The week in “blasphemy” news #31

This is our 31st weekly round-up of “blasphemy” news from around the world. This week: Saudi Arabia versus Iran, ISIS versus history, Russia versus Mephistopheles. There’s murder in India, arrests in Egypt and Gambia, some Muslim groups in Canada are questioning Quebec’s proposed anti-‘blasphemy’ law, and is there a “blasphemous” cult developing around ex-Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga?

  • “Saudi Arabia’s top cleric slams Iran’s movie on Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)”
  • ISIS thugs continue to maraud around, blowing up cultural treasures (and stealing some of them for profit), as well as torturing and killing people for no good reason
  • Russia: Historical facade on building destroyed by “religious thugs”
  • India: Campaigner against superstition shot dead in his own home
  • Egypt: Christian arrested for giving out Bibles
  • Gambia: Man faces possible jail sentence for Facebook post featuring Muhammad picture
  • Canada: Concerns on Quebec’s Bill 59 widen
  • Kenya: Cult worshiping recent former Prime Minister is “blasphemy”

“Saudi Arabia’s top cleric slams Iran’s movie on Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)”


A very young actor plays Muhammad’s arm on screen

Not exactly BFFs, Iran and Saudi Arabia may be about to have a pretty serious spat over a movie:

Saudi Arabia’s top cleric hit out at Iranian film “Muhammad” on Wednesday describing its portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) childhood as a “hostile act” and a “distortion” of Islam.

Iran’s most expensive movie, which opened nationwide in the Shia Islamic republic last week, depicts the prophet (pbuh) on screen, an act that is prohibited in Sunni Islam.

“This is an obscene work… It is a distortion of Islam,” Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh told Al-Hayat newspaper. “It is a hostile act against Islam.

“This is a mockery of the prophet and a degradation of his status…”

“One star,” he didn’t add.

While Iran has denounced cartoons of the prophet (pbuh) like those published by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Shias are generally more relaxed than Sunnis about depiction of religious figures.

Obviously this minor theological disagreement will doubtless blow over pretty quickly…

[Director Majid Majidi] says the aim of his work, the first part of a trilogy…

Or not, then.

…is to reclaim the rightful image of Islam, which he said extremists have distorted.

The triva section on the movie’s IMDb page suggests that:

Muhammad will never be shown in any of the three films for the respect of his character. This is specifically done in all media in Islam countries to avoid idolization of a renown character to an actor’s face. Instead, he is meant to be known by his religious and historical personality profile.

But the trailer does seem to show Muhammad as an infant, at first doing a bit of a Jesus in what looks like a standard nativity scene stable, and then being held aloft by a bearded man who clearly names him as “Muhammad”. You can watch it embedded below. Warning: most of the first half of the trailer is all just different people walking towards the camera with wet eyes.

Well, who’s to say? Are brief glimpses of the embodied Prophet blasphemous and forbidden? Or is depiction and representation both a historical part of Islam and a right of religious freedom? Egypt’s Al-Azhar institution is characteristically not so much on the fence:

“This matter is already settled. Sharia (Islamic law) prohibits embodying the prophets…” Al-Azhar told Reuters in a statement.

And that’s not all.

“It is not permissible in Islam that someone (an actor) has contradictory and conflicting roles; sometimes we see him as a blind drunk, sometimes as a womanizer … and then he embodies a prophet … this is not permissible.”

Yeah. That womanizing, drunk baby actor is definitely the one making Islam look unreasonable here.

ISIS thugs continue to maraud around, blowing up cultural treasures (and stealing some of them for profit), as well as torturing and killing people for no good reason

ISIS (ISIL, or Islamic State) has demolished another renowned architectural treasure, the ancient temple of Baal Shamin in the Syrian city of Palmyra. Despite representing a cultural and historical inheritance for the country, and the region as a whole, ISIS appear hellbent on destroying anything they consider to be sacrilegious, or blasphemously idolatrous – while selling other stolen artifacts to fund their activities. (Hopefully whoever is buying from them is now forever unable to sleep at night.) UNESCO has described the most recent destruction as a “war crime”:

“Such acts are war crimes and their perpetrators must be accountable for their actions,” UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said in a statement.

She also condemned the killing of Khaled al-Asaad, an 82-year-old archaeologist who had looked after Palmyra’s UNESCO World Heritage ruins for four decades.

Abdulkarim said last week Islamic State had beheaded Asaad and hung his body from one of Palmyra’s Roman-era columns. Before the capture of Palmyra by Islamic State, Syrian officials said they moved hundreds of ancient statues to safe locations out of concern the militants would destroy them.

