Bret Stephens on free speech and criticism of religion, and the NYT’s failure to defend “blasphemy”

October 21, 2020 • 10:00 am

The op-ed below, a pretty good defense of freedom of speech, is also weird because it’s written by Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist for the New York Times. I’m usually not in the business of seconding conservatives, but they seem to be mounting more defenses of free speech than do liberals these days. At any rate, the topic of his column is how writers who criticize religion (read: Islam) are cowed by violent reactions from Muslims, and wind up taking a weak-tea position.

Now readers may find many reasons to go after Stephens here: he’s a right-winger, “only right-wingers defend free speech because they feel like they’re being censored,” and “why Islam, among all religions?”.

But what Stephens says is especially apposite because of last week’s beheading of a French high-school teacher who showed his students (after giving them the opportunity to leave the class) two cartoons from Charlie Hebdo satirizing Muhammad. The teacher, Samuel Paty, paid with his life, decapitated by a Muslim terrorist. Will people start tut-tutting about the cartoons as they did after the Charlie Hebdo murders? I think they’ve already begun—in Stephens’s own paper.

Stephens draws from the Atlantic piece below by George Packer, a reprise of Packer’s Hitchens Prize lecture, and a piece is well worth reading. But I’ll skip it to get to Stephens and the NYT. The indented passages below are from Stephens:

 

Remember that the showing of the cartoons by the French teacher was part of a free speech class, and was considered discussable material because many people find it offensive. Remember too that Charlie Hebdo was mocking not Muslims, but Islam and its tenets. It wasn’t something I’d do if I valued my life, but the teacher did apologize afterwards. That didn’t matter, though. When Muslims call for the murder of a teacher in Sudan who named a teddy bear Muhammad (on her students’ suggestion) in her class, and she’s subsequently arrested, tried, and jailed, you know that somebody’s values are amiss.

At any rate, Stephens recounts some shameful experiences in journalism, centered on the cowardice of writers after the Charlie Hebdo murders:

In short order, the world got to see who in the liberal world really had the courage of liberalism’s supposedly deepest convictions.

There weren’t many: the critics of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons included Jimmy Carter and, shamefully, PEN America, many of whose members boycotted the group’s award of its Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo.  And remember when Yale University Press published a whole book about the cartoons and their effect—without showing them? That was pure cowardice on the part of a publisher.

The result?

What these examples show, and what Packer brilliantly captures in his speech, is what might be called the encroachment of the unsayable. It’s an encroachment that, in its modern form, began with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie for the publication of “The Satanic Verses,” which was deemed blasphemous. In short order, the world got to see who in the liberal world really had the courage of liberalism’s supposedly deepest convictions.

As in all the other instances, the immediate reaction has been heartbreak, defiance, solidarity — followed, typically, by a quiet moral concession. Often, this takes the form of a “yes-but” response in which the crime is condemned while also viewed as an answer to a provocation that is itself indefensible.

. . . The upshot of these controversies has been a kind of default to a middle position that goes roughly as follows: Fanatics shouldn’t kill people, and writers and artists shouldn’t needlessly offend fanatics. It’s a compromise that is fatal to liberalism. It reintroduces a concept of blasphemy into the liberal social order. It gives the prospectively insulted a de facto veto over what other people might say. It accustoms the public to an ever-narrower range of permissible speech and acceptable thought.

And, as Packer notes, it slowly but surely turns writers, editors and publishers into cowards. Notice, for instance, that I have just described the suspect in Paty’s murder as a “Chechen.” Why? Because it’s accurate enough, and it’s not worth dealing with the choice and precision of a single adjective.

Yes, of course he means “Chechen Muslim,” but won’t say that, which you might say is cowardice on Stephens’s part.  In the end, Stephens seems to include himself as a “gatekeeper of liberal culture”, which surprised me, but also decries the cowardice of publishers in taking the “middle position”:

We are killing democracy one weak verb, blurred analogy and deleted sentence at a time.

I should be more precise. When I say “we,” I don’t mean normal people who haven’t been trained in the art of never saying what they really think. I mean those of us who are supposed to be the gatekeepers of what was once a robust and confident liberal culture that believed in the value of clear expression and bold argument. This is a culture that has been losing its nerve for 30 years. As we go, so does the rest of democracy.

I haven’t seen any editorial criticism in the mainstream liberal media of the mindset that led to the French decapitation, though I don’t read every liberal site. Where are the op-eds saying that one should be able to mock religion without fear of losing one’s head? Where are the criticisms of blasphemy laws, of blasphemy mindsets? Certainly not in Stephens’s paper, the New York Times. Yes, the paper did publish a few articles on the attack by and killing of the Muslim who sawed off the teacher’s head, but with no editorial condemnation of notion of blasphemy that lead to the murder. And you know why. The NYT, being woke, dares not defend the right to criticize Islam or its oppressive doctrines. The paper’s staffers would quit in droves.

