If you’re a free-speech advocate or a blasphemy-law opponent, yesterday’s Times of London piece, written by UK Home SecretarySuella Braverman, will make your day. It’s a passionate defense of free speech, an affirmation that blasphemy is free speech, and an assertion that, when it comes to criticism, no religion is more protected by law than others. Braverman was apparently inspired by the kerfuffle last week when Muslims in West Yorkshire became enraged after a Qur’an was smudged, and perhaps by the recent spate of people called in for a “chat” with the cops after posting stuff things on social media that offended someone.
Yes, she’s a Tory, but the piece could have been written by any secular humanist, and she makes no bones about her views.
I’ve love to quote the whole thing, but that’s not “fair usage”, so let me give a snippet. She begins by referring to the Qur’an incident mentioned above, and then goes on:
We do not have blasphemy laws in Great Britain, and must not be complicit in the attempts to impose them on this country. There is no right not to be offended. There is no legal obligation to be reverent towards any religion. The lodestar of our democracy is freedom of speech. Nobody can demand respect for their belief system, even if it is a religion. People are legally entitled to reject — and to leave — any religion. There is no apostasy law in this country. The act of accusing someone of apostasy or blasphemy is effectively inciting violence upon that person.
, , ,Everyone who lives here has to accept this country’s pluralism and freedom of speech and belief. One person’s freedom to, for example, convert from Islam to Christianity is the same freedom that allows a Muslim to say that Jesus was a prophet but not God Incarnate.
This freedom is absolute. It doesn’t vary case by case. It can’t be disapplied at a local level. And no one living in this country can legitimately claim that this doesn’t apply to them because they belong to a different tradition.
All of this is typically understood. If I told a socialist they should politely endorse my sincerely held conservative beliefs, he or she would laugh in my face — and rightly so. Roman Catholics readily understand that people are going to criticise the Pope or mock the concept of transubstantiation.’
Yet things are going in the wrong direction. We see that in the monstrous way that JK Rowling and others have been treated for daring to challenge radical gender ideology. And there is a particular issue with attitudes towards Islam.
The overwhelming majority of Muslims are tolerant, peaceful and embrace our values. But some Muslims and non-Muslims alike — as well as Islamist extremists — believe that Islam should enjoy a special status, protected from disrespect.
There is a long, ignoble history of that, which goes back at least as far as the furore over The Satanic Verses. It is rooted in a view — actually a bigoted one — that Muslims are uniquely incapable of controlling themselves if they feel provoked. And it has excused agitators using fear to force people to bend to their demands.
And she promises that the intimidation by the police of those who utter legal but “offensive hate speech” will cease:
I am not happy with the way non-crime hate incidents are recorded and I will soon be announcing new guidance for police.
Timidity does not make us safer; it weakens us. A fear of being seen as “Islamophobic” led to the grooming gangs scandal. It led the Prevent counterterrorism programme to fail to recognise the scale of the threat of Islamist extremism, to deny the individual culpability of extremists, and actively to co-operate with extremist groups. It fails to protect people from the mob.
Enough. It is high time for leaders — real leaders, not self-appointed hot-heads — to stand up for our free society. It is this country’s sacred promise to everyone who lives here, whatever their background. Every organisation that answers to me as home secretary will be in no doubt of where I stand.
While the piece deals largely with blasphemy (religious “hate speech”), her statement that “there is no right not to be offended” and that she’s unhappy with the treatment of “non-crime hate incidents” by the authorities gives me hope that the UK will stop intimidating people whose speech may offend some but is 100% legal.
According to Wikipedia, at least, blasphemy laws were enforced at a very low level in the UK until they were recently repealed in England, Wales, and Scotland—though they remain in force in Northern Ireland. I’ve left the links in the excerpt below in case readers want to check.
