press freedom

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."

Moral climate change in Britain

One of the demonstrators was a small child with a placard that said, "Whoever insults the prophet kill him." Another marcher wore a suicide bomber costume.

Other signs in London said: "Behead those who insult Islam," "Europeans take a lesson from 9/11" and "Prepare for the REAL Holocaust." The organizer of the Feb. 3 event told the BBC that he looked forward to the day when "the black flag of Islam will be flying over Downing Street."

But what stunned British writer Geoffrey Wheatcroft was something else he saw while blitzing through news reports about the waves of fury inspired by those 12 Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammad.

"Not only did the police make no arrests" during the London demonstration, even though it "openly incited murder; they actually sheltered the fanatics," he noted, in a essay. "Two men who tried to stage a peaceable counterdemonstration were hustled away for questioning. A working-class Londoner ... was told in violent language by a cop to get back in his van and go away."

This raises a disturbing question: Have British citizens lost the ability to exercise their free speech rights in public defiance of demands by many Muslim clerics and politicians for limitations on the freedom of the press in the West?

It's hard to answer this kind of question right now because a "moral climate change" has destroyed England's certainty that some things are right and some things are wrong, said Bishop N.T. Wright of Durham, in a speech last week in the House of Lords. Thus, civic leaders cannot agree on the meaning of words such as "freedom" and "tolerance" and religious faith is seen as a threat instead of a virtue.

"The 1960s and 1970s swept away the old moral certainties, and anyone who tries to reassert them risks being mocked as an ignoramus or scorned as a hypocrite. But since then we've learned that you can't run the world as a hippy commune," said Wright, a former Oxford don who also has served as Westminster Abbey's canon theologian.

"Getting rid of the old moralities hasn't made us happier or safer. ... This uncertainty, my Lords, has produced our current nightmare, the invention of new quasi-moralities out of bits and pieces of moral rhetoric, the increasingly shrill and polymorphous language of 'rights', the glorification of victimhood which enables anyone with hurt feelings to claim moral high ground and the invention of various 'identities' which demand not only protection but immunity from critique."

Instead of focusing on the cartoon crisis, Wright described other signs of legal and moral confusion in British life. Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, sent painfully mixed signals after last summer's suicide bombings. His government leaned one way when it tried to ban efforts to "glorify" terrorism. Then it leaned the other way with legislation that would ban the promotion of "religious hatred."

Wright stressed that it will be dangerous to pass laws that attempt to replace, amend or edit religious doctrines that have shaped the lives of believers for centuries. But politicians seem determined to try.

Thus, Birmingham University forced the Evangelical Christian Union off campus and seized the group's funds because it refused to amend its bylaws to allow non-Christians or atheists to become voting members.

Thus, Wright noted that police have shut down protests in Parliament Square against British policies in Iraq. Comedians -- facing vague laws against hate speech -- are suddenly afraid to joke about religion. And was there any justification for government investigations of the Anglican bishop of Chester and the chairman of the Muslim Council of Great Britain because they made statements critical of homosexuality?

Public officials, said the bishop, are trying to control the beliefs that are in people's hearts and the thoughts that are in their heads. The tolerance police are becoming intolerant, which is a strange way to promote tolerance.

"People in my diocese have told me that they are now afraid to speak their minds in the pub on some major contemporary issues for fear of being reported, investigated, and perhaps charged," said Wright. "I did not think I would see such a thing in this country in my lifetime. ... The word for such a state of affairs is 'tyranny' -- sudden moral climate change, enforced by thought police."