Islamic State, which holds parts of Syria and Iraq, seized the desert city of Palmyra in May from government forces but had initially left its ancient sites undamaged.

In June it blew up two shrines that were not part of its Roman-era structures but which it regarded as sacrilegious. It had also used Palmyra’s Roman amphitheatre as a place for killing people it accused of being government supporters, according to a Syria monitoring group.

The Baal Shamin temple was built nearly 2,000 years ago and its inner area was severely damaged by the explosion, which also caused surrounding columns to collapse, according to UNESCO.

“The art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, is a symbol of the complexity and wealth of the Syrian identity and history,” Bokova said.

“Extremists seek to destroy this diversity and richness, and I call on the international community to stand united against this persistent cultural cleansing.”

The militants have been executing their own soldiers and others. There were 91 “executions” in Syria in a single month:

The 91 victims were executed for a variety of charges, including blasphemy, sorcery, adultery, banditry, sodomy, and cooperating with rival factions and the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia: Historical facade on building destroyed by “religious thugs”

Mephistopheles depicted on a building in St Petersburg

Mephistopheles depicted on a building in St Petersburg

Moscow Times reports:

A 100-year-old bas relief depicting the mythical demon Mephistopheles has been removed from the facade of a historical building in St. Petersburg overlooking the nearby construction site of a new Orthodox church.

…The bas-relief of the character had been a feature of one of St. Petersburg’s minor landmarks, a building on Lakhtinksaya Street known as the House with Mephistopheles.

Local news outlets and social media users reported that the relief was removed from the building without explanation on Wednesday. According to one Facebook user, historian Dmitry Bratkin, the house was designed by 19th and early 20th century architect Alexander Lishnevsky.

“Naturally, the monument was under protection,” Bratkin said. “Or had been. Fifteen minutes ago, Mephistopheles was knocked off the facade.”

One resident of the building, Kirill Alexeyev, told independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta that “workers showed up at 10 in the morning, did not introduce themselves, and did not say who had sent them.”

Instead, the workers asked the building’s residents to move their cars away from the building to avoid being damaged by falling plaster, and then proceeded with the removal of Mephistopheles, Alexeyev said.

“I said: What have you done, this is after all a monument protected by the state,” he said, Novaya Gazeta reported. “They responded: Not to worry, it is old and dilapidated, and it will be restored in plaster.”

The promise of recreating a version of the bas-relief in plaster indicated that the demolition had been a “planned action,” supposedly approved by the authorities, instead of a grass-root stunt by activists displeased by the sight of a mythical demon, Alexeyev suggested.

However, a spokesperson for the city’s architectural monument preservation department, known by its Russian acronym KGIOP, denied any knowledge of the incident, Novaya Gazeta reported.

The removal of the historical bas-relief has also prompted protests by some local lawmakers. St. Petersburg municipal legislator Boris Vishnevsky has sent a complaint to KGIOP, while his fellow lawmaker Alexander Kobrinsky said he would ask police to open a criminal investigation on charges of destruction of cultural heritage sites, St. Perersburg’s Fontanka news agency reported.

Some commentators also claimed that the removal of sculpture might be connected to the construction of an Orthodox church that would face the “House with Mephistopheles.”

“A couple of days ago, a cross was placed on the roof of the church that is under construction across [the building],” Bratkin wrote on his Facebook page. “Yesterday, some sprightly people showed up and took photographs of the facade with the Mephistopheles, and today at 3 in the afternoon, a worker hung down from the roof and — whack, whack, whack.”

Natalya Levina, another local woman, said her neighbors had spotted “people from the church” looking around and inquiring about the “demon,” the Metro news agency reported.

Historical-preservation activists have asked police and the construction firm that is building the church about who had authorized removing the Mephistopheles image, Levina was quoted as saying. Both organizations denied having any knowledge of who authorized its removal, she said, according to the report.

More on this and other recent acts of religiously motivated vandalism in Russia at My Secret Atheist Blog.

India: Campaigner against superstition shot dead in his own home

M. M. Kalburgi (77) campaigned against superstitious practices (a significant problem in India), he was a writer and former Vice-Chancellor of Kannada University, Hampi. Last Sunday morning he was shot dead by two unknown assailants at his own home:


Rationalist and anti-superstition campaigner, M. M. Kalburgi

According to his family members, Prof. Kalburgi was speaking on his cellphone when someone knocked on the door of his house. When he opened the door, Prof. Kalburgi was shot at from a point-blank range on his forehead. The bullet pierced through his head.

