The week in “blasphemy” news #12

The Nanak Shah Fakir controversy spreads from India to the UK, with two British cinema chains canceling the film. The United States sees a “blasphemy” protest in response to a political cartoon, in a tight mayoral race for West New York. Copenhagen faces fresh blasphemy terror threats. And police in Turkey are wasting their time investigating a cake shaped like a Koran.

We learn that criticising religion is rarely “punching down”, Egypt’s “blasphemy” trials continue, and there’s further analysis on the blasphemy fascism and wider extremist Islamism being imported into Bangladesh.


cineworld-nanak-shah-fakirWe’ve been covering Sikh protests against the Bollywood movie Nanak Shah Fakir, originating it appears within a fringe independence movement in Punjab, for some weeks. Now the protests have spread to the UK and two major cinema chains have withdrawn the film.

The Odeon and Cineworld cinema chains have cancelled screenings of Indian film Nanak Shah Fakir following a major sit-in protest at a branch of Cineworld in Wolverhampton.

Around 50 Sikh protestors surged into the cinema on 19 April, chanting protests until the cinema owners cancelled the screening. Dozens of cinemagoers had to leave the cinema, and were later promised refunds; the cinema owners say they are working with police to investigate the incident.

There have been mixed messages from the filmmakers themselves, both criticising the dictates of religious authorities against the film, while also agreeing to fundamentally modify the film to fit their demands:

Producer Harinder Singh Sikka released a statement saying Nanak Shah Fakir would now be removed from cinemas worldwide until the changes were made. He told the Tribune that the Jathedar, a leading Sikh spokesman, “told me that some changes need to be made in the movie and I agreed to it. At the same time, the Jathedar said the movie has been made with great passion and faith.”

He said that among those who have seen the film “there is not even a single person who is not commending the movie,” and expressed frustration at not being asked for the changes during production, which he said had approval from Sikh authorities: “The movie was granted written permission by the Darbar Sahib four months ago. Now a fringe group, that claims intellectual property rights over the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev ji, decides that the movie is not to be screened. Is it fair that while my graphic description of the Guru (whom I have projected only through the back and as a ray of light) is considered unacceptable, while a movie like [the 3D animation] Chaar Sahibzaade is acceptable?”

The protests and withdrawal of the film in the UK have of course fed back into the Indian media.

Also in the UK this week, there was controversy over the cancelling of university’s Charlie Hebdo-themed event.

queens-belfastQueen’s University Belfast has cancelled an event on the fallout from the attack on Charlie Hebdo, citing fears over the university’s “reputation” and “security” if the talk went ahead.

Vice Chancellor Patrick Johnston has been widely criticised for cancelling the event, in the latest capitulation to fear over Islamist blasphemy laws.

Dr. Brian Klug, who was due to attend the event, said he was “dismayed” by the Vice Chancellor’s decision…

The event was to be called “Understanding Charlie: New perspectives on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo”. The university is refusing to make any comment, except to confirm that the symposium has been cancelled.

Stephen Evans, campaigns manager for the National Secular Society, said the case was “another example of fear- real or imagined- shutting down debate, discussion and normal academic freedom.


west-new-york-blasphemy-protestThe West New York mayoral race in the United States is apparently rather tight, leading to a spat about a cartoon featuring one of the candidates “riding” a pastor to the finish line:

Protesters gathered outside West New Town Hall on Wednesday to protest an offensive cartoon, which features West New York mayoral candidate Count Wiley riding a pastor.

The signs that the roughly 30 protesters carried included pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King, and proclamations like “Don’t Attack Our Religion,” “Blasphemy Shame on You,” “Dirty Politics” and “This Is Evil.”

Perhaps this is what the cartoon was about:?

Leading the protest was Wiley campaign manager Ralf Sanchez, a local pastor, who held a megaphone and shouted that “if they attacked our religion, they’ll attack anything.”

“Are you going to let them attack our religion?” he yelled, as the crowd responded “No!” “Are you going to let them attack our women?”


Flowers laid at the synagogue, after a gunman killed two people in two separate attacks in the Danish capital at the weekend

Flowers laid at the synagogue, after a gunman killed two people in two separate attacks in the Danish capital in February

After the Copenhagen “blasphemy” killings in February, Denmark is still living under new threat of a similar incident:

Police have confirmed that a series of notes threatening a new and more extensive terror attack have been found in the same Copenhagen district where a gunman opened fire on a free speech debate.

… “Denmark will soon be hit by a terror attack that will make what happened on February 14 look like a prank – look forward to it,” the notes read.

Some of the notes were placed at Krudttønden, the cultural cafe in Østerbro where Omar El-Hussein opened fire on a free speech and blasphemy event, killing 55-year-old filmmaker Finn Nørgaard.

El-Hussein later killed security guard Dan Uzan at a Copenhagen synagogue. Several police officers were injured in the shootings before El-Hussein was killed by police.


The Pakistan Human Rights Commission says that the human rights situation in the country has deteriorated in the last year. In what Pakistan Daily Times called its “damning report”, as well as continuing terrorist attacks, and incidents of violence and persecution against religious minorities, the Commission put significant emphasis on “blasphemy” outrages:

On November 25 last year, an anti-terror court in the semi-autonomous Gilgit-Baltistan region sentenced the owner of Pakistan’s biggest private TV channel, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, to 26 years in prison for telecasting a “blasphemous” show. The Geo TV’s reality show broadcast a devotional song about the wedding of Prophet Muhammad’s daughter.

