It’s been three weeks since we launched the End Blasphemy Laws Campaign, partly as a response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in January.
Last weekend, almost certainly ‘inspired’ by the Paris attacks, a new and similar atrocity—first hitting a “blasphemy” target then a Jewish target—was perpetrated on the Danish capital Copenhagen.
On Saturday afternoon, a gunman hit a cafe hosting a seminar on “blasphemy” and free expression. Shooting through the windows from the street after being denied access by security, he injured police officers and killed film director Finn Nørgaard. Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, widely assumed to be the primary target of the attack, the French ambassador, and FEMEN activist Inna Shevchenko were among the survivors at the event.
After a police hunt, the same gunman later that night hit the main synagogue in central Copenhagen, again killing one victim, Dan Uzan, a 37-year-old Jewish man who had been acted as door guard to a bat mitzvah celebration in progress.
The gunmen was later killed by police at an address they had had under surveillance. His identity was confirmed on Tuesday Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, a 22-year-old born in Denmark to Jordanian-Palestinian parents, who grew up between Copenhagen and Jordan, and had been well-known to the authorities in Denmark and had a record of violence.
Time noted the simple courage of the participants in continuing with the debate, using the words from a text sent shortly afterwards: “still alive”. And Danish media reports that “close-knit” Copenhagen has had a fearless, united and dignified response to the shootings. Several of our partner organisations responded to the attack.
“Sherif Gaber, 22, was studying at Suez Canal University in 2013, when teaching staff and fellow students reported him via a petition to the institution’s President. They said he had made posts supporting atheism on Facebook, and suspected him of being behind a page called ‘The Atheists’.
Subsequently, the university’s then-president Mohamed A. Mohamedein personally filed a legal complaint against the student to the local prosecution on the grounds of contempt of religion.”
Gaber is out on bail pending an appeal against the sentence.
Unfortunately, some news we reported last week with cautious optimism as “good” news, has begun to crumble. It concerns the state government decision to review and, hopefully, work toward true justice for numerous people languishing in jail having been convicted of “blasphemy” in Punjab state. This week it emerged that the list of cases to be reviewed excludes any Christians and other minorities!
“Christian rights and political activists say discrimination against religious minorities was behind the Punjab Prosecution Department’s short list of 50 cases of alleged blasphemers [whose cases will be expedited for acquittal] who have been victimized by complainants.
“We are not opposed to the government’s support to Muslims wrongly accused of blasphemy, but all citizens of the state should be treated equally and without any prejudice,” said Sajid Ishaq, chairman of the Pakistan Interfaith League (PIL) and central president of the minorities wing of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which rules Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Ishaq, who is vying for a senate seat reserved for minorities from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said the Punjab government should have considered cases involving Christians such as Aasiya Bibi (commonly known as Asia Bibi) [and] others.”
Revealingly, the anonymous government source put the exclusion of Christian and other “blasphemy” convicts from the lists in terms of a practical necessity, putting the threat of violence before the principles of justice, and in a sense proving his own point about the authorities being terrorised by “blasphemy” law proponents:
“”We know that most of the cases registered under blasphemy laws are fabricated,” the official said, “but unfortunately our police and justice system is weak and cannot withstand Islamists’ pressure.” He acknowledged that several Christians “have fallen victim to the extremist mindset and were killed during or after their trials.”
The official said the government feared a violent reaction if it were to examine cases involving non-Muslims, given that blasphemy is “a very sensitive subject.”
“Consider these 50 cases as a litmus test, and hopefully if things work out smoothly, we might just be able to bail out more people suffering in jails,” the official said. “As for now, there is nothing being considered for non-Muslims charged with blasphemy, as it may jeopardize the work being done for the other accused.””
There is a possibility that Pakistan’s most world-famous inmate, Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for “blasphemy”, could be released after her pending appeal, says her husband, Ashiq Masih:
“He last saw her on 15 January and reported that she was “doing fine . . . She is in a good mental condition and very single-minded in her faith to live and die for Jesus Christ. She can pay any cost for that.”
He is convinced that, if his wife is released, the family will have to flee the country: “It is not safe for her after her release to stay in Pakistan, because they will kill her. I do not have any idea where we will go.””
Also in Pakistan, the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami made new calls for an international death penalty for blasphemy at an all-party conference, which apparently agreed to its terms:
“They demanded of the government to hold an Islamic summit in Islamabad against the publication of blasphemous sketches by the West and decide a common line of action by the Muslim Ummah to discourage this trend.
They said Islamabad should have convened an OIC [Organisation of Islamic Cooperation] moot after the repeated publication of sketches and raised the issue at the UN to calm down the feelings of one-and-a-half billion Muslims in the world. However, they said the government had not fulfilled its responsibility under the fear of the US and Europe.
Noted leaders at the APC said that repeated publications of blasphemous sketches were not only the worst form of blasphemy but also a clear-cut indication that Western societies stood behind the ignoble acts in the name of freedom of expression.
Calling for international criminalisation with an enforced death penalty(!) the conference, blaming “blasphemy” against Islam on what they reportedly called “the Zionist lobby” and “US imperialism”, the conference said:
“…all Muslim States must make joint efforts for bringing a permanent end to blasphemy by pronouncing it a crime under articles 2 and 4 of UN Human Rights Charter, punishable by death and the desecration of all revealed religions as a criminal offence.
The leaders from all shades of society demanded all Muslim states to lodge a protest with France and other European States against blasphemy. If Europe did not punish and check the blasphemers, the Muslim states should break diplomatic, trade and cultural ties with these countries and boycott their products.
… The joint declaration at the APC noted that incidents of desecration of the Holy Quran at the Guantanamo Bay prison and the repeated publications of sketches in Denmark, Holland, Germany and France, and other western countries were being ignored as freedom of expression. Sirajul Haq announced a steering committee under JI Secretary General Liaquat Baloch to organise the movement against blasphemy.”