England and Wales abolished their blasphemy law in 2008. On 24 April 2020, the Scottish Government published a new bill that sought to reform hate crime legislation to provide better protection against race, sex, age and religious discrimination, and also decriminalised blasphemy. This bill was approved by Holyrood on 11 March 2021 and the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021 received royal assent on 23 April 2021. The abolition of the common law of blasphemy will take effect when section 16 of the Act is brought into force by commencement orderHumanists UK, that had been campaigning for repealing Scotland’s blasphemy law since 2015, welcomed the bill.
Yet prohibitions against blasphemy are apparently still being enforced in England—but only in defense of a single religion, and in schools, not the courts (though the coppers get involved). Guess which religion?
Yes, you’re right. Here’s a BBC article about it, sent in by a British reader. Click to read:
Four pupils have been suspended from a West Yorkshire secondary school after a copy of the Quran was damaged by students.
Wednesday’s incident at Wakefield’s Kettlethorpe High School happened when a copy of the Islamic text was brought in by a Year 10 pupil.
Head teacher Tudor Griffiths said the book remained intact and there was “no malicious intent” from those involved.
He held a meeting with concerned community leaders on Friday.
He said reports the Quran had been burnt or destroyed were untrue, and he had inspected the book himself during the meeting.
Independent councillor for Wakefield East, Akef Akbar, called the meeting after being contacted by people calling for more information.
Mr Akbar said he had been told the book had been taken to school as a dare by a pupil who lost while playing a Call of Duty videogame with other students.
While at the school it sustained a slight tear to the cover and smears of dirt on some of the pages.
Mr Akbar said he understood it had been kicked around on the school premises – a claim denied by the school.
Head teacher Mr Griffiths said in a statement: “We would like to reassure all our community that the holy book remains fully intact and that our initial enquiries indicate there was no malicious intent by those involved.
Apparently, one of the pupils [JAC: later described as “highly autistic”] brought the Quran into school after losing a bet. (This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me but kids make odd decisions.) According to the school’s investigation, it appears that one of the students dropped the book after being collided with. It also picked up a smudge of dirt — which will surprise no one who is familiar with the hygiene of teenage boys.
Somehow, rumours spread. Activists came to believe that the Quran had been kicked or spat on, which inflamed a “huge uproar” in the Muslim community. Some even suggested that the Quran had been torn up in front of Muslim students.
Had that taken place it would have been deplorable. (Just as if a Bible had been torn up in front of Christian students, or a Torah in front of Jewish students.) As far as I can tell, though, there is no evidence that it did.
But activists were unsatisfied — elected officials among them. Usman Ali, for example, a local Labour councillor, announced that the Quran had been “desecrated” and that the school, the police and local authorities should be taking “swift and appropriate action to deal with this grave situation”. “We all need to work together to make sure that this terrible provocation does not set back community relations,” Ali wrote — blissfully unaware that the people endangering community relations were those, like him, who were treating an incident of teenage rambunctiousness like a school shooting.
Here’s the damage that the kerfuffle caused: a slight smudge (from the BBC article):
More from The Critic (yes, they editorialize), which adds two more things. First, the police were involved—twice (in bold below). Second, the autistic boy has received death threats.
The school, after liaising with the police — because of course the police have nothing better to do than investigating slight cosmetic damage to a book — and “community leaders” — whoever the hell they are — suspended the boys.
Independent councillor Akef Akbar is playing the peacemaker in this situation. He has emphasised that “absolutely nobody should engage in any violence”, and that the kids who have been suspended should be “protected and safeguarded”. Well, that’s good.
But while I think Mr Akbar is sincere in his desire to stabilise community relations, the premises he works from need interrogating. He is asking local Muslims to be magnanimous enough to tolerate an outrageous provocation — when in reality it was a non-event that should not have caused a scandal to begin with.
In one video released on his Facebook page [see below], he addresses Wakefield residents alongside a woman who he introduces as the mother of the boy who brought the Quran into school. The boy, it turns out, was “highly autistic” — yet more reason to sympathise with him! But while Akbar is preaching peace — certainly better than the alternative — he is still behaving as if the boy committed some sort of monstrous crime. He was “rightfully expelled”, he says. His mother has “of course shown her remorse”. “Of course”! What do you mean “of course”!? Why should she feel remorse because her son brought a book into school?