The latest piece on the French incident, below, is mainly on how the country, especially its Right, is cracking down on Muslims, and I can’t help but read into it the kind of “middle position” that Stephens mentions.  Reader Philip, who sent me the link to the piece below, was quite exercised by it, and wrote me this (quoted with permission):

Surely at least a few other readers have forwarded this to you: the NYT refulgent with concern about Islamophobia and right-wingism.  Where is the righteous concern for Islamofascism-motivated decapitation?

When I wrote him saying, “well, they did report on the murder,” Philip responded:

I congenially acknowledge the Times’s previous coverage, the tone of which seems reasonably neutral compared to that of the below article. What got me was that the latter prominently quotes those criticizing the teacher for showing the caricatures (re: the Danish cartoons), but who apparently are not similarly inclined to criticize the murder(er) and Islamofascism (a word the Times seemingly won’t print, unlike Islamophobia). To be charitable, maybe they did criticize the murder and the Times did not report that.

Read for yourself.

I think Philip is right in criticizing the one-sided slant of the article above, though I am not as exercised about it as readers may be, as that slant is pretty subtle. But I think it’s still there. Yes, the French Right is way too “Islamophobic” in the genuine sense, and perhaps the French government did overreact in rounding up people who were not suspects in a kind of “radical Muslim housecleaning”. But two bits struck me as editorializing.

The first one is this paragraph:

Thousands of people took to the streets in cities around France over the weekend to demonstrate their horror at the killing on Friday. And politicians, especially on the right, jostled to sound the alarm against “the enemy within,” as the hard-line interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, put it in a radio interview, referring to so-called radicalized Muslims.

“So-called” radicalized Muslims? I think that, in fact, there are genuine radicalized Muslims in France, one of them being the killer of Samuel Paty. I’m not quite sure why the “so-called” is there. Surely it wasn’t a characterization by Darmanin.

And despite the French support for Paty and demonstrations against his murder, the paper spends the entire last part of the article quoting those who criticized Paty’s showing of the cartoons:

Mr. Macron will deliver a solemn eulogy to Mr. Paty on Wednesday at the Sorbonne. He has already been hailed as a martyr of the French Republic. The emotion of thousands who turned out for him across France was real. A huge gathering at the Place de la Republique in Paris recalled the ones held after the attacks of 2015.

But a few wondered about what had transpired in Mr. Paty’s class.

“I feel like it’s very hard to use these cartoons for strictly educational purposes,” said Farhad Khosrokhavar, a sociologist at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, EHESS, in Paris.

“Secularists think that it is their right, because of the law that allows blasphemy and any form of mockery of religion. But on the other hand, there is the feeling that in doing so, it is the Muslims who are despised, not the prophet,” he said.

“By using cartoons to teach freedom of expression, we do not understand that we offend people,” Mr. Khosrokhavar said. “There are a thousand ways to express freedom of expression, so why choose this one?”

Françoise Lorcerie, an education expert at the National Center for Scientific Research, said she had never heard of using the caricatures of the prophet in a classroom setting for students of that age. And she was critical of Mr. Paty’s invitation to Muslim students that they leave the class to avoid being offended.

“Obviously these caricatures are wounding for Muslims,” said Ms. Lorcerie. “I’m not so sure about presenting these caricatures, without some sort of justification,” she said.

From the standpoint of the absolute value of secularism, “it doesn’t conform to his obligation to be neutral,” Ms. Lorcerie said. “There should be a reflection on all of this.”

And that’s the end of the piece. Only critics of the cartoons are quoted, not those who defend the right of Paty to show them—even if it was unwise. So yes, I think the NYT is occupying what Stephens called “the middle ground”, striking the Faustian bargain: “Fanatics shouldn’t kill people, and writers and artists shouldn’t needlessly offend fanatics.”

The NYT apparently includes teachers along with writers and artists. But how do you teach a free-speech class without referring to “offensive material”, or, better yet, showing it?

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ Charlie Hebdo

September 2, 2020 • 9:45 am

It’s Wednesday, which means that it’s Jesus and Mo Day, and posting this may get me banned in Pakistan again, LOL.  Today’s strip, called “blues,” came with an email note:

Charlie Hebdo have published the 12 Danish cartoons, plus one of their own, on today’s cover. It marks the beginning of the trial of 14 alleged accomplices in the massacres of January 2015. It shouldn’t require bravery to publish cartoons, just as it shouldn’t require anonymity, but it does. Charlie Hebdo is doing more than anyone to change this situation. They deserve much more support than they get.

