First Freedoms

Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide, by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea

Claremont Review of Books
September 10, 2012

In their new book, Paul Marshall and Nina Shea, a senior fellow and the director, respectively, of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, argue that the West has been slow to appreciate the devastating effects of blasphemy and apostasy laws in the Islamic world, even as these laws are the source of countless outrages against human rights, freedom, and dignity.

Former president of Indonesia Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid remarks in the book’s preface that these laws have “prevented Muslims from thinking…about vast spheres of life, literature, science and culture in general,” serving “to stop the developmental process of religious understanding dead in its tracks.” What’s more, such bans “conflate the sanctioning authority’s current, limited grasp of the truth with ultimate Truth itself, and thereby transform religion from a path to the Divine into a ‘divinized’ goal, whose features and confines are generally dictated by those with an all-too-human agenda of earthly power and control.”

He is right, entirely right. I live in Turkey, where just recently the Turkish pianist Fazil Say was charged by prosecutors with making comments offensive to Islamic belief on the internet. He had used Twitter to question whether Islamic heaven is like a brothel or a pub, citing Koranic verses that describe beautiful women and rivers of drinks for those admitted to paradise. As the Turkish Penal Code specifies, “Anyone who openly denigrates the religious values of a part of the population shall be sentenced to imprisonment of from six months to one year, where the act is sufficient to breach public peace.” In recent years, many people who once chatted about politics and religion on Facebook and Twitter in Turkey have thought better of doing so. I cannot blame them.

The West has likewise been hesitant to resist the encroachment of these laws on its own societies. Rather than rejecting pressure from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to ban “negative stereotyping of Islam,” many Western nations have agreed to define this nebulous act as a crime, enact racial and religious hate-speech bans to combat it, and prosecute their own citizens for defying the new laws. These bans, the authors argue, serve as proxies for blasphemy laws and have a similarly stultifying effect upon the human spirit. Only the United States has thus far rejected this pressure, but it has done so in a hesitant, bewildered, and incoherent fashion. The West’s lack of resolve in responding to this pressure is a great mystery. Surely, if the West stands for anything, it stands for freedom of religion and speech?

* * *

The chief weakness of this otherwise useful book is its assumption that the radicalization of the Islamic world began, or has accelerated, over the past three decades. This is to telescope and minimize the problem’s gravity. A transformation that has taken place over a mere three decades might be a shallow one that may admit of simple solutions. Alas, this is something much deeper, which we will not hear the end of any time soon.
Silenced surveys the contemporary practice and baleful effects of apostasy and blasphemy laws in Muslim-majority countries, the victims of which include but are not limited to political dissidents, religious reformers, journalists, writers, artists, cineastes, Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis, Bahais, Jews, and members of minority Muslim sects. (They include majority-Muslim sects, too, for that matter.) Although the catalogue is comprehensive, the focus on blasphemy and apostasy laws is excessively narrow and suggests an insufficient remedy; for one thing, in many of the countries Marshall and Shea describe, there is no rule of law at all. Sudan and Somalia, for example, are not modern states with misguided laws; they are failed states with no legal apparatus, period. The problem is not that Somalia must be persuaded to change its laws, it is that Somalia is a pre-modern congeries of warring militias, bandits, warlords, and pirates; even the imposition of Islamic law—any law—might be an improvement. Nothing in Somalia could form the basis of a legal regime in which individual rights, as we understand them, are vigorously protected. This is hardly a comfort, but it does suggest that it may not be useful to view the problems of the Islamic world as everywhere aspects of the same problem. Like unhappy families, each country is unhappy in its own way.

Similarly, in proposing that the West must adopt a unified and philosophically coherent response to the demands of the OIC, Marshall and Shea implicitly accept the idea that the OIC itself represents something unified and philosophically coherent. It does not. Just as the Islamic world is characterized more by its own divisions than anything it holds in common, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is neither particularly organized nor cooperative; its achievements having been limited to holding conferences, issuing condemnations, and organizing riots. A united Umma—or worldwide community under Islam—with anything like a unitary foreign policy is still a fantasy; anyone tempted to doubt this should note that the Syrian opposition is pleading not for the OIC’s intervention but for NATO’s.
If it is within our power to diminish the suffering in the Islamic world—and it is not at all clear that it is—our focus must be on the states that comprise it, not the OIC. Only states have the power to enact and enforce laws, and only the traditional tools of statecraft have any hope of being effective.

* * *

But if the chapters of this book treating the Islamic world are somewhat shallow, the chapters demonstrating the effects of blasphemy laws on Western countries are not shallow at all. The authors make two key arguments against such laws, one more persuasive than the other.