Akbar tells us that the autistic boy has been receiving death threats and threats to beat him up. You might think this would be cause for fierce condemnation. “Passions do flare,” says Akbar, “And sometimes we let them out in the wrong manner.” Passions do flare? We’re talking about death threats — not someone using the f-word. Imagine the uproar if a Muslim child received death threats and a white politician shrugged “passions do flare”.
“The mother has had to inform the police,” Akbar says, but “to her credit” she doesn’t want the children to be prosecuted. Why shouldn’t she?
The video with the lucubrations of councillor Akbar is embedded in one of the tweets below. As the British reader noted:
There was a farcical “hearing” at a local mosque about it that tried hard to make itself look like a court, even though it’s no such thing and has no formal power [JAC: the FB page, which has sound, is here and in the tweet below.]
Notice that the mother of the autistic student has donned a hijab for the mock hearing!
This quasi-judicial mosque hearing about the incident is extraordinary. The autistic non-Muslim boy was interrogated on how he must treat the Quran. Police aren't investigating death threats he received. Who should be suspended or referred to PREVENT here?https://t.co/IP036rg6pO
I’m told that the mainstream British media haven’t covered this much, apart from The Critic and The Spectator, both of which, I’m told again, “lean to the political right”. That, of course, would probably be considered “centrist” in the U.S., but I am not a regular reader. I think they’re more like Quillette than The Daily Wire.
It’s ridiculous that the students were suspended, it’s ridiculous, given the circumstances, that the Muslim community is incensed (many of them are the Professionally Offended), it’s ridiculous that the “mock court” was convened, and it’s ridiculous that the police were involved. What’s most ridiculous—but there’s nothing to be done about it—is the reverence conferred on a bundle of paper containing fictitious words. I think Britain would be better off if it adopted America’s construal of the First Amendment, for the ludicrous way they treat these “hate crimes” wouldn’t occur. The kids may have been warned by the school not to cause a commotion, but they certainly would not have been suspended; and if they had been, there would have been a First-Amendment lawsuit. The British police have better things to do than soothe the feelings of the offended or threaten people by interviewing them after “hate speech” reports.
The reader rendered his/her own opinion, which I quote with permission:
Personally I think this is crazy – my country doesn’t have blasphemy laws, I’m glad it doesn’t have them, I don’t want them introduced by the back door, and I’m amazed at how quiescent politicians are on this sort of thing. It’s cowardly, and the four kids clearly don’t deserve any kind of punishment at all. And of course some of the people who ARE willing to talk about the story are the skinhead brigade. Vacating the field like this seems both morally wrong and highly irresponsible.
This note and a video link came in a mass email from Muhammad Syed, the co-founder, executive director, and president of the Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA); Sarah Haider was the other co-founder.
Now that Salman Rushdie has finally been attacked, it’s time to think about the act, ponder the history behind it, and and examine the larger issues it raises. Who better to analyze it than the EXMNA group? The video is short, 29 minutes long, and I recommend it highly.
On August 12, the heinous stabbing of celebrated author Salman Rushdie left the literary world reeling. Despite “life-changing” injuries, he survived the attack, carried out by a 24-year-old man with reported “Shi’ite extremist” sympathies.
Rushdie, long an outspoken supporter of liberal values and free expression, has had a target on his back for more than three decades—ever since the release of his “blasphemous” novel, The Satanic Verses, and the subsequent “death sentence” issued him by the Supreme Leader of Iran.
It’s now more important than ever to understand why this happened. What was the “blasphemy” of The Satanic Verses? Why did it provoke such an intense reaction? And, especially in light of this latest attempt to carry out Iran’s fatwa, what can this ordeal reveal to us today, as we live with its consequences?
EXMNA has a new documentary-style video out exploring these questions in depth. Watch it below.