It’s vexing but not surprising that I couldn’t find a copy of the Charlie Hebdo cover, despite several Liberal Big Media reports about that cover (e.g., NPR, The Washington Post, and the New York Times). Just like the Yale University Press, which published a book in 2009 about the reaction to the Danish cartoons without showing any of them, the media are scared as hell of retribution from Islamic extremists.

Here Jesus and Mo differ on the new cover:

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ blasphemy

February 26, 2020 • 8:00 am

Today’s Jesus and Mo strip, called “lazy,” came with an email comment:

God used to intervene a lot more than he does nowadays, doesn’t he?

The country they refer to is certainly Ireland, where, in a 2017 referendum, the voters decisively rejected the nation’s blasphemy law, and that abolition finally took effect on January 1 of this year.

The conceit below, of course, is that both of the boys blaspheme while asking God’s assistance.

Spanish actor tried for blasphemy

February 17, 2020 • 9:15 am

We often forget that many countries still have laws on the books against blasphemy, i.e., insulting religion. Some such countries are surprising as we’d consider them “progressive” in many ways. As I wrote in my foreword to the new Jesus and Mo collection:

. . . despite the value of constructive blasphemy, 69 of the world’s 195 countries have laws on the books against the act, though in places the laws are vestigial and unenforced relics of an earlier time. But you can still be fined for criticizing religion in Italy, Brazil, Switzerland, Austria, Finland, and the Philippines, jailed in Germany, Poland, El Salvador, India, Finland, Ireland, India, Turkey, Morocco, and Algeria, and put to death in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. That doesn’t count places where sharia courts can pronounce death sentences not enshrined in civil law, nor acts of murder committed by offended believers in countries like the Netherlands.

How did I forget Spain in the second sentence? In fact, Spain not only has blasphemy laws on the books, but tries to enforce them. As Wikipedia notes in its article on “blasphemy laws”:

The article 525 of the penal law in Spain considers “vilification” of religious “feelings”, “dogmas”, “beliefs” or “rituals”. This extension to “dogmas” and “beliefs” makes it very close to a blasphemy law in practice, depending on the interpretation of the judge.

For instance, in 2012 it was used to prosecute a famous artist, Javier Krahe, for a scene (shot 34 years ago, and lasting just 54 seconds) in a documentary about him. He was discharged the same year. [JAC: “discharged” means “found not guilty”).

In 2018, following the case of Willy Toledo and three feminist protesters accused of blasphemy, the governing PSOE and supportive party Unidas Podemos pledged an end to the “medieval laws on offending religious sentiments and insult to the Crown“. Legislation was suspended following the announcement of the 2019 Spanish general election. The government and its allies were subsequently returned to power, which means the proposals will now likely return to the national parliament.

And so on to the present trial, that of Spanish actor Guillermo Toledo, the “Willy Toledo” of the entry above.  Reader Dom informs me that after having been arrested last year for blasphemy, Toledo is now undergoing a “private prosecution”, and that’s what this clip, in Spanish, states (if I’m wrong, let me know). Dom also reports that there was just a clip on the BBC news about this, but he can’t find it online.

To see what Toledo’s “crime” was, we have to go to El País and The Daily Mail (click on screenshots), which reported when he was first arrested in 2018:

The Daily Fail:

What on earth did Willy do? A previous article in El País reports that he insulted not just God, but the Virgin Mary:

The origin of the case lies with a Facebook post that the actor and activist published regarding a court case relating to three women in Seville who organized a satirical religious-style procession, which, in place of an icon from the Catholic Church, featured an icon of female genitalia.

In his comments about the fact that the case had reached the courts, Toledo wrote: “I shit on God and have enough shit left over to shit on the dogma of the saintliness and virginity of the Virgin Mary. This country is unbearably shameful. I’m disgusted. Go fuck yourselves.”

The expression “shit on God” (cagarse en Dios) is often used by Spaniards in everyday discourse, along with a number of variations, many of them with other religious references.

. . .These comments drew a legal complaint from the Spanish Association of Christian Lawyers on the basis that Toledo had offended their religious feelings.

But is such a thing punishable under Spanish law? Lawyer Borja Adsuara explains that the lawsuit has to be admitted by the court, given that the offense does indeed figure in Spain’s criminal code. “[The article] is wide-ranging enough that it doesn’t just include the Catholic religion, but also humiliation and ridicule of atheists for being atheists. Looking at it another way, the offense against religious feelings can be interpreted as a crime of intolerance of other people’s religious beliefs,” Adsuara tells Verne via a telephone interview.

