Just Say No To Blasphemy: U.S. Supports Egypt in Limiting Anti-Religious Speech

stone-1Here is today’s column in USA Today on the Obama Administration’s decision to join the U.N. Human Rights Council and support Egypt in recognizing limits on free speech for those who insult or denigrate religion. While the exception was included in a resolution heralding free speech, it was viewed as a major victory for Muslim countries seeking to establish an international blasphemy law.

Around the world, free speech is being sacrificed on the altar of religion. Whether defined as hate speech, discrimination or simple blasphemy, governments are declaring unlimited free speech as the enemy of freedom of religion. This growing movement has reached the United Nations, where religiously conservative countries received a boost in their campaign to pass an international blasphemy law. It came from the most unlikely of places: the United States.

While attracting surprisingly little attention, the Obama administration supported the effort of largely Muslim nations in the U.N. Human Rights Council to recognize exceptions to free speech for any “negative racial and religious stereotyping.” The exception was made as part of a resolution supporting free speech that passed this month, but it is the exception, not the rule that worries civil libertarians. Though the resolution was passed unanimously, European and developing countries made it clear that they remain at odds on the issue of protecting religions from criticism. It is viewed as a transparent bid to appeal to the “Muslim street” and our Arab allies, with the administration seeking greater coexistence through the curtailment of objectionable speech. Though it has no direct enforcement (and is weaker than earlier versions), it is still viewed as a victory for those who sought to juxtapose and balance the rights of speech and religion.

A ‘misused’ freedom?
In the resolution, the administration aligned itself with Egypt, which has long been criticized for prosecuting artists, activists and journalists for insulting Islam. For example, Egypt recently banned a journal that published respected poet Helmi Salem merely because one of his poems compared God to a villager who feeds ducks and milks cows. The Egyptian ambassador to the U.N., Hisham Badr, wasted no time in heralding the new consensus with the U.S. that “freedom of expression has been sometimes misused” and showing that the “true nature of this right” must yield government limitations.

His U.S. counterpart, Douglas Griffiths, heralded “this joint project with Egypt” and supported the resolution to achieve “tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” While not expressly endorsing blasphemy prosecutions, the administration departed from other Western allies in supporting efforts to balance free speech against the protecting of religious groups.

Thinly disguised blasphemy laws are often defended as necessary to protect the ideals of tolerance and pluralism. They ignore the fact that the laws achieve tolerance through the ultimate act of intolerance: criminalizing the ability of some individuals to denounce sacred or sensitive values. We do not need free speech to protect popular thoughts or popular people. It is designed to protect those who challenge the majority and its institutions. Criticism of religion is the very measure of the guarantee of free speech — the literal sacred institution of society.

Blasphemy prosecutions in the West appear to have increased after the riots by Muslims following the publication of cartoons disrespecting prophet Mohammed in Denmark in 2005. Rioters killed Christians, burned churches and called for the execution of the cartoonists. While Western countries publicly defended free speech, some quietly moved to deter those who’d cause further controversies through unpopular speech.

In Britain, it is a crime to “abuse” or “threaten” a religion under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. A 15-year-old boy was charged last year for holding up a sign outside a Scientology building declaring, “Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult. “In France, famed actress Brigitte Bardot was convicted for saying in 2006 that Muslims were ruining France in a letter to then-Interior Minister (and now President) Nicolas Sarkozy. This year, Ireland joined this self-destructive trend with a blasphemy law that calls for the prosecution of anyone who writes or utters views deemed “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.”

‘Blasphemy’ incidents
Consider just a few such Western “blasphemy” cases in the past two years:

• In Holland, Dutch prosecutors arrested cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot for insulting Christians and Muslims with cartoons, including one that caricatured a Christian fundamentalist and a Muslim fundamentalist as zombies who want to marry and attend gay rallies.

• In Canada, the Alberta human rights commission punished the Rev. Stephen Boission and the Concerned Christian Coalition for anti-gay speech, not only awarding damages but also censuring future speech that the commission deems inappropriate.

• In Italy, comedian Sabina Guzzanti was put under criminal investigation for joking at a rally that “in 20 years, the pope will be where he ought to be — in hell, tormented by great big poofter (gay) devils, and very active ones.”

• In London, an aide to British Foreign Secretary David Miliband was arrested for “inciting religious hatred” at his gym by shouting obscenities about Jews while watching news reports of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.Also, Dutch politician Geert Wilders was barred from entering Britain as a “threat to public policy, public security or public health” because he made a movie describing the Quran as a “fascist” book and Islam as a violent religion.