…Along with Ms. Roopadarshi, Prof. Kalburgi’s wife, Umadevi, and grandson were in the house when the incident occurred. There was no clue about the assailants as there are no eyewitnesses.

Hubballi-Dharwad Commissioner of Police, Ravindra Prasad, said that a special team, headed by an Assistant Commissioner of Police and comprising five inspectors, had been formed to investigate the case.

The police had provided security to Prof. Kalburgi as he was facing threats for his bold stand on various issues, including his comments on idol worship. However, Prof. Kalburgi had recently requested the police to withdraw the armed guards deployed at his house, Mr. Prasad added.

Meanwhile, sources in the police said that the role of fringe elements in Prof. Kalburgi’s murder was being suspected. The manner in which he was murdered matches that of rationalist leader, Govind Pansare, of Kolhapur.

Interestingly, Pansare was a close associate of Prof. Kalburgi, they said.

The CCTV camera installed at Kalyan Nagar has recorded the movement of two youths aged between 24 and 28, wearing black clothes and riding a motorcycle, in the area. But it would be premature to say anything now, the sources added.

As Hemant Mehta comments:

The killing bears a striking resemblance to how Dr. Narendra Dabholkar died in 2013 — in fact, this killing comes approximately two years after that incident. (Dabholkar’s assassins have still not been apprehended.)

Last year, Kalburgi was at the center of controversy when he publicly criticized idol worship. He, like Dabholkar, infuriated right-wing groups on a regular basis.

If you include the deaths of the Bangladeshi bloggers, South Asia is quickly becoming a dangerous place for rational-minded people.

Egypt: Christian arrested for giving out Bibles

The Egyptian Minister of Religious Endowments has been calling for religious dialogue and against extremism, including accusations of apostasy and blasphemy. Not unreasonable sentiments, but somewhat belied as the Egyptian authorities continue to bring illiberal and persecutory charges of blasphemy. One of the latest victims is a Christian arrested in August for allegedly evangelizing by handing out Bibles, whom – it is now feared – could be held indefinitely on blasphemy charges:

Medhat Ishak, a 35-year-old Christian from Ebid village in Minya Governorate, was arrested on Aug. 7 while handing out Bibles to Muslims outside the El-Arab Mall. Mall security turned Ishak over to Egypt’s national police who then arrested him for evangelism, but the next day the charge was changed to “defamation of a revealed religion,” i.e., Islam, and Ishak was held for 15 days.

Ishak’s attorney, Rafik Rafaat, said that under Egyptian law there is no criminal charge as “evangelism” and that distribuitng Bibles does not blaspheme Islam.

“The word ‘blasphemy’ means that he was insulting the other religion[Islam], but he didn’t do that, and he didn’t talk about Islam or prophets or anything like that to be accused of blasphemy. So, now we are surprised that the attorney general accused him of blasphemy when he didn’t commit any act of blasphemy.”

Ishak’s arrest was the second arrest in a month of a Christian evangelizing in Egypt. In July, three Christians were arrested for handing out small bags of dried dates in Alexandria during Ramadan. In addition to the dates — a snack Muslims often eat when breaking the Ramadan daytime fast — the bags contained a statement about God’s love and his omniscient nature.

Muslims in Egypt are allowed to hand out (Islamic) religious literature and Qurans in public places while Christians are restricted, or even arrested, for doing the same thing.

Gambia: Man faces possible jail sentence for Facebook post featuring Muhammad picture

Alhagie Mam Seye is charged with “uttering words with intent to wound religious feelings”, not for actually uttering any words, but for sharing a picture of the Prophet Mohammed on Facebook. This is obviously a very serious crime, because it was discovered by the Serious Crime Unit no less, seriously spending their time finding things on the internet that other people don’t like. Big News Network reports:

It is alleged that Seye shared the picture [in July] “knowing fully well that it would hurt the religious feelings of his followers and thereby committed an offence.” The said photograph reportedly showed Prophet Mohammed with a little girl on his lap. It is not clear if Seye created the photo.

Although it presumably wasn’t actually a “photo”.

According to The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA)’s sources in The Gambia, Seye was arrested on August 4 by a detective known as Nyassi following an online investigation by the Serious Crime Unit at the Police Headquarters in the capital, Banjul. Seye was taken to the Yundum Police Station, about 22 kilometres from Banjul.

