The future of blasphemy
Speaking of the Sacred In An Age of Human Rights
By: Austin Dacey
208 pages, $15
Published by: Continuum, 2012
After decades of being regarded an obscure, if not discarded, concept, blasphemy has made a spectacular comeback as a hot issue with international dimensions. Efforts to criminalise blasphemy are well advanced in the United Nations with talks of an international treaty. The Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Vatican have become objective partners in lobbying for such a treaty.
In its convoluted style, the European Court of Human Rights has endorsed the concept.
In recent years, blasphemy has also been at the centre of court cases in France based on lawsuits brought by Catholic and Muslim clerics.
But what does constitute blasphemy?
American philosopher and human rights campaigner Austin Dacey begins his journey into this labyrinthine subject by tackling that question.
Originally a mosaic concept, in its Judeo-Christian form blasphemy meant taking the name of the Lord in vain and, more generally, failing to respect the divine.
The Hebrew Bible uses the words nakob (speaking distinctly) and qillel (to curse) to describe two different but ultimately linked transgressions against the divine. Nakob meant uttering the forbidden name of God while qillel was insulting the divine. The Greek translated the two words as blasphemein or injuring by speech. Punishment was death by stoning.
Some Christian scholars were more relaxed about the whole thing. Aquinas quipped that an injurious word would not scratch the Godhead.
The Islamic version of blasphemy, tajdif, never attracted attention in comparison with kufr, rejection of “the Divine Truth”, an unforgivable sin.
In its latest epiphany blasphemy is a child of political correctness. The UN and various European courts that have ruled on it see it as “failure to respect a person’s or a group’s religious beliefs”. It is as if the divine has been scripted out of the debate.
Dacey shows that blasphemy is no longer the exclusive concern of Abrahamic religions. Some Hindus and Sikhs have also adopted the concept in its politically correct version.
For example, the Indian Muslim-born painter F.M. Husain was hounded out of his homeland by “over a decade of harassment and lawsuits by Hindu conservatives outraged by his nude portraits of Hindu goddesses.”
In exile, Husain’s travails continued; even in democratic England, he was hounded by fanatics. An exhibition of his work in London was closed after only days amid threats of violence.
Sikh militants have stopped the staging of a play by a British Sikh playwright in London, and leftists joined Islamists to force the cancellation in Berlin of the performance of an opera by Mozart.
Across the globe, the list of plays, art exhibitions, and concerts stopped on grounds of the new definition of blasphemy is getting longer by the day.
In 2008, the Indian High Court in Delhi sounded this warning: ”A new puritanism is being carried out in the name of cultural purity, and a host of ignorant people are vandalising art and pushing us toward the pre-Renaissance era.”
In many cases, those who use blasphemy as a weapon, have no religion themselves. They claim to be acting on behalf of a religious community supposed to have been “injured” by a novel, a play, or even a cartoon.
As Dacey demonstrates, defence of “cultural purity” is not the sole motivation of the benighted denizens of neo-blasphemy. More potent, and thus more dangerous, is the invocation of “respect” for virtually any version of a real or imagined “community” or “religious identity.”
But, should one respect what one does not believe to be worthy of respect?
And, would it be sufficient to oppose the use and abuse of blasphemy in the name of freedom of speech?
Dacey believes that the matter could not be settled by international treaties forbidding blasphemy and/or laws passed by any nation.
By some estimates, there are more than 5,000 different “religions” or versions of them across the globe. Should the UN ban criticism of all of those, or should some “religious communities” be regarded as second class and left defenceless against blasphemy?
Another problem is to decide who speaks for a religion at any given time, and who decides that blasphemy has occurred. More importantly, could someone outside a religion be charged with blasphemy in the context of that religion?
Not long ago few people would have known what blasphemy meant, and fewer would have cared.
Today, however, it is the subject of high power conferences, including a few sponsored by the United Nations.
In Nigeria, Muslims who massacre Christians and Christians who massacre Muslims both accuse the other side of blasphemy.
Dacey suggests that in dealing with this neo-blasphemy, we go beyond the question of free speech.
“Respect for citizens requires a public discourse that is open to all viewpoints,” he suggests.
Dacey proposes a No Compliance Principle. This means refusal to allow anyone to deny anyone else’s freedom of expression in the name of religion.
To Dacey “the practice of violent retaliation” against blasphemy is “analogous to the violence used by terrorists in pursuit of a political goal, or by kidnappers and extortionists in pursuit of personal gain.” Dacey continues: “Governments and law enforcement officials universally adopt a public posture of not negotiating with terrorists and hostage-takers.” This is because they wish to show that violence is an ineffective means of achieving political and/or personal gains.
The same principle should apply when blasphemy is cited as an excuse for violence. If universally adopted and practised, Dacey’s proposed No Compliance Principle would force those offended, or pretending to be offended, by blasphemy to fight back with art, literature and argument rather than bombs and daggers. The No Compliance Principle would make sure that “no lawful expressive acts are prevented by threat of violence.”
A well-researched piece of scholarship on a controversial subject, Dacey’s book is a major contribution to an important debate.