Thomas F. Farr: Blasphemy and Democracy in the Islamic World
Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, has written a review for Christianity Today of Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide (Oxford University Press), a recently published book by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea. The review, titled "Islam's Inquisitors: A Review of 'Silenced'" (December 29, 2011), first introduces us to the authors:
Having collaborated for several years, first at Freedom House and currently at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, the pair brings to the subject a remarkable background in research and advocacy. Marshall is in many respects the intellectual godfather of the fight for international religious freedom. His 2007 Religious Freedom in the World was the first attempt to provide a comparative index of religious liberty that measured the performances of key countries. And Shea has pioneered activism on behalf of the victims of persecution, while maintaining a steady stream of trenchant writings on the subject. Of late, she has directed much of her fire at the failures of Saudi Arabia to remove toxic Wahhabist principles from its textbooks.I was familiar with the author's names, though perhaps readers are not, but I've not read much by either, probably just an article or two over the years since 9/11. Their interest in religious freedom dovetails with that of Farr, so in drawing from the review, we'll likely be getting the views of all three combined. Farr notes that Western countries in the past also had blasphemy laws, some of these still being on the law books but largely unenforced, and that today's Christians generally support the position "that all religious communities have the right to make their truth claims freely and publicly, and to win converts where those claims are persuasive." Such a position does not find common ground with most Muslims:
The lands of Islam, however, are still far from embracing this aspect of religious liberty. Blasphemy continues to be criminalized throughout the Muslim nations of the greater Middle East, Africa, and South and East Asia. Converts from Islam -- apostates -- are often imprisoned, tortured, or murdered. Under the aegis of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Muslim nations have for years attempted to internationalize the treatment of blasphemy as a crime.Apparently, this obvious fact still comes as a surprise to many Westerners, though not to Farr, Marshall, or Shea. The problem of religious persecution has broader implications, for Farr tells us that "there is mounting evidence that religious liberty is necessary for the stability and longevity of democracy in highly religious societies, and for the defeat of religion-based terrorism." I find the link between religious freedom and democracy intuitively obvious, but I do wish that Farr had provided some detailed evidence for the point. Pakistan would likely offer a lot of evidence for the link, for the mere accusation of blasphemy appears sufficient to get the accused killed. The Islamists shoot first and ask no questions later. God will sort the innocent out from the guilty, I suppose.
In such a society as Pakistan's, clearly, an accusation of blasphemy can be used against any opponent merely by claiming that some of the opponent's views on any topic whatsoever, religious or not, are inherently blasphemous. Now Pakistan is hardly an example of a country with a rule of law, but what of more orderly Islamic countries, say one where legal processes based on sharia are more orderly in judging words and actions? Unfortunately, Islam has a rather broad concept of blasphemy. Whereas in the West, "Blasphemy has been understood classically as manifesting contempt for God or, worse, assuming the attributes of God," in the Islamic world, any criticism of Muhammad is also blasphemy, so if one dare even question the moral propriety of Muhammad having consummated his marriage to Aisha when she was only nine years old, one can be put to death. Since Islam is based on the Qur'an as the direct word of Allah and the on the words and deeds of the Muslim prophet Muhammad as the perfect human being, then any criticism or questioning of some purportedly Islamic position could easily get the speaker charged with blasphemy. By extension, any words that might be construed as advocating views incompatible with Islam could get the speaker accused of blasphemy. The Muslim concept of blasphemy is thus implicitly a very far-reaching one, boundlessly elastic in what it can be stretched to cover.
I therefore suspect that readers can easily see how laws against blasphemy would dampen free speech and counter democratic practices.