According to the Daily Fail,

“The case stems from a July 2017 Facebook message in which he defended three women charged with blasphemy for staging a mock-religious procession wielding a giant vagina.  In his post Toledo said: ‘I s*** on God, and I have enough s*** left over to s*** on the dogma of the sanctity and virginity of the Virgin Mary.  ‘This country is unbearably shameful. I’m disgusted.’

El País adds that Toledo also said this: “Long live the Insubordinate Pussy.”

Here’s that Facebook post, which Toledo put up in these circumstances:

He posted this message shortly after the beginning of a trial in Seville against three women who had paraded a large model of a vagina around the city as though it were an Easter religious procession. The women called this event “the procession of the Insubordinate Pussy.”

LOL! Ceiling Cat bless those women!  Finally, El País adds this:

The Spanish Association of Christian Lawyers filed a complaint against Toledo “for shitting on the dogma, and because his words were an offense against religious sentiment,” said the group’s president, Polonia Castellanos, adding that this is a publicity stunt by Toledo because everyone has the obligation to appear in court when summoned.

It doesn’t look as if Toledo will go to jail for this, because, according to El País, the “blasphemy law”, Article 525, specifies that punishment is a monetary fine. Curiously, though, if you look up the Spanish Criminal Code, which appears in English in entirety here, you find this:

What on earth is “a fine from eight to twelve months”? This implies that there could be a jail sentence as well, but I’ll count on readers to clarify this. Note that you can get penalized for disparaging atheists as well! Well, at least the law is even-handed, but I’d like someone to prosecute a believer—or even the Catholic Church—for disparaging atheists. It’ll be a cold day in Seville when that happens!

Blasphemy laws are antiquated—no part of an enlightened country. You should be able to say what you want about religion. After all, does it pick your pocket or break your bones? Nope. All it supposedly does is hurt the feelings and bruise the delusions of believers.

Let’s hope the Spanish government uses this case to overturn the blasphemy laws, as Ireland just did. And let’s also hope that Toledo goes free.

 

Ireland’s blasphemy law rescinded

January 4, 2020 • 11:00 am

There is no rational excuse to have blasphemy laws on the books anywhere, yet, as I wrote in my Jesus and Mo foreword, they’re prevalent:

69 of the world’s 195 countries have laws on the books against [blasphemy], though in places the laws are vestigial and unenforced relics of an earlier time. But you can still be fined for criticizing religion in Italy, Brazil, Switzerland, Austria, Finland, and the Philippines, jailed in Germany, Poland, El Salvador, India, Finland, Ireland, India, Turkey, Morocco, and Algeria, and put to death in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.  That doesn’t count places where sharia courts can pronounce death sentences not enshrined in civil law, nor acts of murder committed by offended believers in countries like the Netherlands.

One of the most notorious blasphemy laws was in Ireland, as it was enacted in a Western country and was clearly on the books to protect the Catholic Church from being criticized. Grania used to complain about it at length, and I’m very sad she’s not here to celebrate the overturning of that law. Further, unlike “vestigial” blasphemy laws that are on the books but not enforced, Ireland’s was enforced, at least nominally. In 2017 I reported on how author and polymath Stephen Fry was investigated by the Irish police for simply criticizing religion in general (see the “incriminating” video here). The investigation was dropped, but only on the grounds that no identifiable party had complained.

At the time blasphemy was still a crime; as I wrote then:

Blasphemy [as the criticism of religion] is a crime in Ireland; the Constitution of 1937 (see here) says the following:

ARTICLE 40

6. 1° The State guarantees liberty for the exercise of the following rights, subject to public order and morality:  i. The right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions. The education of public opinion being, however, a matter of such grave import to the common good, the State shall endeavour to ensure that organs of public opinion, such as the radio, the press, the cinema, while preserving their rightful liberty of expression, including criticism of Government policy, shall not be used to undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State. The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.

Wikipedia has a good article on the blasphemy law, its history, and its implementation in Ireland. The upshot is that it’s been contested, especially by the organization Atheist Ireland, and a referendum on the issue of blasphemy was proposed in 2014 but has yet to take place. No offenses have been prosecuted since 2009, but the law remains on the books.

The promised referendum was finally held in 2018, and voters rejected the law by a vote of 65% to 35%.  Atheist Ireland (of which Grania was once secretary) has an article on the repeal. (Click on screenshot. On the left is Michael Nugent, head of AI clad in his trademarked red polo shirt, but I’m not sure who the others are, though readers will certainly identify them for us.) Atheist Ireland was the most vociferous organization urging repeal of the bill, and its repeal took effect on January 1. They’re a happy group, and I congratulate them.