The video is below, and here are the YouTube notes:
The attempted murder of acclaimed author Salman Rushdie on August 12, 2022 sent an earthquake through civil society and the literary world—but it was more than three decades in the making, originating with accusations of blasphemy against Islam in his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. In the 34 years since, a conflict between fundamentalism and secularism has roiled liberal societies, culminating in this gruesome attempt on Rushdie’s life. The “Rushdie affair” is not over—and it won’t be over for a long time to come.
The video starts with the publication of The Satanic Verses, and if you haven’t read it, there’s a precis. Then we see the worldwide reaction to what was seen as a form of blasphemy so heinous that it was deemed a capital crime by many Muslims. (It’s certain that the vast majority of those who objected and rioted never read the book.)
Rushdie was taken by surprise at the vehemence of the reaction. The book was burned, banned in India, and then, in 1989, came the fatwa from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Do read the fatwa, which is shown in the video. It was not just Rushdie who was condemned to death, but all the editors and publishers “aware of its contents.” Some of them, and the book’s translators, were murdered.
We also hear from the “free-speech butters” who, in some sense, defended Rushdie’s critics (one of them was Jimmy Carter). Also from Cat Stevens, who, converted to Islam, is shown wishing for Rushdie’s death. There’s an interesting bit on British blasphemy law (still on the books back then but never used), and the attempts of Muslims to expand it to religions other than Christianity. (The law protected only Anglicanism.)
The fatwa was lifted by Iran for a while, but then was reinstated. It remains in effect, and young Muslims are identifying even more strongly with Islam than their forebears.
Do watch this excellent video, part of the great work that EXMNA does.
The Free Voice, the website of the United States Free Speech Union, takes up the issue of “words as violence”, instantiated by two issues: the claim of some Muslims that anti-Islamic speech is more dangerous than speech criticizing other faiths, and the cancellation of a Dave Chappelle comedy show in Minneapolis because some transgender activists claim that Chappelle is a “transphobe” and that his act is harmful to transsexual people. Both the religious and transsexual activists see criticisms as “violence”, demanding special immunity from both criticism and mockery. Click to read.
I’ve seen only snippets of Dave Chappelle’s act that got him in trouble, and it seemed to me to be the Lenny Bruce brand of humor: saying what makes people simultaneously laugh and be discomfited—all with the aim of getting them to examine their views. While I didn’t find it nearly as funny as some of his other bits, it is free speech, people would have filled Chappelle’s audience, and it’s wrong to allow the bullies to cancel his show on free-speech grounds.
As for Islam, I regard it as the most dangerous current religion, though Catholicism used to be at the top. Right now only four words need be said, “Charlie Hebdo” and “Salman Rushdie”. All religions should be criticized and, when necessary, mocked, and none are exempt, including Islam, which especially deserves opprobrium for its violence and oppression. (Note: I’m not saying that all Muslims are violent and oppressive.)
Author Jon Zobenica cites a paper from the journal Critical Inquiry arguing that Islam is uniquely harmed by criticism, mainly because, in contrast to Christianity (but not Orthodox Judaism!), Islam is a way of life, not merely a set of beliefs. My response is “so what”? If something offends you, don’t listen, and above all don’t try to cancel it. Or protest if you will, as vociferously as you can, but don’t claim that you’re being harmed by verbiage that’s “violent.”
This goes for Chappelle as well. Zobenica tries to defend him by a tactic I don’t find particularly palatable: showing that the rate of murder of transssexual people is much lower than people think—about 24 per year. His point seems to be that transsexuals aren’t really being “harmed” in disproportionate numbers:
The CDC and TMMP date ranges don’t exactly align, of course, and the numbers do increase (as homicides did overall, significantly, for 2020), but the percentages are a sliver of those established by Pew, indicating—reassuringly, one would think—that trans people are at the very least not disproportionately the victims of the most violent of violent crimes in America. Indeed, something like the opposite seems to be the case.
