The week in “blasphemy” news #25

In this our twenty-fifth weekly round-up of “blasphemy” news and views:

  • Two new laws, in United Arab Emirates and in Kuwait, sneak in new “blasphemy” bans.
  • Charlie Hebdo‘s new editor says they won’t be publishing Muhammad cartoons anymore, and Salman Rushdie says we’ve “learned the wrong lessons” from violence.
  • Meanwhile in Pakistan, “justice” comes very, very slowly! Six years after her arrest and detention, Asia Bibi’s death sentence is suspended and an appeal over her conviction is pending, while another “blasphemy” convict, who had also been jailed for six years, has been acquitted and his life sentence overturned. But you win some you lose some: two Christian brothers are facing a brand new “blasphemy” trial. Will Pakistan’s courts never learn to just throw these stupid malicious charges out?!
  • Plus… more Malta abolition debate, the Saudi ambassador to the UN’s surprising statement on Raif Badawi, and “homosexual” rainbows in Saudi Arabia…

UAE’s new Anti-Discrimination law is in fact another “blasphemy” law in disguise

On Monday (20 July) the United Arab Emirates enacted a new “Anti-Discrimination Law”. It is one of many such laws around the world that, through vague language or broad terms, conflate together genuine incitement to hatred or violence with the mere freedom to question and criticise religion, and ban them all together.

In other words it’s a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” as Brian Pellot at Religion News Service puts it:

Gulf News, based in Dubai, has spent the past 24 hours reporting how Emiratis, expats and experts are “praising” a new law issued by royal decree that prohibits discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of religion, caste, doctrine, race, color or ethnic origin. Sounds good…until you look at the actual text.

While most of the law is relatively benign, Section 2 “Criminalizes any act that insults religion through any form of expression, be it speech or the written word, books, pamphlets or online” and Section 8 “Prohibits any act that would be considered as insulting God, His prophets or apostles or holy books or houses of worship or graveyards.” People who break the law face up to 10 years in prison and more than half a million dollars in fines.

Anti-discrimination laws should protect people — people who hold ideas and beliefs — but not the ideas and beliefs themselves.

The crimes are punishable by between six months and 10 years in prison. As IBTimes reports:

United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan

United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who has approved the law

The laws – if enforced – would constitute some of the strictest anti-discrimination laws in the region. The new legislation would prohibit referring to other religious groups or individuals as “infidels,” likely targeted against religious extremists who declare other Muslims not supportive of their goals as apostates.


Human rights groups expressed skepticism the law would actually be used to curb discrimination. “The concern is clearly that it will be used to further stifle speech under the guise of promoting tolerance,” Nicholas McGeehan, Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the Middle East Eye. He further called the law part of “the UAE’s draconian assault on free expression.”

Kuwait’s new Cybercrime law is in fact another “blasphemy” law in disguise

As Human Rights Watch reports, Kuwaits’ new “Cybercrime” law isn’t merely what it’s cracked up to be, either. The law includes articles on hacking, data theft, fraud, pornography, and human trafficking online…

However, articles 6 and 7 also expand the reach of existing prohibitions on print publications to virtually all dissemination of information through the Internet, including online journalism and private use of social media and blogs.

…Article 6 imposes prison sentences and fines for insulting religion and religious figures, and for criticizing the emir over the Internet. These crimes, which already exist under Kuwait’s Printing and Publishing Law of 2006, appear to violate international law.

Other parts of the law represent equally bad violations of free expression on social, political and other topics. HRW has more information on the law, the background, how it conflicts with international human rights law, and recommendations for revision in the full article.

“Je ne suis pas Muhammad”?

Cover image of Charlie Hebdo's "survivors issue"

Cover image of Charlie Hebdo’s “survivors issue”

In the aftermath of January’s massacre at their offices in Paris, the surviving staff and associates of Charlie Hebdo, and the publication itself, were praised by free speech advocates for daring to challenge taboo, and for fearlessly representing the principle that nothing is sacred, and even for coming back so soon with their “survivor’s issue”. But many others questioned the tone and editorial choices of the magazine. Charlie targeted numerous political and religious people, symbols, and trends, in fact, hardly Islam or Islamism alone. Yet many voices — in response to the massacre — asked about the limits, or the best uses, of free expression. It seems even Charlie itself has not been immune to this soul-searching. DW reports that editor Laurent Sourisseau has said he will no longer draw cartoons of Muhammad:

During an interview with the Hamburg-based news magazine “Stern,” editor of the French weekly “Charlie Hebdo” said he would no longer draw comics of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

“We have drawn Muhammad to defend the principle that one can draw whatever they want. It is a bit strange though: we are expected to exercise a freedom of expression that no one dares to,” Sourisseau told “Stern.”

The editor said that the magazine had done what it set out to do.

“We’ve done our job. We have defended the right to caricature,” Sourisseau said.

“We still believe that we have the right to criticize all religions,” the editor said, adding that he did not want to believe that the magazine “was possessed by Islam.”

It’s a position that raises many questions.