The row between Pakistan’s largest commercial media group – the Jang Group of Publications – which owns Geo TV, and the country’s ubiquitous military started in early 2014 after the Pakistani army accused the group of defaming the country’s spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Rights organizations believe the Pakistani military wanted to punish Geo TV for its critical reporting on the ISI, and that the blasphemy issue, too, was orchestrated to harm the channel and its executives.

… On November 5, a Christian couple was beaten to death by a mob in a small town of Kot Radha Kishan in the eastern Punjab province, a political stronghold of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The angry crowd, which alleged that the Christian couple desecrated a copy of their holy book, the Koran, subsequently burned their bodies in a brick kiln where the couple worked.

Blasphemy has always been a very sensitive topic in the Islamic Republic, where 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslims. But the blasphemy-related killings were not as frequent as they are now. Activists point out that religious intolerance has increased substantially in the South Asian country over the past decade, and is no longer an isolated phenomenon.

Asad Butt of the HRCP told DW that intolerance was definitely growing in Pakistan, and that many Pakistanis considered blasphemy an “unpardonable crime.”

“The challenges for the country at the end of 2014 were by no means lesser than they had been at the start of that year,” the HRCP report stated. However, the paper highlighted the growing societal resolve to confront all forms of militancy and intolerance could provide impetus to the human rights struggle in Pakistan.


In an apparent bid to dig up any old nonsense to utilize as a “blasphemy” scapegoat, authorities in Turkey are reportedly looking into Islamic seminary students who — back in 2013 — may have baked a cake shaped like the Koran. They face a preliminary police investigation over the Koran cake, media reports:

An "unacceptable" cake-shaped Koran

An “unacceptable” cake-shaped Koran

Apparently outraged by the blasphemous babka, Turkey’s top religious authority – the Diyanet – stated that the cake did not comply with the spirit of the Holy Birth of the Prophet Muhammad and the Koran, according to Turkish daily Hurriyet.

The providential pastry was baked within the scope of the Holy Birth Week in Turkey’s north-central Zile district according to students.

However, they Diyanet’s head cleric Mehmet Gormez said the Holy Birth was not a birthday celebration in the traditional sense.

The Diyanet denounced the cake as “unacceptable,” even if it had been prepared by Koran course students.


ForeignPolicy.com carries a summary of the “insult to religion” laws in Egypt, still in place under the secular regime, despite the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The number of blasphemy cases in Egypt soared in the years after the 2011 revolution, and at the time many blamed the rise of political Islam for fostering a climate of sectarianism. But almost two years after a military coup routed the Muslim Brotherhood and brought General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to the presidency, rights advocates say that the overall number of prosecutions for insulting Islam has remained the same. “The numbers went down a little after Morsi’s ouster, but by the second half of 2014 they were at the same level as before,” said Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher on religious freedoms at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, whose research shows that between 2011 and 2013 there were about a dozen such cases a year.

… In one recent case in Daqahliya in northern Egypt, 24-year-old Michael Mounir Bishay was threatened by local extremists who accused him of sharing a video on Facebook of two Muslim sheikhs discussing a controversial religious issue. After protesters mobbed his family home in the village of Demian and threatened to burn it down, police arrested the Christian factory worker “in a bid to calm the Salafist protesters,” said Hamdy Al-Assiouti, a prominent lawyer who has authored a book about Egypt’s blasphemy law and is serving on Michael’s defense team. Michael is currently on trial, charged with insulting Islam.

Christian converts, Shiite Muslims, and atheists have also been prosecuted for insulting Islam in recent cases, and at an appeal hearing last summer, a Christian primary school teacher who was convicted during Mohamed Morsi’s presidency saw her original sentence, a fine, increased to a jail term by the court. The teacher, Demiana Abdel-Nour, had fled abroad after the initial judgment.


Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau has said that Charlie Hebdo‘s satire was insufficiently “punching up” and therefore strayed into “hate speech”. There’s a strong reply from Greg Lukianoff at Huffington Post:

Here’s one piece of self-deception that must stop: If you believe that people should not mock or make fun of religion — even Islam — you are not on the side of the “powerless.”

If you believe in hate speech or blasphemy laws that would stop people from “defaming” religion, you are empowering those who enforce religious orthodoxies to oppress dissenting voices. Blasphemy laws, hate speech laws, or really any mechanism that prevents people from questioning a religious status quo side with the powerful, with the majority, and against truly powerless individuals. In Islamic countries, the powerless often include gays, potential religious reformers, and closeted atheists. []


And, as the repercussions from the “insult to religion” murders of Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman continue to be felt, there is a sobering analysis from Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general, and current member of parliament in India, about what it all means for Bangladesh.

Roy’s brutal murder (his wife was maimed, but survived) – together with the fatal stabbing of another atheist blogger, Washiqur Rahman, barely a month later – exposes another force at work in Bangladesh, one that is subverting the country’s tradition of secularism and intellectual discourse. That force is Salafist Islamic fundamentalism.

The change in Bangladesh is stark. The irreverent secularism and thoughtful inquiry reflected in the works of Roy and Washiqur have long been a hallmark of Bengali writing. A generation ago, their views would have been considered perfectly acceptable, if not mainstream, in the vibrant intellectual culture of Bengal (the Western portion of which is the Indian state of West Bengal).

That is no longer true. Backed by lavish financing from abroad, Salafist fundamentalism – an intolerant version of Islam at odds with the more moderate Sufi-influenced variant that prevailed in India for centuries – has been spreading across Bangladesh in recent years. While Bengal’s long secular tradition, which drove its efforts to break away from Pakistan, is still alive and well, the corrosive impact of the radical Islamists – who use force to silence those with whom they disagree – is undeniable. []

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Title: The week in “blasphemy” news #12
Date Posted: April 24, 2015
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