Here’s the organization’s summary of what was achieved:

The Blasphemy (Abolition of Offences and Related Matters) Act does three things:

  • For the avoidance of doubt, it declares that the common law offence of blasphemy is abolished.
  • It repeals Sections 36 and 37 of the Defamation Act 2009, which described what the offence of blasphemy consisted of.
  • It amends the Censorship of Films Act 1923, and the Censorship of Films (Amendment) Act 1925, to remove references to blasphemous matter.

So finally, after more than a decade of campaigning, we have removed the medieval crime of blasphemy from both our constitution and our statute laws. This means that:

  • Our laws can now protect people from harm, not protect ideas from criticism, and our media outlets no longer have to self censor themselves.
  • We are no longer breaching our international human rights obligations, as we have been told by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission.
  • States that execute people for blasphemy can no longer cite the Irish law at the United Nations, to justify their repression of religious minorities.

Ireland was once a Catholic country. Today it is a pluralist country, which still has Catholic laws that we are gradually changing. Thank you to everybody who is helping to make this happen.

Here are the two articles which were just repealed: 36 and 37; note the emphasis on religion:

Hate speech is apparently still illegal in Ireland, but not “hate speech” that mocks religion. Note that “blasphemy” is defined as speech that is “grossly abusive or insulting in matters held sacred by any religion”, and so for a long time religion was singled out: one feature of a religious country. But The Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act, 1989 remains on the books, prohibiting speech that stirs up hatred against “a group of persons in the State or elsewhere on account of their race, colour, nationality, religion, ethnic or national origins, membership of the travelling community [the Roma] or sexual orientation.” (I’m not sure if the “religion” bit remains in there, but it’s superceded by the new repeal of the blaphemy law.) As of 2017, there had been five convictions for violating this Act.

Although this is a bit off topic, my own view is that there should be no laws prohibiting hate speech, save those adhering to the U.S. courts’ interpretation of the First Amendment that such speech can be illegal if it intends to and is likely to incite immediate violence. Hate speech laws are widespread, but not useful in an enlightened society since they are subject to a third party’s interpretation of what is considered “hateful”. For example, Holocaust denialism is illegal in 16 European countries as well as Israel, but I think it’s quite useful to have a public airing of arguments for and against the Holocaust—if for no other reason than that all of us should know that evidence to best defend the truth. And this needs to be done constantly, for each generation needs to learn the facts anew.

Hate crimes are something I’m still pondering, as I can see arguments on both sides about whether you should get an extra penalty for committing a crime motivated by hatred of a group rather than just a person. If you have views on that, please set them out in the comments.

Pakistani lecturer sentenced to death for blasphemy: insulted the Prophet and Qur’an on Facebook

December 21, 2019 • 10:30 am

Blasphemy laws should simply not exist, for they penalize people specifically for giving offense to the religious. So they don’t just violate freedom of speech, but they specifically immunize religion against mockery, analysis, and criticism. Here’s a brief segment from my Jesus and Mo foreword to show how prevalent these laws are:

69 of the world’s 195 countries have laws on the books against [blasphemy], though in places the laws are vestigial and unenforced relics of an earlier time. But you can still be fined for criticizing religion in Italy, Brazil, Switzerland, Austria, Finland, and the Philippines, jailed in Germany, Poland, El Salvador, India, Finland, Ireland, India, Turkey, Morocco, and Algeria, and put to death in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.  That doesn’t count places where sharia courts can pronounce death sentences not enshrined in civil law, nor acts of murder committed by offended believers in countries like the Netherlands.

Note Pakistan there, which is now enforcing the capital punishment of blasphemy against a University lecturer who blasphemed against both Mohammed and the Qur’an on Facebook. Today he was sentenced to death.

The report is from Al Jazeera, and I can’t seem to find the report in mainstream U.S. media. Click on the screenshot below to read it.

The victim, Junaid Hafeez, has his own Wikipedia page, which reports that he’s also a graduate student and has studied in the U.S. I can’t find exactly what he said that constituted blasphemy; here’s what Wikipedia reports:

Soon after his arrival [back in Pakistan from the U.S.], Hafeez was targeted by the Islamist groups Islami Jamiat Talaba (the student group affiliate of the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami) and Tehrik-tahafaz-e-Namoos-e-risalat, who opposed Hafeez’s more liberal teachings. They distributed pamphlets calling for Hafeez to be arrested and hanged, and staged a strike. Hafeez was quickly expelled and his housing and teaching contracts were revoked.