In Bangladesh, a publisher has received death threats for publishing a book by an Iranian author which reportedly calls for putting freethought ahead of blind faith and may also criticise specifically Shiite traditions:
“Hardline religious groups, mainly Hefazat-e-Islam, have called on authorities to prosecute publishing house Rodela Prokashoni over the translation of “23 Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Muhammad.” Rodela Prokashoni’s website appeared to be hacked on February 14, 2015, and their office in Banglabazar was attacked on Sunday, according to a report in the Bangla Tribune. No one was injured.
Following the uproar, the publishing house pulled the book from the shelves at the Ekushey Book Fair and from their website, and publisher Riaz Khan reportedly apologized, saying he wasn’t aware that the book was considered offensive.”
Various Islamist groups reacted with the usual calm and restraint, for example saying:
“We demand [to the government] that the anti-Islamic atheists in this country, who are behind publishing this book, should be investigated and arrested and be punished severely.”
Bangladesh criminalises blasphemy under the euphemism of causing “insult to religions”. The latest demands are frequent and echo the terms of the 2013 Dhaka protests which saw 100,000 Islamists marching in a rally calling for “death to atheist bloggers”. (More comment on the furore over 23 Years at Butterflies and Wheels and significantly in the Dhaka Tribune.)
In Malta, which has seen significant social change recently, legalizing both divorce and same-sex unions in the past few years, the Malta Times published an article asking “Are blasphemy laws still relevant?” The piece notes that “Malta may have joined much of the world in expressing solidarity with the victims of the attack on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last month, with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat heading off to Paris to participate in a unity rally”, nevertheless the article outlines how Malta’s blasphemy laws are many and serious, mandating jail sentences, and in active use. Hence the article continues:
“A Maltese Charlie Hebdo would clearly fall foul of both Article 163 – the cover of one issue, for instance, carried a depiction of the Trinity engaged in a sexual act – and Article 164.
Due to some of the magazine’s more risqué content, anyone involved in its production or distribution could also be prosecuted under Article 208, which criminalises the production, acquisition or distribution of obscene or pornographic material, with offenders liable to imprisonment for up to 1 year.
Articles 163-165 of the Criminal Code date back to 1933, and have not been amended since.”
While hedging its bets on “Whether uttering obscene words in public should remain a contravention”, the article does – more bravely than much other western media – illustrate the story with the recent Charlie Hebdo cover image depicted Muhammad and argues that:
“the provisions whose justification appears to be most tenuous – particularly in the wake of Malta’s reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attack – are the articles criminalising the vilification of religion.
The provisions undermine the concept of freedom of expression, which would also include, to some extent, the freedom to offend.”
Reporters Without Borders, which responded rightly and decisively to the Charlie Hebdo killings, proved themselves excellent allies in our vision of a world without “blasphemy” laws. The organisation released its annual report which headlined a marked decline in press freedoms across the globe, and on “blasphemy” and related laws stressed that:
“Stretching sacrilege prohibitions in order to protect a political system is an extremely effective way of censuring criticism of the government in countries where religion shapes the law. The criminalization of blasphemy endangers freedom of information in around half of the world’s countries. When “believers” think the courts are not doing enough to ensure respect for God or the Prophet, they sometimes take it upon themselves to remind journalists and bloggers what they may or may not say.”
On a dedicated page on the subject, “Blasphemy: political use of religious censorship”, Reporters Without Borders explains:
“In countries where laws are so severe that they may even include the death penalty, news and information providers have had to censor themselves for years.
Sometimes journalists have less to fear from the law than from their more radical compatriots, who may be ready to resort to violence to “render justice” to their religion.”
World famous British novelist Ian McEwan went on record in strident defence of freedom of expression, not for the first time, and in particular with reference to religion and in contradistinction to the restriction imposed by blasphemy laws. Describing Jihadist atrocities and attitudes as Islam’s own “totalitarian movement”, a contemporary reflection of the worst excesses of pre-Enlightenment Christianity in Europe as he describes it, McEwan argues – quite rightly, and echoing a recent podcast by Sam Harris – that freedom of expression is not in conflict with freedom of religion or belief, but on the contrary these two freedoms coincide together around the world. In McEwan’s words:
“The freedom that allows the editors and journalists of Charlie Hebdo their satire is exactly the same freedom that allows Muslims in France to worship and express their views openly. The devout cannot have it both ways. Free speech is hard, it’s noisy and bruising sometimes, but the only alternative when so many worldviews must cohabit is intimidation, violence and bitter conflict between communities.
The importance of free speech can’t be overstated… Freedom of speech – the giving and receiving of information, asking of awkward questions, scholarly research, criticism, fantasy, satire – the exchange within the entire range of our intellectual capacities, is the freedom that brings the others into being.
Free speech is not religion’s enemy, it is its protector. Because it is, there are mosques by the score in Paris, London and New York. In Riyadh, where it is absent, no churches are permitted.”
Flemming Rose, an editor at Jyllands-Posten, has written about his “fateful” decision to publish the infamous Mohammad cartoons in 2005.
“…in the end, I don’t accept the blame for anything except the offense the cartoons caused to some Muslims. I have expressed my regrets about that. On the other hand, this very uncomfortable situation has forced me to consider if there really are principles at stake that I am willing to defend no matter the high cost.
I’ve concluded that there are, at least for me. It’s about what I believe in, about the person I am, about what makes life meaningful and worth living. For me, it’s important to defend the free society against the fear society. It’s also crucial, I believe, to stand for the values of secular democracy.”
And in the same week as the Copenhagen shooting, the satirical cartoon strip Jesus and Mo has been published in Denmark, in Danish translation, for the first time.