Does “We have defended the right to caricature” imply that Sourisseau thinks the job is done? Or just that Charlie Hebdo will not continue doing it more-or-less alone?

Does Sourisseau believe in “the right to criticize all religions” but also that some approaches to criticism are now out of bounds for the particular religion of Islam?

If some re-balancing is genuinely needed in order not to give the impression of being”possessed by Islam”, should that really extend to a permanent editorial decree against a particular class of cartoons?

Most importantly, would it mean that in the case of Charlie Hebdo an act of wanton bloody violence has, in the end, had the desired effect?

Pakistan: Progress, but not yet justice, in Asia Bibi case

On Wednesday the Supreme Court in Pakistan stayed the death sentence of Asia Bibi, on death row for “blasphemy” since 2010, and decided that her application to appeal was valid. As we noted on Wednesday:

A widely shared photograph of Asia Bibi, from before she was jailed and sentenced to death for "blasphemy" in Pakistan

A widely shared photograph of Asia Bibi, from before she was jailed and sentenced to death for “blasphemy” in Pakistan

This is good news, and a positive step. Though it’s not the end of the road!

Asia Bibi remains in jail after six long years (five of those facing possible death by hanging).

It will be months before the appeal is heard (but after today’s ruling it will now be heard.

Dozens of others remain on death row in Pakistan and thousands more charged with “blasphemy”. We must end blasphemy laws! But there is at least now hope for Asia Bibi’s release. She must be pardoned, freed, and given high-security passage, so she can get to safety!

Pakistan: Blasphemy accused acquitted… after six years!

Not only are Pakistan’s “blasphemy” convictions unjust in themselves, the process of appealing and overturning such convictions is often torturously slow.

An acronym-heavy and at times unclear report by Pakistan’s Express Tribue this week goes into detail of an appeal case against a police Station House Officer (the report only uses “SHO” and does not name him), describing how his “blasphemy” conviction has been overturned, due to poor, circumstantial evidence and biased testimony, the report mentioning only as far down as the tenth paragraph that, just like Asia Bibi, the appellant has apparently been jailed since 2009!

Due to these allegations, the accused had to spend six years and five months in jail after being fined Rs200,000 and sentenced to life in prison.

“This court is of the firm view that in these circumstances, to maintain the sentence would be against the cannons of safe administration of justice especially when neither the complainant, nor the prosecution witnesses have adequate Islamic knowledge to be tested upon the touchstone of Tazkiatul Shahood.

“Hence, this cannot be considered as legal evidence to connect the accused with the commission of offence and the trial court was not justified in convicting him based on such inconsistent evidence which is full of material contradictions,” the judge observed in his order.

The judge directed that the appellant be acquitted of the charge under Section 295-C of PPC and be released forthwith if not required in any other case.

Pakistan: New cases against two brothers for supposedly “blasphemous” website

Two Christian brothers, Qaisar and Amoon Ayub, face “blasphemy” charges over the contents of website, following an accusation dating back to 2011, although the real root cause once again appears to be a personal grudge, this time originating in an argument in 2009 between a group of friends about someone’s sister…! The story has appeared in mainly Christian media from a posting originally made by CLAAS (Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement), the Christian legal aid charity who are supporting the defence. There are no details we can find about the alleged contents of the website.

The story on these two brothers is yet another case of interpersonal hostilities being inflated into a major criminal case — in principle punishable by death! and frequently exploding to engulf an entire minority community — through the use of Pakistan’s “blasphemy” laws. Journalist and student Raza Habib Raja has a HuffPost blog satirically explaining this very “simple” process of raining hell down on an “enemy” in Pakistan, “and for that matter in many other Muslim countries”, by simply accusing them of “blasphemy”.

Saudi Arabia’s own ambassador to the United Nations questions the purpose and severity of Raif Badawi sentence

The website Raif Badawi: Humanitarian, Free Thinker, Writer posted a translation of the statement by Abdallah Y. Al-Mouallimi, the Permanent Representative of Saudi Arabia to the United Nations, concerning the flogging of Raif Badawi.

The Saudi ambassador questions the sentence of 1000 lashes for Badawi when scripture, in Al-Mouallimi’s words, attests: “the prophet Mohammed said no flogging over ten lashes only in the extent of the limits of God.” While Al-Mouallimi does not appear to question the very notion that someone should be harshly punished at all for ostensibly “insulting religion”, he does go on to ask the judges to define their purpose in the sentencing, and to consider the wisdom of using flogging as punishment, when floggings contradict “international norms and laws, which consider them a form of torture [that is] internationally outlawed.”

Salman Rushdie: “we’ve learned the wrong lessons”

Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie

As Charlie Hebdo has shown, more than a quarter of a century on from Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 death fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, many are willing to question the ethics of engaging critically (or “insulting”) religion at all, whenever there is a violent backlash against free expression, and Rushdie said this week that if Satanic Verses had been published today, fellow authors (such as those who rebuked PEN America for awarding Charlie Hebdo for its courage) would not have stood by him today. The Guardian reports:

In an interview with the French magazine L’Express, the novelist said that “it seems we have learned the wrong lessons” from the experience of The Satanic Verses… “Instead of realising that we need to oppose these attacks on freedom of expression, we thought that we need to placate them with compromise and renunciation,” he said.

