We’re all blasphemers now

Never a dull moment on the religion news beat. And the latest clash is a full-on battle over blasphemy laws. There’s been a fair amount of coverage. Here’s a Washington Post story headlined “Egypt’s President Morsi tells U.N.: Insults to Muhammad ‘unacceptable’.” One thing I liked about the piece was how it gave three full paragraphs of quotes to substantiate this, the fourth paragraph:

In an address before the U.N. General Assembly that marked his debut as an international statesman, Egypt’s first democratically elected president presented an unapologetically Islamic view of world events and Egypt’s role in them. He said outrage over insults to Islam does not justify violence but said nothing directly about the attack two weeks ago on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

I always get nervous when paragraphs such as this are the lede. What does “unapologetically Islamic” mean, really? But because of the very meaty quotes from the first three paragraphs, it was delivered at the right moment with the proper amount of substantiation.

The Obama administration has been pushing the line that anti-American protests are nothing other than a reaction to the YouTube video. And some leaders of Muslim countries are using that as an avenue to discussing blasphemy laws. From the same story:

“Egypt respects freedom of expression,” said Morsi, who was the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood movement once banned by the U.S.-backed secular dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. But “not a freedom of expression that targets a specific religion or a specific culture.”

Morsi’s stance underlined the challenges facing the Obama administration as it attempts to recalibrate the U.S. relationship not only with Egypt but also with other countries in the Middle East and North Africa roiled by the Arab Spring. The reaction to the YouTube video that denigrated Islam has proven to be a critical flash point.

Obviously, in America, you can denigrate any religion you want. Ask Bill Maher, anyone funded by NEA grants, or the South Park boys. If you really don’t like Methodists and want to spend your entire life making YouTube videos against them, you are free to do that. (I’ve always thought there was something mildly fishy about Methodists, amiright?) If you’re an atheist who wants to denigrate all religious thought and write books about it, we say, “Go right on with your bad self. Enjoy the gobs of cash and media attention that are going to come your way.” If you want to be a Lutheran who rejects Catholicism or a Jew who does not believe Jesus is the Messiah, or any other thing, you get to do that. I couldn’t find a good mainstream media example that explores this reality about America, but here’s a great op-ed that ran in the Huffington Post from which I stole the headline above.

It’s messy and it’s full of conflict, but we baked the blasphemy protection into the Constitution right there up front so no one would miss it. But the leader of the Arab League says our Constitution is all wet. And he used very strong language to say so, according to the Associated Press report headlined, in part, “Arab League urges criminalization of blasphemy“:

But perhaps the most controversial argument came from the Arab League’s Nabil Elaraby, who told the U.N. Security Council that if the west has criminalized acts that result in bodily harm, it must also criminalize acts that insult or cause offense to religions. He condemned the violence that erupted throughout the Muslim world in response to an anti-Islam film produced in the United States. But, he said that unless blasphemy laws are enacted and enforced, similar incidents could happen again.

“While we fully reject such actions that are not justifiable in any way, we would like to ring the warning bell,” Elaraby said. “We are warning that offending religions, faiths and symbols is indeed a matter that threatens in international peace and security now.”

Seems like we’re at an impasse. Because just as surely as P.Z. Myers, Jon Stewart and Pat Robertson exist, we’re all about offending religions, faiths and symbols.

So how has the media handled this looming battle that threatens to break out into global unrest? Other than, you know, running a bunch of op-eds criticizing freedom of speech and religion? (USA Today, Slate, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, to name a few)

Well, we’ve learned about the curious decision of the Obama administration to run $70,000 in ads in Pakistan denouncing one of its citizens’ expression of speech. And Religion News Service has this very cheery piece headlined “Obama at the U.N.: A new religion doctrine.” It says that Obama “gave a forceful speech at the United Nations, in which he challenged much of the world’s assumptions about free speech and religion.” Not quite how I heard the speech, although it was quite effective, but I’m sort of a First Amendment obsessive. For a dramatically different view than the one presented by RNS, you might read Reason editor Matt Welch’s analysis of the speech — and how its rhetoric matches with the Obama administration’s actual actions in the aftermath of the YouTube brouhaha.

So the media presents the views against freedom of expression and the media highlights Obama’s “new religion doctrine” that presents a sort of mild defense of our First Amendment.

But what I wonder is whether there’s a better way to approach the story. Some harder-hitting questions to ask of the various groups. Should those hard questions only come from partisan outlets or is there a role for the mainstream media to play here?

Do you get the feeling the media really “get” the conflict at hand here? Are they overdoing the “explainers” as to how some people don’t share American views on free speech? Are they underdoing the “explainers” as to why this issue is so important to Americans? Are they accurately conveying the implications of laws against blasphemy? Are you satisfied with the coverage? Do you see room for improvement?

Photo of blasphemy law protest via Shutterstock.

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  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Here in Oklahoma, blasphemy is apparently already a crime, but a lawmaker wants to change a 1910 law that “makes it a misdemeanor to say or print words that cause ‘profane ridicule upon God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the Holy Scriptures or the Christian or any other religion.’”