• In Poland, Catholic magazine Gosc Niedzielny was fined $11,000 for inciting “contempt, hostility and malice”by comparing the abortion of a woman to the medical experiments at Auschwitz.

The “blasphemy” cases include the prosecution of writers for calling Mohammed a “pedophile” because of his marriage to 6-year-old Aisha (which was consummated when she was 9). A far-right legislator in Austria, a publisher in India and a city councilman in Finland have been prosecuted for repeating this view of the historical record.

In the flipside of the cartoon controversy, Dutch prosecutors this year have brought charges against the Arab European League for a cartoon questioning the Holocaust.

What’s next?
Private companies and institutions are following suit in what could be seen as responding to the Egyptian-U.S. call for greater “responsibility” in controlling speech. For example, in an act of unprecedented cowardice and self-censorship, Yale University Press published The Cartoons That Shook the World, a book by Jytte Klausen on the original Mohammed cartoons. Yale, however, (over Klausen’s objections) cut the actual pictures of the cartoons. It was akin to publishing a book on the Sistine Chapel while barring any images of the paintings.

The public and private curtailment on religious criticism threatens religious and secular speakers alike. However, the fear is that, when speech becomes sacrilegious, only the religious will have true free speech. It is a danger that has become all the more real after the decision of the Obama administration to join in the effort to craft a new faith-based speech standard. It is now up to Congress and the public to be heard before the world leaves free speech with little more than a hope and a prayer.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.

USA Today: October 19, 2009

60 thoughts on “Just Say No To Blasphemy: U.S. Supports Egypt in Limiting Anti-Religious Speech”

  1. nal,

    Is this administration play both sides?


    nal, It is nice to see that you are human. I have had numerous ARGGGG moments as well. I am sure that the professor will even overlook this slight “keyboard alignment” issue that has occurred.

  2. FFLEO,

    I’m sure that cat was just throwing out a bone to JT to make him feel better! I’m so glad I never make grammar, spelling or typing errors of any kind!

  3. Whelp, you know what they say about overzealous pedants residing in grammar/spelling glass houses?

    I fear nal, you have caught that which you have been trying to correct and prevent.

    Typeoid Fever.

  4. To Gyges,

    I disagree on the idea of a deeply religious society that follows a religious social order not needing a state, for who shall defend that order?

    Even in secualr non-religious socieites like those in the West, or even Communist USSR, social mores were enforced by way of the state.

    Let me re-use an earlier example: most Americans are opposed to child pornography and other such extreme forms of erotic material. This is standard belief, that is, a “moral” among most Americans.

    But who enforces these morals when they are disobeyed?

    If there is a very religious traditional society that does not believe in certain behaviour or acts or speech, and regard them as both an affront to both the divine and to social order in general, then naturally they would expect the state, as the supreme guaranteer of order, to be the enforcer of these morals as well.

    If there is a deeply religious person for whom the state should not interfere, then that person probably holds a very individualistic faith with little to no social bearing (that is, no “group/community commandments” as it were, things to apply to the whole of the people), and thus has no problem with others disturbing that order.

    But I figure most religions hold both personal and communal values. The former is up to the individual, but the latter is to be held by the community via the state.

  5. DAR,

    There are other kinds of religious social structures than those that have the State enforce their rules. I know pious people of all sorts of religious stripes, from Christian to Pagan to Buddhist that would never dream of trying to legislate their particular religious codes. It’s actually contrary to their beliefs in a few cases. So while your idea of a society that puts great importance in their religion may be contrary to Freedom of Speech, it’s certainly NOT the case in all deeply religious societies.

  6. Gyges, Thanks for the lesson on scripture, If my upbringing in the church had been that entertaining I might have turned out very differently. 🙂

  7. To Gyges:

    There is no contradiction between personal beliefs and societal/cultural ones.

    Think of the legal system. Each nation has its own laws, yet within that nation all individuals obey that law.

    it’s not a case of either total individualist anarchy (every person with his own morals), or total one-world morals.

    Further, i never stated that religious sentiments and freedom of speech as inherently opposed, but it is the case that America’s version of freedom of speech is inherently opposed to a religious social structure.

    This is fine, but I am opposed to imposing that system on others.

  8. DAR,

    I find your stated views confusing given the greater context of this conversation. Your argument seems to be “I want everyone to mind their own business, so one group of people should be able to tell another group what it can’t say.” I’m sure you see the conflict inherent in saying that different cultures should be allowed to have their own standard of “moral behavior,” but that individuals within those cultures shouldn’t.

    On the other hand you pose a seemingly false dichotomy between having a religious society and one that values freedom of speech. Deep seated religious beliefs manifest themselves in many ways, not just adherence to cultural and theological taboos.