Sources said that during interrogations, Seye admitted to committing the offence when the police asked him to open his Facebook account. The police reportedly printed the photo together with comments people had made on it. Later, however, he denied the charges against him but was still detained.

Canada: Concerns on Quebec’s Bill 59 widen

We reported a few weeks ago about draft legislation in Canada’s Quebec province that would appear to place further restrictions on critical discussion about religion, under the guise of rather broadly-worded “hate” legislation. Despite much of the media focus so far being on how criticism of political Islamism would be made problematic if Bill 59 was passed, Muslim groups have joined those questioning the draft law:

Public hearings on Bill 59 resumed this week in the National Assembly, with representatives from the Muslim Canadian Forum, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, and the Muslim Council of Montreal among those speaking Thursday afternoon.

The government says the bill is a response to three things: the attacks against Canadian soldiers in Quebec and in Ottawa last autumn; to young Quebecers leaving or attempting to join jihadist groups in the Middle East; and to a public backlash against the Muslim community.

For Samer Majzoub, president of the Canadian Muslim Forum, the law has its merits. He said the bill can turn out to be positive for Quebec’s society, but it’s not completely clear.

“We are looking for some clarifications of definitions. What exactly is hate speech? We would really like for this to be clarified,” he said.

The bill gives the Quebec Human Rights commission the power to create that definition, and to investigate any complaints. Those eventually found guilty by the Commission would have their names published on a website for all to see, so some say this has the potential to turn into a witch hunt.

“We cannot call for hate, we cannot call for violence against a group of people. This is what it’s all about, it’s a bill about protection,” said Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee.

But Salam Elmenyawi of the Muslim Council of Montreal feels the bill isn’t necessary.

“There’s no need for a new regulation, especially if we’re not using the old one. We already have the right tools in the criminal code,” he said.

And while the anti-hate speech bill is partly an effort to fight Islamophobia, Elmenyawi fears it could end up unfairly targeting the Muslim community.

“A lot is left for the discretion of a civil servant in an administrative process that can destroy somebody’s life,” he said.

Blogger Sean McGuire comments:

What’s notable about this is that the bill is intended to protect Muslim groups – yet at least three prominent groups have serious problems with it. Listening to them is like hearing myself with my own problems with the bill as a secularist. I guess bad policy can unite us all.

Kenya: Cult worshiping recent former Prime Minister is “blasphemy”

Known to supporters as Agwambo (“Mysterious One”), or sometimes Baba, there seems to have been a bit of a cult of personality around Kenya’s ex-Prime Minister Raila Odinga for some time. But a few months ago a video of a man proclaiming that Baba was “the father, the son and the holy spirit” went viral in Kenya. It looked like a new religion of “Odingaism” some said.

And people are still talking about it. After a six paragraph long introduction consisting entirely of Biblical references, Odoyo Owidi at then writes:

Recently, Christians watched in disbelief as a man in Kibera declared “Raila Baba, Mwana na Roho Mtakatifu” (Raila the father, the son and the holy spirit). He demanded that those who had allegedly insulted Raila go on their knees and ask for forgiveness.

Christians believe in the Holy Trinity–God the Father, the Son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit.

This man however, in broad daylight and before TV cameras, declared that Raila is all the three; God, the Son of God and the Holy Spirit! I was horrified!

Aren’t we all!

Just as Raila kept quiet so has the Church! No one condemned this blasphemy, not the flamboyant Pastor Ng’ang’a nor Cardinal Njue nor Bishop Margaret Wanjiru. Prophet Owuor and Bishop Ogonyo Ngede have said nothing so far. The media let it go unchallenged, save for replaying the clip during their satire segment.

Not to worry, you’re getting worked up enough for everyone.

I too kept quiet and hoped it was a one-off thing and the man would repent, until I had an argument recently with another Raila diehard supporter who threw in the line: “Jaramogi left for us his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him will not perish but will have eternal life”.

Prof Steve Hassan states that to build a cult-level loyalty, one needs three major ingredients; a goal that is not achievable in a lifetime, a perennial enemy to be blamed for everything that goes wrong with the cult members and a charismatic leader.

I need not explain more.

But you will anyway, right…?

In Exodus 20:5, the Israelites were warned thus: “You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected – even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me.”

But let’s not get carried away though, eh?

God’s instant wrath ended with the birth of Jesus, but His punishment still exists.

Praise Baba!

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Title: The week in “blasphemy” news #31
Date Posted: September 4, 2015
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Category: Round-ups

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