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    If you’re an atheist who wants to denigrate all religious thought and write books about it, we say, “Go right on with your bad self. Enjoy the gobs of cash and media attention that are going to come your way.”

    Riiiiiight. That’s the sure way to fame and fortune.

    The question I’d ask – if blasphemy laws were passed, would it be illegal to quote Psalm 14:1?

  • 123

    Not sure why no media reports are noting that the Muslim view itself of Jesus is ‘blasphemy’ to most Christians, i.e., they believe he was ‘just a man’, even if a highly revered prophet, and did not die on the cross. Offense is in the eye of the beholder. Muslims don’t get to feel extra offended because they believe what they believe is true, and then get a pass on offending others because they don’t believe others’ beliefs are true. That’s the nub of the issue and I’m not sure it’s making it into most media stories. Same with their view of the Trinity. I’m sure much the same can be said of Islam’s ‘offensive’ speech against religions other than Christianity, e.g., Taliban treatment of Afghanistan’s Buddhist legacy.

    One could then point to ‘intent’ as to whether such statements constitute ‘hate speech’, but that’s a tricky question, too. It should be part of the story.

    There are obviously other issues underlying the ‘offense’ taken over this and other actions by the West. not sure it all boils down simply to imperialism. Would it be valid to ask questions about whether cognitive dissonance between most Muslims’ place in the world and what their religion says about what their state in the world should be? That is, good Muslims are supposed to be successful, Islam should be powerful and preeminent, etc. If this is not the case, is that the real reason underlying a lot of the issues the Muslim world has with the non-Islamic West (including Israel)?

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    I wonder exactly what Morsi means when he speaks of blasphemy against “a specific religion.” This would mean that he would support curtailing free speech and action if the speaker, say a Muslim, were denigrating Judaism, Christianity, or Buddhism. But the context of the rest of his speech makes one think otherwise. It would have been nice to see some more — if there is any more — about whether Morsi’s call to end blasphemy (and free speech) was a general principle or if it pertained only to blaspheming Islam.

    • sari

      Beat me to it. It’s not as if the Arab countries have any problem blaspheming non-Muslim faiths. Nor, in the case of the Taliban and others, destroying non-Muslim religious artifacts (or non-Muslims).

      The press should be exploring the double standard that Egypt wants imposed on the West. The press should be contrasting the social mores prevalent in Egypt and other N.African/Middle Eastern countries with those prevalent in the West.

  • http://peicurmudgeon.wordpress.com/ peicurmudgeon

    It seems to me that many religious texts and leaders who make the claim that theirs is the only path to salvation are denigrating all other religions.

    It is perfectly fair to condemn the speech of people like the creators of this anti-Islamic film, Terry Jones’ burning of the Koran, Fred Phelps actions at funerals, the words of PZ Myers, and those of the Grand Wizard of the KKK while defending the rights of those people to speak.

  • Becky

    I think it’s a bit hopeless right now, to expect good coverage. So many youngsters who marinated in speech codes in college are attempting to write newspaper stories on free speech, and they can’t.
    They are just too young.
    There will be a lag time, and poor reporting, until those who desire, teach themselves about the limitations of limiting speech.
    With no help from our sitting president, his secretary of state, or her lawyer.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The most disturbing comments I have seen is attempts to defend the actions of the Federal Government to try to get YouTube to remove the video as somehow not censorship. Any time an official of the government asks or encorages the removal of material by a private individual it is censorship.

    It is not the place of government officials to make pronouncements on the value or usefulness of private publications. I find it extremely disturbing that Secretary Clinton thinks it is ok to pay to attend anti-Mormon productions while denouncing as unaccetable anti-Muslim ones.

    Mike Welch’s observation that some seem to suggest Van Gogh would have deserved death if his film had been a cheper production needs to be thought on more. It does not matter how low budget this film was. The fact that the producer is a Coptic Christian driven from his homeland at some level because of animus against non-Muslims turns this film into an attempt to attack the cultural norm. This should make him and his work a cause celebre greater than Rushdie and his horrific work.

  • http://religionculturepower.blogspot.com Christopher W. Chase

    Unfortunately, much of the context of these issues is lost with the history of colonialism and the way that religious activism in the region has risen up to take the place of secular nationalisms in the post-Nassar era. The speech by Morsi at the UN seemed to me to be directed at shoring up his fragile new government in Egypt and making sure his own populace was becoming more unified in its support. Given that mass media coverage of religion and its cultural interactions has been so poor in general I don’t think we can expect much coverage that would get to the complex issues and history between the “West” and the various new governments that have arisen with the “Arab Spring.” Fear over speech codes is a red herring.

    • sari

      Do you think the problem is one of no longer having entrenched reporters on the ground, people who have in-depth knowledge of the culture and its history from having been immersed for some period of time?