Hafeez was arrested on March 13, 2013, in Multan, Punjab province. He was held at Sahiwal Jail on the charge of violating section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, the blasphemy law that provides for a death sentence for anyone who in any way “defiles” the name of Muhammad. Blasphemy laws in Pakistan are frequently used to target individuals to settle personal vendettas and to target religious minorities (such as Christians, Ahmedis, and atheists) and scholars. Hafeez’s father, Hafeez-ul Naseer, has attributed his arrest to the Islamists’ opposition to his son’s liberal views, and their desire to get one of their own members an open lecturer position. Hafeez has been held in solitary confinement since June 2014, and since 2018 his conditions have been reported to have become more extreme, and Hafeez’s physical and mental health have declined.

He has been in solitary confinement for five and a half years! The report:

An excerpt:

Islamabad, Pakistan – A court in Pakistan has convicted a university lecturer of blasphemy and sentenced him to death in a case rights groups have long cited as emblematic of fair trial concerns in such prosecutions in the country.

Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer at the Bahauddin Zakariya University in the central Pakistani city of Multan, was accused of having insulted Islam‘s Prophet Muhammad and its holy book, the Quran, verbally and on Facebook in 2013.

A court in Multan found him guilty and sentenced him to death on Saturday after a lengthy trial that saw frequent delays and transfers of judges.

Hafeez has been held in solitary confinement due to security concerns since 2014 when his lawyer, prominent rights activist Rashid Rehman, was murdered.

. . .”Junaid Hafeez’s death sentence is a gross miscarriage of justice,” said Rabia Mehmood, Pakistan researcher at Amnesty [International]. “The verdict of the Multan court is extremely disappointing and surprising. Junaid’s entire case and lengthy trial has been unfair and a travesty.”

In a statement issued on Saturday, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said it was “dismayed by the verdict”, adding that “HRCP believes that the blasphemy laws are heavily misused”.

“In five years, at least eight judges have heard Mr Hafeez’s case, making a fair trial virtually impossible. Meanwhile, he has undergone six years’ imprisonment in solitary confinement,” added the statement.

The laws aren’t just misused—they shouldn’t exist at all. Pakistan’s attempt to stifle all criticism of Islam (they also make WordPress censor my Jesus and Mo cartoons) is ridiculous and contemptible—unworthy of any country in the modern world. Let’s hope that, like Asia Bibi, Hafeez finds justice somewhere down the line. But he’s already lost five years of his life (and reportedly much of his mental health) due to this ridiculous prosecution.

Here’s a tweet showing his photo.

Two UConn students arrested for shouting racial slurs, violating a Connecticut “anti-ridicule” law

October 27, 2019 • 9:00 am

This piece in the New York Times reports that two University of Connecticut students were arrested, apparently by campus police, after shouting racial slurs outside a university dormitory. They were charged with violating a state law that prohibits ridiculing individuals based on “creed, religion, color, denomination, nationality or race” (see below)

Here’s the video, which doesn’t show shouting or screaming or taunting, but uttering slurs:

An excerpt from the NYT:

Two white students at the University of Connecticut were arrested by the campus police on Monday night, 10 days after they were captured on video repeatedly shouting a racist slur outside student apartments, the university said.

The students, Jarred Karal and Ryan Mucaj, both 21, were charged with ridicule on account of creed, religion, color, denomination, nationality or race. Their arrests came after the widely shared video drew outrage and calls by students for the administration to take action.

The misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $50, according to state law. The two were released on personal recognizance and are scheduled to appear in Rockville Superior Court on Oct. 30. Efforts to reach the students Monday and Tuesday were not successful, and it was unclear whether they had retained lawyers.

. . .The investigation by the UConn Police Department found that the men were playing a game in which they yelled vulgar words. As they walked through the parking lot, witnesses heard two of the men switch to shouting a racial epithet, the police said.

Mr. Mucaj later told a campus police officer that after a night of drinking he did not remember saying the slur, “even as a game,” affidavits released on Tuesday said. Mr. Karal said in a statement to the police that “I don’t believe that we had been shouting loud enough for other people to hear us,” according to the affidavits.

“It was not our intent to broadcast what was said to any one person, we were just being immature,” he said, according to the affidavits.

If they face jail time, then they were arrested for violating a state law, not just a campus speech or conduct code. And that law itself violates the First Amendment. Let’s be clear: shouting racial epithets is reprehensible (the “n word” was apparently used). These students should be the recipients of counterspeech and, if they’ve violated UConn’s code of conduct, disciplined.