But this addresses an argument that differs from the free-speech argument: the claim that transsexual people are especially vulnerable victims of violence. While the data don’t seem to support that (and the issue of high murder of sex workers needs to be addressed), this says nothing about whether criticizing transsexual activism or making it part of a comedy routine is wrong, much less causing that “violence.” Routines like Chappelle’s almost certainly don’t provoke violence. While every death is to be mourned, and, in my view, transsexual people should be treated with respect and, with very few exceptions, given the same privileges and rights as anyone else, that view says nothing about one’s right to criticize them or make them into subjects for comedy. This might be tasteless, as people claim Chappelle’s routine is (I’d need to see it first), but to say that he—or Islam—are to be censored because they promote violence is putting the blame on the wrong people. Zobenica explains how American courts judge whether words are “violence”:
But what if there really has been someone of bigoted leanings who, after seeing a Chappelle special, was motivated to commit a hate crime against a trans person? Or what if there really has been a trans person who, after seeing a Chappelle special, felt so violated by the comic’s sentiments that he/she/they was driven to self-harm? And what if, in both cases, this could be established? Would Chappelle be responsible?
No, he would not. Just as abridging speech is a double wrong (committed not just against the speaker but also against all who have the right to decide for themselves whether they want to hear and listen to that speaker), speech itself entails a double responsibility—that of the listener as well as the speaker. Actions taken on the part of a listener are not the direct responsibility of the speaker unless that speaker has engaged in speech that is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action,” per the Supreme Court’s June 1969 decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio (yes, the Klan case).
That same summer of 1969, Nina Simone took to a stage in Harlem and chanted to a lively and receptive audience the following words: “Are you ready black people? Are you really ready? Ready to do what is necessary? To do what is necessary to do? . . . Are you ready to kill, if necessary? Is your mind ready? Is your body ready? . . . Are you ready to smash white things? To burn buildings? Are you ready?”
One doubts there’s anything quite so explicit and exhortatory in Dave Chappelle’s oeuvre, but even if someone in the audience left that concert and saw fit to smash white things, even to kill, Simone—per the Brandenburg standard—is guilty of nothing more than performing political art (and being one of the most singular talents and distinctive voices in twentieth-century American music). Simone does sound awfully close to advocating violence, but the standard upheld in Brandenburg is that advocacy is not the same as action, and that this distinction must be kept strictly in mind, lest the urge to aggressively suppress get the better of us.
The Charlie Hebdo affair and the attacks on Salman Rushdie and others who have criticized Islam worry me. If you think of words of criticism—words that are permissible under the First Amendment—as “violence”, then you’ll be more likely to use violence against those who utter them. I don’t think Dave Chappelle or J.K. Rowling are endangered, but as the “hate speech as violence” meme spreads, who knows? Indeed, that’s what this article warns against:
As we have argued elsewhere, the danger of incessantly and recklessly equating words with violence must be far more carefully scrutinized than has become the custom. The more we’re encouraged to think of words as violence, the more some among us will likely come to think of violence as a proportional response to words. . .
This kind of rhetorical inflation has to be stopped. When someone brings up the “words as violence” trope, remind them of the decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio.
And a bit of her kvetching in the House of Commons about “hurt feelings” when the Prophet (peace be upon him) is insulted. This is an excerpt from the AA (Anadolu Agency) report:
“As a Muslim, for me and millions of Muslims across this country and the quarter of the world’s population that is Muslim too, with each day and each breath, there is not a single thing in the world that we commemorate and honor more than our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him),” she said.
Shah drew comparisons between the British people’s attachment to figures such as Winston Churchill and Oliver Cromwell and Muslims’ love and endearment for their prophet.
Just as this new law aims to protect historical figures of the UK, the same protection should be extended to figures and individuals that hold importance for other communities, the lawmaker stressed.
“When bigots and racist defame, slander or abuse our Prophet (peace be upon him), just like some people do to the likes of Churchill, the emotional harm caused upon our hearts is unbearable. Because for 2 billion Muslims, he is the leader we commemorate in our hearts, honor in our lives and forms the basis of our identity and our very existence,” Shah asserted.
The thing is, it’s not illegal to mock or make fun of Winston Churchill or Oliver Cromwell.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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:
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.
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.