  9. Reading the posts (especially those of “Dar”) leaves little wonder as to what is happening to this once great country (pre Socialist takeover circa November 2008) and why a blog of this nature even could exists at all. Habitual bloviation seems to be the “new” norm of the the uninformed / understudied mind these days.

    America’s freedom of speech has absolutely NOTHING to do with societal behavior (and yes, we surely have lowered ourselves, values, etc, on the back of freedom of speech as it has been used as a very powerful tool by the left-wing scum of our society) and EVERYTHING to do with a hope, a vision, a want if you will, for every man to have a fair and unencumbered voice as to what happens in his life and community / country.

    There should be no fear in publicly voicing one’s opinion when it comes to matters of religion. I am a Christian and have to fight my own personal battles with things I find “impossible” that are found within the Bible (unfortunately starting at the very beginning) so I do not wish harm, or silence, on someone who thinks the whole idea (Christianity / God) is lunacy. At the same time, if I feel like protecting / enlightening someone against the terrors of Islam (too many to list) in a public forum I should be able to do so.

    “Exporting” these freedoms is not a new concept or idea and actually is not even an “American” idea. It is because OF America’s “construction” that these freedoms have been able to mature and “live”. Man has always wanted to be free to say, to do, to live … to assist other countries / cultures / people in being able to realize these personal freedoms is a human effort, not an American effort. And surely even “Dar” must know that humans are far older than America.

    Hate crime laws are for the weak minded, can I get a handout, somebody owes me something, scum that has permeated our society and of which is a propaganda tool employed by the liberal machine of death.

    This joint effort of which Barry Soetoro (a.k.a. obama) has become a party to should be a surprise to no one. This is only a very small step in his grand scheme to incrementally destroy this country. Anyone who denies that this is the case should just continue to keep his head far beneath the sand’s surface … don’t worry little fella, it will all be over soon!!


  10. To Mike Appleton,

    I wrote only of imposing American “freedom of speech” onto Egypt, anything beyond that, namely American agreeing to Egyptian morals or principals, I am not.


    To Gyges,

    No, but it its persistance gives it a greater authority than new ideas, UNTIL those new ideas and values can prove themselves superior, which I have yet to see with regards to America’s version of “freedom of speech”.

    American society is not happier, not smarter, nor more peaceful, nor more socially stable, than that of Egypt, due to its “freedom of speech”.

    Even America’s political structures have not been necessarily well-served by its “freedom of speech”. Its almost as propogandized as Egypt, with the difference that most Egyptians atleast know that their government is b.s.-ing them, while most Americans are more gullible in believing their government (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan all being good examples of this).

    My views are simple: everyone mind their own business. And just as I am opposed to America invading another country to impose “democracy”, tso too am I opposed to pressuring opther countires to adopt America’s ways.

    If they see America’s way and like it, so be it, but otherwise to each his own.

  11. Gyges,

    Are you making graven images that offend MY GOD? To HELL you shall go. Wait a New Yerk Minute. If memory serves me correctly IT IS NEVER NAMED HELL. CALLED HELL. OR HELL IS NOT MENTIONED.

    So right now you are safe. I am recalling the KJV.

  12. Carol Ackerman, I think Elder Oaks majik underwear is cutting off the circulation to his brain. The following from the linked article:

    “Elder Oaks also said religious freedom is being jeopardized by claims of newly alleged human rights. As an example, he referred to a set of principles published by an international human rights group which calls for governments to assure that all persons have the right to practice their religious beliefs regardless of sexual orientation or identity. Elder Oaks said, “This apparently proposes that governments require church practices to ignore gender differences. Any such effort to have governments invade religion to override religious doctrines should be resisted by all believers.”

    The Elder is so so blinded by his righteousness that he does not even see the irony of an Elder of the LDS (of Prop 8 fame and bankroll) complaining that the government might meddle in religion. LOL. What is that quote about taking notice of a mote in the eye of a neighbor while ignoring the beam in ones own?

  13. Dar,

    Slavery has been around for thousands of years, art has been around for thousands of years, glass windows are relatively new, as is wide spread pollution. Age is not an indicator of inherent worth.

  14. The free speech debate is not about the imposition of “American” values. It is about the clash between western secularism and middle eastern theocratic traditions. The idea that blasphemy is a crime has long since been abandoned in this country. If Egypt wishes to retain religious offenses in its criminal code, it is free to do so, but I have no duty to respect such laws unless I am present in the countries which have adopted them. No American president should attempt to make this country a party to any resolution which seeks to give international legal recognition to principles which are contrary to fundamental rights guaranteed in our Constitution.

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