Don’t Be Blasé About Blasphemy

Thinking that anti-blasphemy laws will protect the interests of all religions misses the big picture.

Perhaps the only good thing to come out of Muslim rioting in more than 20 countries last September is that this has been extremely helpful in clarifying what Islam teaches—and what we can expect if its influence expands in the West.

Take the issue of blasphemy. The rioting was supposedly sparked by a crude video mocking Muhammad. Westerners understand little about Islam, and it’s only because of incidents like this that they are beginning to realize that under sharia law, blasphemy is a crime punishable by death. Moreover, we are now beginning to understand that parts of sharia law apply not only to Muslims but to everyone. For example, three years ago Molly Norris, a cartoonist at The Seattle Weekly, initiated “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” In response, the late Anwar al-Awlaki issued a fatwa against her, forcing her to give up her job, change her identity, and go into hiding. The upside of this, as Joe Biden might put it, is that Awlaki is dead and Norris is alive. The downside is that Norris is still in hiding. She failed to grasp in time the new rules of the game: Islam must be free from insult.

The 57-member Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has for many years been pushing the United Nations to adopt and enforce universal blasphemy laws. The defamation of a prophet would then be a criminal offense in Canada and the US, as it is in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Muslims want other faiths to join them in their “stop defamation” campaign, and it is, of course, a great temptation. Who wants to have their religion defamed? Still, it is a temptation to be avoided. The defamation laws are aimed at strangling legitimate criticisms of Islam, including criticisms that some believers may feel duty-bound to make. If you have no plans to defame any religion, you may think you have nothing to worry about, but think again. Christianity itself is inherently a criticism of Islam’s claim to have the final revelation. Simply to assert the divinity of Christ is a blasphemy of the highest order according to the Koran. Those who think that anti-blasphemy laws will somehow protect the interests of all religions haven’t quite grasped the big picture.

Yet Islam’s anti-blasphemy campaign is gaining ground. On September 15, European Parliament president Martin Schulz said in a statement, “I strongly denounce any attempt to ridicule Islam.” About the same time, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, “When some people use freedom of expression to provoke or humiliate some others values and beliefs, then this cannot be protected.” More ominously, it has been revealed that Hillary Clinton’s State Department has been working with the OIC for about two years to formulate restrictions on speech offensive to Islam. In fact, we already are, in effect, enforcing Islam’s blasphemy laws. As is now well known, the rioting and demonstrations across North Africa and the Middle East in September were blamed on an amateurish film trailer produced by an obscure filmmaker in Los Angeles. Accordingly, Muslim leaders around the world immediately called for America to respond by enacting anti-blasphemy laws.

It’s tempting to think, “Well, that will never happen here. We’re not about to give up our right to free speech.” But in fact, the sentiments of the Islamists were echoed by many in the US. Numerous government officials apologized for the insensitivity of the film, a couple of MSNBC commentators suggested that people connected with the film should be prosecuted as accessories to murder, and, in an address to the UN, President Obama said “the future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam”—which, when you think about it, is really quite an extraordinary statement. What would people think if he had said, “the future must not belong to those who slander the Lord Jesus”?

Two days later, in a move obviously designed to appease the Muslim world, the producer of the video was brought in for questioning by half-a-dozen sheriff’s deputies, providing a photo-op that was obligingly transmitted by the mainstream media. He has since been jailed and is now serving a one-year sentence—ostensibly for probation violation. But those of a skeptical bent may be forgiven for doubting that probation violation is the real reason for his incarceration. Instead, it seems clear that we were trying hard to send a message to the Muslim world. In effect: “We deeply respect your blasphemy laws. Behold, we have punished the blasphemer.”

This is an extremely dangerous state of affairs. It’s hard enough to find the truth about Islam as it is, but if blasphemy laws are enacted it will be nearly impossible. Why? Because there is no end to the things that Muslims find blasphemous and offensive. Any criticism of Islam is considered offensive. Even honest examination of Islam’s texts and teachings will be off-limits. Scholars and theologians who write about Islam will find themselves subject not only to fatwas but to prosecution by their own government.

We’re all familiar with the old saying, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” But what you don’t know in regard to Islam can hurt you very badly. As Robert Spencer puts it, “Such laws would leave us mute and defenseless before the advancing jihad.”

Spencer should know. Although he is a leading authority on Islam, his speeches have been cancelled on several occasions due to Muslim pressure. In the latest incident, the Diocese of Worcester cancelled a talk he was to give to a Catholic men’s conference. The diocese caved in to demands from Islamic groups that he be disinvited. Spencer, the author of over a dozen books on Islam, is also thoroughly conversant with Catholic doctrine as it relates to Islam. As the Worcester Telegram observed, “His is an important voice in the ongoing debate over the nature of Islam and its relation to other faith traditions.” Yet a word from a handful of Worcester-area Muslims was enough to deny him a hearing. Perhaps, as is now the custom in many parishes, the diocese can invite some friendly imam to come and explain Islam to the men’s group.

Such acts of appeasement are only a foretaste of what would happen should anti-blasphemy laws be enacted. Did Muhammad actually receive a revelation from God? It would be blasphemy to even raise the question. Are Christians being persecuted in Muslim lands? The implication is offensive. Is the Muslim Brotherhood influencing policy at the State Department? That’s Islamophobia. How far along is the Islamic stealth jihad in this country? It will be hard to say, because the media won’t be covering that story.

Much of the world and many influential people here at home seem willing to suppress free speech for the sake of peace. The argument is that no one should be allowed to say anything that might provoke Muslims to anger or cause them to riot and kill. Increasingly one hears that free speech should be subject to a test of consequences. In other words, if Muslims in Cairo, Egypt riot because of something said by someone in Cairo, Illinois, that person should have known better. Why? Because, as a post-rioting statement from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt declared, “The people’s anger and fury for their faith is invariably predictable, often unstoppable.” In other words, be very careful what you say about Islam. But, of course, to accept this standard is to give veto power over speech to the mob.

The window of opportunity for speaking honestly about Islam was shut long ago in many parts of the world. It is now closing fast in the West. If recent events have taught us anything, it’s that now is not the time to shut up about Islam—now is the time to bone up on Islam and to broadcast what we find. We can no longer afford to be blasé about the blasphemy issue.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that free speech protection would not extend to a man who shouted “fire” in a crowded theater and caused a panic. Currently, that doctrine is being used as a justification for suppressing speech that offends Muslims. But what Justice Holmes actually said was that free speech guarantees would not protect a man in falsely shouting “fire” in a theater. The proposed blasphemy laws, however, would prevent us from shouting fire when there actually is fire. Well, there is a fire and it’s spreading fast. It seems a reasonable thing to point it out while there is still time.

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About William Kilpatrick 79 Articles
William Kilpatrick is the author of several books on religion and culture including Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West (Ignatius Press) and What Catholics Need to Know About Islam (Sophia Institute Press). For more on his work and writings, visit his Turning Point Project website.