The blasphemy iceberg is much bigger than Charlie Hebdo

The drama began when a Pakistani politician named Salman Taseer criticized the land's blasphemy laws that were being used to condemn Asia Bibby, a Christian convert.

This led to a man named Malik Qadri firing 20 rounds into Taseer's back, according to witnesses, while security guards assigned to the Punjab governor stood and watched the assassination. When Qadri went to trial, cheering crowds showered him with rose pedals. Later, radicals threatened the judge who found Qadri guilty.

The judge, of course, had committed blasphemy by passing judgment on the man who killed a Muslim politician who -- by criticizing the blasphemy laws and defending an apostate -- had committed blasphemy.

"Then you get the question: Can you defend the judge or would that be blasphemous? We are starting to get here very like a Monty Python element," noted human-rights scholar Paul Marshall, speaking on "Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech and Freedom of Religion" at The King's College in New York City.

This kind of tragedy on the other side of the world is not what most Americans and Europeans think about when they worry about violence inspired by accusations of blasphemy, said Marshall, who currently teaches at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, Indonesia. 

Blasphemy in the U.K.

The last successful prosecution under Britain?s blasphemy law was in 1977, when the publisher of the Gay News was fined for printing a love poem from a Roman centurion to Jesus.

In the most recent clash the nation's high court waved off an attempt by evangelicals to attack "Jerry Springer -- The Opera."

To no one's surprise, a coalition of powerful Brits has issued yet another call to kill the blasphemy law. It's a sign of the times.

"The ancient common law of blasphemous libel purports to protect beliefs rather than people or communities," said a statement backed by activists ranging from the creator of the BBC comedy "The Office" to the retired Archbishop of Canterbury. "Most religious commentators are of the view that the Almighty does not need the 'protection' of such a law. Far from protecting public order ... it actually damages social cohesion."

The conviction behind blasphemy laws is that cultures need some kind of religious order to maintain social cohesion, said Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, a key voice in Britain's ongoing debates about faith and culture.

Defenders of Britain's law would insist, he noted, that "it provides some sort of basis to the British constitution, which is, of course, the queen and parliament, under God. So if you protect the queen and protect the parliament, then you also need to protect ... the honor of God."

But the question now is whether Britain can find a common set of values or laws, said Nazir-Ali, in a dialogue with journalists from around the world.

The timing of that 2006 seminar -- organized by my Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life colleagues -- was crucial. Blasphemy was in the news because of Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad. Then there would be more tension when Sudanese officials arrested a teacher for allowing her young class to name its teddy bear "Muhammad."

Nazir-Ali recently made headlines of his own when he claimed that radical forms of Islam have turned parts of England into "no-go zones" in which it is dangerous for non-Muslims to live, work and minister. The nation, he lamented, is breaking into "self-contained," segregated communities in which people live "parallel lives." The bishop and his family are living under police protection after receiving death threats.

"Converts to Christian faith also find it difficult or impossible to live in certain areas," noted Nazir-Ali, who was raised in Pakistan in a family with Christian and Muslim roots. "It is critically important to all that the freedom to discuss freely and perhaps to have our views changed, whether in politics, religion or science, be encouraged and not diminished."

Soon after this controversy, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams threw more fuel on the multicultural fire by saying that it "seems inevitable" that elements of Muslim Sharia law will be included in the British legal system.

In a complicated lecture, Williams said it might be possible to develop a "scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters." Sharia courts might be involved in some "aspects of marital law, the regulation of financial transactions and authorized structures of mediation and conflict resolution."

News reports about the archbishop's views created a firestorm. Critics stopped just short of accusing Williams of committing a secular brand of blasphemy, if that is possible in modern Britain.

As the headlines raged on, Nazir-Ali stressed that all of these conflicts point to one reality.

Sooner or later, he said, British leaders will have to decide whether to affirm or deny centuries of English law that is "rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition." The various schools of Islamic law that exist today, he stressed, bring with them their own traditions and assumptions and compromise will be next to impossible.

"The Sharia is not a generalized collection of dispositions. It is articulated in highly concrete codes," he wrote, at his diocesan website. "It would have to be one or the other, or all, of these which would have to be recognized. All of these schools would be in tension with the English legal tradition on questions like monogamy, provisions of divorce, the rights of women, custody of children, laws of inheritance and of evidence.

"This is not to mention the relation of freedom of belief and expression to provisions for blasphemy and apostasy."

Fighting blasphemy laws is blasphemy

OXFORD, England -- Abdul Rahman of Afghanistan was not the first Muslim convert to Christianity to be sentenced to death and he will not be the last.

Human-rights activists around the world cheered when -- despite efforts by the post-Taliban parliament -- he was allowed to seek asylum in Italy. Other converts have been less fortunate, facing imprisonment, abuse, torture and death at the hands of state officials or vigilantes in Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia and elsewhere.

While Rahman's plight drew waves of prayers, few Western believers noticed a related case last year that was just as important, according to Paul Marshall, of Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom.

Journalist Ali Mohaqeq Nasab was jailed for his work with Women's Rights magazine in Kabul. Among his many sins, the liberal Shiite cleric had argued that Muslim apostates should not face execution. Thus, radicals demanded that he face the gallows himself. He repented.

"If it is blasphemous to discuss charges of blasphemy, then you have in effect a totalitarian system," said Marshall, one of my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. We both took part in a seminar last week for journalists from around the world, focusing on blasphemy and freedom of the press.

"Blasphemy charges mean that you cannot discuss the blasphemy charges. Hence, seeking to remove, minimize or otherwise immobilize legal bans on blasphemy, apostasy, insulting Islam and insulting public religious sentiments is an indispensable first step in creating the necessary political space for debate that could lead to other reforms. Unless you can get this out of the way, you can't discuss other issues."

It's crucial, said Marshall, to realize that Islamists are using laws against apostasy and blasphemy to threaten liberal Muslims just as often, or more often, than against actual converts. When Osama bin Laden issues pronouncements against blasphemy, he reserves his strongest words for Muslims who want to compromise with the West.

There is no law higher for Muslims than Sharia law and no courts higher than those that enforce it. One notorious law in Pakistan says: "Whoever, by words either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished by death."

The ultimate insult is for a Muslim to abandon the faith. So it matters little that the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief. ..."

In recent years, powerful Muslims in Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere have urged their Sharia courts to restore and enforce traditional penalties for crimes such as apostasy and "blasphemy against the prophet," said Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, who grew up in a primarily Shiite family in Pakistan.

The bottom line is that penalties other than death are viewed as repugnant to Islam. Judges have little room to maneuver and the whole world is watching.

"The question, of course, is whether in a world such as ours -- which is increasingly interconnected -- religions have to be accountable not only to themselves and their followers, but to others," said the bishop. "Questions of personal liberty, of life, cannot be left just to circles of believers."

Nevertheless, it may become harder for moderate Muslims and their allies to avoid these questions, even in the safety of the West. Earlier this year, an organization called "Supporters of God's Messenger" sent out an email threatening to kill 30 or more "atheists," "polytheists" and Muslims who cooperate with "worshippers of the cross" and other believers.

Marshall noted that the message called people by name, including Muslims in America, and included information about their home addresses, their children's schools and times when their wives were alone at home.

"Appeasement of such groups will not work," he said. If Western leaders fail to take a stand, "violent Islamists will accept their victory and move on to demand the next part of their agenda -- the silencing or death of those who reject or criticize their program, including, especially, Muslims. ...

"If even Western democracies cannot provide the political space for Muslims to debate these critical questions concerning the meaning of Islam, then all hope of an Islamic reform movement will be lost."