslim world. While the level of violence provoked by the Innocence of Muslims thus far has been notably lower than was the case with the Danish cartoons or, especially, the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, the response of the world’s political leadership has often been more disturbing than in the previous episodes.

Indeed, the amateur video—whose existence was virtually unknown until attention was drawn to it by a Salafist television program in Egypt—has reignited efforts to enact global legislation that would penalize insults to religion. In so doing, the video is indirectly responsible for an epidemic wave of hypocrisy, in which political leaders with established records of self-serving persecution of the press and in some cases oppression of religious minorities are demanding an international regime of censorship that would supposedly protect universal religious values.

Here are a few of the more blatant examples of what I’m referring to:

First, there is Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who called for recognizing “Islamophobia as a crime against humanity” and for enacting “international legal regulations against attacks on what people deem sacred.” Yet even as he speaks dismissively of “hiding behind the excuse of freedom of expression,” Erdoğan presides over a government that is a world leader in the jailing of journalists. His administration’s campaign against critical commentators has transformed a once-lively press environment into one marked by widespread self-censorship. In such hands, an international blasphemy law would only add a veneer of religious virtue to an existing pattern of hostility toward free expression.

Then there is Hassan Nasrallah, the political and spiritual leader of Hezbollah. In a televised speech to his followers in Lebanon, Nasrallah declared: “Those who should be held accountable, punished, prosecuted, and boycotted are those who are directly responsible for this film and those who stand behind them and those who support and protect them, primarily the United States of America.” But while Nasrallah demands punishment for those who have insulted Islam, he has publicly and repeatedly pledged solidarity with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, a man responsible for the violent deaths of up to 20,000 Muslims.


A poster of Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah
Photo Credit | Bertramz

Or consider the Russian government. Shortly after the attacks on the American diplomatic posts in Egypt and Libya, Russian authorities announced that they intended to ban distribution of the notorious film inside the country’s borders. President Vladimir Putin has already shown a penchant for cynically exploiting religious umbrage to rally political support and silence his critics, most recently in the Pussy Riot case. And few Russian Muslims would view Putin as a trustworthy defender of their faith, given the disregard for Muslim lives displayed during his regime’s recklessly destructive counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts in the Caucasus.

Finally, there is the case of Iran, whose leadership has consistently pushed for a global covenant that punishes blasphemy. Yet the Islamic Republic is the vanguard state in promoting the slander of Jews and Judaism, reflected in cartoonish depictions drawn straight from Der Stürmer, with grotesque hook-nosed Jewish capitalists plotting to control the world. Is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prepared to acknowledge that his country’s exhibits of anti-Jewish propaganda art qualify as blasphemy? The Iranian regime has also carried out widespread campaigns of persecution aimed at Baha’is that demonized their faith and murdered its leaders. Where would the state killing of Baha’is, and the tarring of their religion as apostasy, figure in the global system of blasphemy enforcement?

If hypocrisy is a common feature of the various “Muslim insult” crises, so is the limp response of democratic political leaders. In this regard, President Obama’s relatively straightforward defense of freedom of expression at the United Nations stands as one of the less apologetic affirmations of the values of freedom in the face of pressure from the advocates of censorship. When Ayatollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie, a prize-winning British writer, then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, known as the Iron Lady for her political fortitude, remained embarrassingly mute, while her foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, denounced the novel as both anti-Islam and anti-British. During the Danish cartoon incident, the leadership of practically every democratic society lined up to distance themselves from the drawings. So, shamefully, did some representatives of human rights and freedom of speech organizations and media editors.

Common sense and common decency demand that we avoid deliberately offending the core beliefs and smearing the guiding prophets of all religious faiths. But one can simultaneously rebuke intentional insults and strongly reject the idea that they should be criminalized. Some political leaders of Muslim-majority countries claim that expressions of “Islamophobia” are “systematic” in the United States and Europe. This is, of course, totally inaccurate. Crude anti-Islamic items like the current video are relatively rare in open democratic societies precisely because they are usually ignored or ridiculed by mainstream opinion. In a free marketplace of ideas, the public is accustomed to sorting out the nonsense, including the howls of ambitious politicians seeking to exploit Islam as either a foil or a rallying cry. By contrast, countries characterized by state violence and speech restrictions seem more vulnerable to the politics of outrage and intimidation.


Salman Rushdie
Photo Credit | Mariusz Kubik

Unfortunately, the effects have spilled across national borders. The violence from the Rushdie, cartoon, and Innocence cases has already taken a disturbing toll in the democratic world. Predictably, extremists who harbor anti-Muslim agendas have been encouraged to push the envelope more aggressively. Meanwhile, mainstream mystery novels, books for children, operas, and paintings in leading museums have been pulled from publication, censored, or sent to the archives out of fear of offending Muslims and triggering acts of mayhem abroad. We can only hazard a guess at how often ideas for newspaper articles are killed and research studies are abandoned because journalists or scholars have become apprehensive about becoming the target of an extremist cleric’s fatwa.

The struggle over blasphemy is a part of the larger debate on the future of democracy, both in the Arab world and beyond. Those who stand firm behind freedom of expression are not advocating offensive speech, but the fundamental right of all human beings to decide for themselves what speech to endorse, denounce, dismiss, or ignore. This right applies not just to YouTube videos, but also to the words of political leaders. And that is the true reason why many leaders are so eager to restrict it.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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