Remember, though, that the University of Connecticut—a state school—must adhere to the First Amendment. And the students’ speech didn’t violate that amendment since it didn’t constitute personal harassment or defamation, nor had the intent of inciting immediate violence. The speech may have violated the campus code of conduct, as the paper reports:

On Tuesday, Ms. Reitz [a campus spokeswoman] said that she was not permitted by privacy laws to discuss individual cases, but that generally if the university finds a student violated the Code of Conduct, the person is given an opportunity to appeal. “If the finding is upheld, the student could be subject to discipline ranging from probation to suspension or dismissal,” she said.

I’m not sure about the ins and outs of this, but a campus speech code that prohibits speech like this, however reprehensible, is likely unconstitutional. I can see that repeated racial harassment can violate campus norms, but this was not repeated: it was a one-off. Here’s the part of the UConn campus speech code that apparently applies here (page 4):

Harming behavior, which includes, but is not limited to, the true threat of or actual physical assault or abuse and also includes harassment. For the purposes of The Student Code, bullying is considered a form of harassment.

Harassment is the severe or repeated use by one or more students of a written, verbal, or electronic expression, or a physical act or gesture, or any combination thereof, directed at another individual that has the effect of: causing physical or emotional harm to the individual or damage to the individual’s property; placing the individual in reasonable fear of harm to the individual and/or the individual’s property; or infringing on the rights of other University community members to fully participate in the programs, activities, and mission of the University.

The incident above doesn’t seem to violate even these standards, as it isn’t “repeated use” (unless saying the n-word twice is “repeated use”) and wasn’t directed at any individual. Students did claim that this utterance harmed them, but only when they heard it repeated by others or saw the video. And there can be no reasonable “fear of harm” to person or property, nor obstruction of others’ participation in University activities.

Perhaps the campus can find grounds to discipline or even expel the students, but the government has no right to arrest the students and send them to jail. “Ridicule on account of creed, religion, color, denomination, nationality or race” is not a crime. If it were, people could be sent to jail for making fun of religion. Such a “crime” reminds one of the blasphemy laws prevalent in many places, laws that are indefensible because of the difficulty of deciding what constitutes “ridicule.”

I just found a new article in the NYT—an op-ed by lawyer Steve Sanders—that agrees with my view of this issue (click below to read). I’m not sure which Steve Sanders wrote it, but it may be this one, a Professor of Law who teaches constitutional law at Indiana University.

Sanders says that there is indeed a law in Connecticut prohibiting ridicule:

Imagine if the cast members of “The Book of Mormon” could be arrested and prosecuted for ridiculing Mormons. Preposterous, you say?

The idea is not entirely fantastical. A law in Connecticut criminalizes anyone who “ridicules or holds up to contempt” a person or group because of “creed, religion, color, denomination, nationality or race.” Violators are guilty of a misdemeanor and face up to 30 days in jail and a $250 fine.

I can’t access the link, but such a law is clearly unconstitutional and should be challenged in federal court. Sanders goes on:

To be clear: No decent person approves of such use of the N-word. But no sensible person wants to live in a world in which authorities have free rein to lock people up for engaging in what government functionaries decide is inappropriate “ridicule.”

An important purpose of the First Amendment is to protect against such arbitrary use of government power. Indeed, the anti-ridicule statute, at least as applied in this situation, is unconstitutional, for three reasons.

You can read the reasons for yourself, but they boil down to claims that the law is overly vague, that similar campus speech codes and state laws have been struck down repeatedly for violating freedom of speech, and that a similar incident—the uttering of racist statements by the Ku Klux Klan in 1969—was deemed legal by the courts because it didn’t lead to “imminent violent action.”

Sanders is right in his analysis, and right in his conclusion:

In the face of an absurd statute like Connecticut’s anti-ridicule law, it is tempting to extol the value of satire, irreverence and cheek as part of our country’s robust free-speech traditions. But this is not the time for that. Racial, ethnic, sexual and religious slurs exact a social cost. They deprive members of the affected groups of their dignity and inhibit their participation in our democracy as equal citizens.

But it is possible to hold that thought in mind while keeping in mind another thought: that we do not want the police or prosecutors — or university administrators, who too often cave in to public pressure in such situations — wielding the power to decide what constitutes “ridicule” and when someone should be hauled up on charges for engaging in it.

The first paragraph is a bit unclear, because some satire and ridicule is useful not just now, but at any time: I’m specifically thinking of criticism of religion. Does the play “The Book of Mormon” really exact a social cost, or inhibit the participation of Mormons in our democracy? I think not.

But Sanders is correct in arguing that the students’ conduct, while odious, should not be illegal. As Christopher Hitchens, another free-speech absolutist, remarked, “Who will be the decider?” And, if you think about the nature of things that get opprobrium on today’s campuses, you’ll realize the gravity of that problem.