Speaking about the decision by PEN’s American branch to award Charlie Hebdo with a freedom of expression courage award in May, which led to more than 200 writers putting their names to a letter protesting the decision for valorising “material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the western world”, Rushdie said the conflict had left “deep divisions” in the literary world. He would never have imagined that writers such as Michael Ondaatje, Peter Carey and Junot Díaz “would have taken this attitude …”

On author Teju Cole’s claim that he would have defended Rushdie over Satanic Verses because this was about blasphemy, whereas Charlie Hebdo was accused of racism, Rushdie dismissed this defence…

…saying that the 12 people murdered at Charlie Hebdo’s offices were killed because their words were seen as blasphemous. “It’s exactly the same thing,” he said. “I’ve since had the feeling that, if the attacks against The Satanic Verses had taken place today, these people would not have defended me, and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.

…“Why can’t we debate Islam?” he said. “It is possible to respect individuals, to protect them from intolerance, while being sceptical about their ideas, even criticising them ferociously.”

Ending “blasphemy” is a detriment to no one’s freedom, Malta!

When we reported two weeks ago that Malta was considering abolishing it’s “blasphemy” law (a law against religious “vilification” supposedly) we quoted the Malta Humanists welcoming the news. Last week we covered some supportive discussion from an influential Maltese theatre director. This week’s contribution to the national debate is from the anti-abolition, pro-“blasphemy” laws side. Needless to say we disagree, but here it is, from Joseph Pace (“a lawyer and a member of Men for Christ”) in a comment piece for the Times of Malta:

This new freedom of speech is intended to apply in respect of all religions. Of course, we Maltese must show that we respect all religions and do not discriminate.

Or do we?

Through this new piece of legislation, are we not, in effect, discriminating against a large sector of the population, such as those (possibly the majority) who still cherish and practise their religion? In fact, will we not thereby discriminate in favour of those who are atheistic, overly secularist or downright hell-bent to attack religion? … One’s freedom given is another’s freedom taken away. … By removing punishment for vilification of religion, the proposed law will, in effect, be discriminatory against those who wish to practise their faith freely and without interference and without being embarrassed because of it.

This seems to be a common but basic fallacy committed by defenders of “blasphemy” laws, a false dichotomy between upholding the rights and freedoms of the religious, versus free expression (or the rights and freedoms of the non-religious, as our letter-writer presents it). This false dichotomy is wrong in several ways: because to never hear ideas that outrage us is not a right, nor is it a boon to anybody’s “freedom” that they be protected in law from encountering what they perceive as blasphemy, hence no freedom is being “taken away” by ending the laws; there is a freedom to disengage however, you can walk away from an argument or close the book, hence no one’s right to freedom of religion is removed by lifting a restriction on someone else’s freedom of expression; and the human equation itself (Pace’s trade-off between religious and non-religious rights) is simply wrong here given that the religious are just as or even more likely, both historically and today around the world (if not in present day Malta) to be prosecuted under “blasphemy” laws.

Pace makes other claims (e.g. “This new freedom will have a profound impact on activities of public worship”) without rationale. He also argues “It should at least be an offence not only to disrupt but to obstruct”religious services of various kinds, and indeed given that trespass, harassment and the right to worship are still in place, ending the “blasphemy” law would not mean that suddenly Pace should expect churches to be full of raving saboteurs! He also says:

There should be provisions to restrain theatrical representations that constitute ‘blasphemy’.

— Why? Whose notion of “blasphemy”? What should be out of bounds and what quetions and concerns must never be spoken on the stage? Who decides? … Theatre and indeed any art that engages critically with religion is threatened under “blasphemy” laws.

What about freedom of thought and freedom of religion? Will these be guaranteed [under the reformed law]?

Why on earth wouldn’t they be? They are already guaranteed constitutionally and under the international human rights framework, and this right only improves with the removal of “blasphemy” laws which often constrain minority religions and non-conformist practitioners, just as much as any atheistic or satirical criticism of religion.

Rainbows too gay for school, say Saudi religious police

Before and after, the school in Saudi Arabia that lost is rainbows to the religious police

Before and after, the school in Saudi Arabia that lost its rainbows to the religious police (via @saeedmatooq)

BuzzFeed reports that a Talee al-Noor International School in Saudi Arabia was fined an extraordinary $25,000 because Saudi religious police decided that colorful rainbows painted on the outside of the school were “emblems of homosexuality.” A strip of blue paint has replaced the offensive multicolored stripes.

One tweeter, Saeed Matooq, a media editor at the Arab Channel, appeared to mock the action, saying (translation): “This is a Saudi school painted normally. They said it is promoting homosexuality, and then formed a committee and erased the colors. My question is: did the colors come first or did homosexuality?”

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Title: The week in “blasphemy” news #25
Date Posted: July 24, 2015
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Category: Round-ups

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