    • mollie

      I just wanted to comment that I agree with much of this. These are very hard issues to report well. I do think that David Kirkpatrick at NYT has done pretty well with this, though. I’d like to see someone at NYT do as well with the stateside perspective as he has done with the on-the-ground stuff in Egypt.

  • http://religionculturepower.blogspot.com Christopher W. Chase

    I would also note that Greece is having its own issues with protofacsism, blasphemy laws and the Eastern Orthodox Church: http://tinyurl.com/c26z2vu. These issues are neither endemic to Islam nor the “Middle East.”

    • JoFro

      Many nations have some kind of laws against blasphemy of some sorts – weather it is against religion or the nation-state or the founding father of the republic. If you go to India and decide to exibit a picture of Gandhi in a jar of your urine, expect Indians to go bat-sh*t crazy! The difference of course is that however mad people get over hurt feelings, the adherents of only one religion go out of their way to either kill the “blashphemer” or use the excuse of the blasphemy to riot, murder and cause unwarranted mayhem in nations that don’t have anything to do with the blasphemy in question – heck, did you even see the riots in Sydney by angry Muslims?
      Even worse is seeing the way the liberal press decides to cower down and attack free speech itself. Essentially what we are seeing is that if you are violent and kill people, this means you really are offended and society must do its utmost to not mock your beliefs.
      If of course you react live a civilised man, make it known why you find a certain piece of art as objectionable and demand that museums and the private and public sector not give it free publicity, write letters demanding the removal of objectionable material, you get mocked even more and ridiculed.
      If this is the way it is supposed to be, then all the more support to the proto-fascists in Greece, I say.

      • sari

        Anyone remember John Lennon’s stupid remark re: Beatles in relation to Jesus? And how Christians in many Southern locales responded? And how that comment was cited by his murderer as the impetus for his behavior? Chapman may have been certifiably insane, but he acted within the context of a religious framework. Looking through a longer lens, Church-sponsored and abetted violence towards Jews has only recently abated, and only because the atrocities of the Holocaust forced the West to confront its behavior.

        Journalists have a responsibility to report what’s happening in Muslim countries correctly and in context. But let’s refrain from rewriting history and acknowledge that these behaviors have precedent, from pogroms incited by allegations of Jews drinking a Christian child’s blood at Passover to the Crusades, where Muslims, Jews, and others were massacred for no reason other than adhering to the wrong belief system. Examine the historical circumstances but be sure to include the religious aspect as well. Tolerance is a recent phenomenon confined to a small group of countries, many of which still retain an undercurrent of religiously based intolerance. It is telling that the most “civilized” country in Europe, which had allowed its minority religions to integrate fully into society, implemented the Final Solution and with little argument from its clergy or populace.

        Let’s ask journalists to report news, to provide the historical context, to include the religious aspects and how they intertwine with the political and sociological, and to avoid sugar-coating the situation to appease special interests, be they us or them. And let’s be honest about our own history and admit that our coreligionists have dirtied their hands at the altar of religion-inspired violence and bigotry.

        • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

          I’ve sent GetReligion several notices about the case of Sanal Edamaruki in India, where a skeptic debunked a Catholic ‘miracle’… and the local Catholics filed a case against him, accusing him of “deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of any class or community.”

          There’s been hardly any mainstream coverage of it: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/new_scientist/2012/07/a_statue_of_jesus_oozing_holy_water_an_indian_skeptic_debunks_miracle.html

          I suppose riots are sexier than sending the police ’round to arrest someone, but it sure seems relevant if we’re talking ‘blasphemy law’ at all.

  • Susan

    I’m not sure I can explain my thoughts well, but the calls for blasphemy laws seem to be part of a larger movement that is seeking to erode/erase our constitutional rights (eg: the HHS mandate). Freedom of speech goes hand-in-hand with the freedom of exercise in religion. I find the direction we are heading disturbing.

  • Susan

    After posting my comment, I read an article that addresses my concerns and confirms my sense that the blasphemy laws are part of a greater movement. You may find this article of interest, Mollie.

    http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/328754/religious-freedom-run-thomas-f-farr

  • John M.

    Based on a comment you made last week, Mollie, I’ve been noodling on the difference between media coverage of (and elite response to) Pussy Riot and Innocence of Muslims. It seems like these two cases are quite similar in a lot of ways, but the response has been quite different.

    -John

  • http://sarahboylewebber.blogspot.com/ Sarah Webber

    Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help being reminded of an early passage in The Iliad when Achilles is crying because Agamemnon stole his girl and the other comfort women in Achilles’ camp cry along with him because this was an opportunity to cry where they would not be punished for bewailing their situation as comfort women and prisoners of war. So many times I wonder if the people in these riots are rioting because they are allowed by their local powers to protest blasphemy but forbidden to protest just about any other part of their suffering. We “civilized” people forget how much we are allowed to protest in calm, rational ways the indignities of life or when we are otherwise injured. If the only time I got to scream and rant and congregate was when some other Westerner had done something stupid and offensive, I would certainly take the opportunity offered, if only to let off some steam about the crap in the rest of my life.


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