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ blasphemy

September 25, 2019 • 8:30 am

Today’s Jesus and Mo strip, called “wit”, reminds us that next Monday is International Blasphemy Day. Jesus and Mo try to hoist us with our own petard, but seriously, who has killed somebody because they deny the Big Bang or the truth of evolution? I can’t think of a single killing on these grounds.

 

Once again I’m censored in Pakistan

June 21, 2019 • 3:00 pm

I’ve lost count of the number of times that WordPress has censored part of my site because I committed blasphemy and “hurt religious sentiments”—of Muslims, of course. Usually it’s because I post a Jesus and Mo cartoon and, sure enough, here’s the offending cartoon (which of course will get me censored again):

The letter from WordPress, which continues to act as the censor for the Pakistani government.

 (Automattic) Name redacted

Jun 21, 19:49 UTC

Hello,

A Pakistan authority has demanded that we disable the following content on your WordPress.com site:

https://whyevolutionistrue.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/2010-05-28.jpg?w=500

Unfortunately, we must comply to keep WordPress.com accessible for everyone in the region. As a result, we have disabled this content only for Internet visitors originating from Pakistan. They will instead see a message explaining why the content was blocked.

Visitors from outside of Pakistan are not affected.

You and your readers may be interested in these suggestions for bypassing Internet restrictions.

For your reference, we have included a copy of the complaint. No reply is necessary, but please let us know if you have any questions.

Dear WordPress Team,

It is highlighted that the web pages hosted on your platform are extremely Blasphemous / Hate Speech. The same have also been declared blasphemous under Pakistan Penal Code section 295, 295A, 295B, 295C and is in clear violation of Section 11 and 37 of Prevention of Electronic Crime Act (PECA) 2016 and Section 19 of Constitution of Pakistan.

Keeping above in view, It is requested to please support in removing following URL’s from your platform at earliest please.

The below mentioned websites can be found on following URL’s:- […] 26. https://whyevolutionistrue.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/2010-05-28.jpg?w=500 […]

Looking forward for your prompt response please.

Regards Web Analysis Team +92 51 9214396

So be it. I have committed blasphemy in Pakistan this Wednesday, and I DID IT AGAIN RIGHT NOW. And I’ll keep doing it every Wednesday when the Jesus and Mo cartoons are posted. Sit and spin, Pakistan.

WordPress once again helps the Pakistani government block my “blasphemous” Jesus and Mo posts

May 20, 2019 • 10:30 am

I think this must be the third time that WordPress has cooperated with the Pakistani government in blocking “blasphemous” content on my site. The blasphemy, as you’ll see from the three links singled out, involves reproducing Jesus and Mo cartoons, which have apparently hurt the feelings of Muslims. Indeed, I seem to have committed a crime.

Here’s the letter from WordPress, with the Pakistani complaint below:

Hello,

A Pakistan authority has demanded that we disable the following content on your WordPress.com site:

https://whyevolutionistrue.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/2012-03-14.png?w=1000
https://whyevolutionistrue.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/2012-10-31.png
https://whyevolutionistrue.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/2015-02-25.png?w=522&h=522

Unfortunately, we must comply to keep WordPress.com accessible for everyone in the region. As a result, we have disabled this content only for Internet visitors originating from Pakistan. They will instead see a message explaining why the content was blocked.

Visitors from outside of Pakistan are not affected.

You and your readers may be interested in these suggestions for bypassing Internet restrictions.

For your reference, we have included a copy of the complaint. No reply is necessary, but please let us know if you have any questions.

The complaint:

Dear WordPress Team,

It is highlighted that few of the web pages hosted on your platform are extremely Blasphemous / Hate Speech. The same have also been declared blasphemous under Pakistan Penal Code section 295, 295A, 295B, 295C and is in clear violation of Section 11 and 37 of Prevention of Electronic Crime Act (PECA) 2016 and Section 19 of Constitution of Pakistan.

Keeping above in view, It is requested to please support in removing following URL’s from your platform at earliest please. The below mentioned websites can be found on following URL’s:- […] 47.

    1. https://whyevolutionistrue.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/2015-02-25.png?w=522&h=522
    2. https://whyevolutionistrue.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/2012-10-31.png
    3. https://whyevolutionistrue.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/2012-03-14.png?w=1000

Looking forward for your prompt response please.

Regards
Web Analysis Team
+92 51 9214396

Once again I object to WordPress’s complicity in blocking material at the behest of the Pakistani government, which means that WordPress, despite its purported free-speech policy, is exercising censorship at a government’s request. They do this, of course, because they don’t want Pakistan shutting down WordPress sites—that would cost the company money! I guess I think that some principles are more important than profit.