The less persuasive argument is that the limits upon speech the West has in recent years imposed upon itself are bad for the Islamic world, giving authoritarian regimes another weapon with which to protect themselves from criticism from abroad. I admit I’ve been repeatedly shocked in Turkey to hear—often from people who should know better—that every country places limits on speech. Unfortunately, at this point they are almost right. But the argument that we should eschew bans on speech so to set a better example and support liberal reformers in the Islamic world fails to persuade. The authors are viewing the problem through a too-narrow historical prism, and overestimating the influence of the West. The transformation of Christian Europe from the pre-modern to the modern world took place over centuries, not decades. The Islamic world—to the extent that there is such a thing—is in the midst of a similar transition, one of the greatest in world history. Brisk lectures from the United States about legal reform may make a difference at the margins, but civilizations do not fundamentally transform themselves because of such things. Beyond a handful of intellectuals, few in the Islamic world understand or give a damn about the Western example. Right as it is to deplore apostasy and blasphemy laws as pre-modern or illiberal abominations, I suspect most of the world will shrug. Withdrawing our support for the Saudi Wahhabi clan would make more of a difference, but that would require real sacrifices that the United States is not prepared to make.

* * *

The better argument is that we must resist these bans for our own sake. This we can and must do. Students now coming of age at European and American universities will not remember the intellectual and moral climate in 1989 after Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was published. I was at the time studying at the most left-wing college at Oxford University, where the embrace of every old-fashioned pinko platitude was commonplace and the college turtle was named Rosa Luxemburg. But I do not recall one single student, one single academic, expressing anything but proper outrage upon learning of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa. There was perfect moral clarity: the fatwa was the very essence of savagery, and it was unimaginable that we should dream of compromising with those who would issue such a thing.
Compare this to the reaction to the case of Molly Norris, the Seattle cartoonist who in 2010 drew a cartoon in honor of “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.” Following the pronouncement of a death sentence upon her, she was effectively forced into the equivalent of an FBI witness protection program. She no longer exists. Her identity has been erased. But popular sentiment, in this case, was mixed: many were outraged, but this comment, posted below the news item reporting the story, was not anomalous:

I will say that what she did was shortsighted and frankly kind of dumb. While I believe in free speech I also believe that if I say something offensive I’m likely to receive unpleasant reprisal and if I were to attack a religious group known for defending their beliefs with violence by creating a contest desecrating their most holy of symbols I could end up with a lot of death threats and possibly end up dead in a ditch. So, frankly, I don’t feel sorry for her.

This failure to grasp the very point of freedom of expression, and its connection to civilization, represents not a revolutionary change of mind in the world, which has always been savage, but a revolutionary change of mind in the West, which for a too-brief moment was not.

* * *

How could we have come to this? Perhaps the simple answer is that savagery and oppression are the natural state of affairs, and we were never that far from them to begin with. The assumptions that something like a free world has long existed, where speech is robustly protected; that the benefits of unrestricted speech are understood and intuitively obvious everywhere but the Islamic world; and that the Islamic world is unique in its assault upon freedom of expression—are all false. In truth, as the worldwide choking of freedom goes—measured simply in terms of numbers oppressed—the Islamic world has little on North Korea, China, and Burma; and even the most cursory examination of human history indicates that nothing comes more naturally to men than the impulse to silence others. What is political correctness if not the American Left’s version of a blasphemy code? We notice the Islamic world’s tyrannical spirit not so much because it is historically or globally anomalous, but because it has recently impinged upon us, forcing us to decide what we really mean when we talk about freedom.

Our idea of freedom of speech and religion is related to the uniquely American separation of church and state, which itself developed out of the religious toleration promoted by the English and Scottish Enlightenment, and is essential for any free government to thrive. It is the inherent right to believe as one’s reason and conscience dictate, free from political penalties or state coercion, that make blasphemy and apostasy laws a violation of human rights and dignity. But this does not mean that we have a right not to be contradicted or offended, or to exact bloody revenge when we are. Yet the majority of human beings throughout history and throughout the world today consider freedom of religion an outrage and suspect intuitively that unfettered freedom of speech would be the expressway to chaos, ethnic cleansing, and the breakdown of social order. There is much in human experience to suggest they are right.

It is only in this broader context that we can understand how quickly and readily the West has collectively decided that freedom of speech might be more trouble than it’s worth. The problem is not so much the Islamic world, which is typical of the world as it has always been; it is our own fragile commitment to liberty.

As Silenced catalogues, the west’s enemies seek to dismantle our freedoms through lawsuits, diplomacy, economic boycotts, and—most importantly—by intimidation and murder. Paul Marshall and Nina Shea conclude that few Western leaders or policymakers comprehend the threat to “the freedoms of religion and expression that lie at the heart of Western liberal democracies,” and as a result have failed coherently to respond to it.

A more useful formulation might be different in emphasis: the West has understood the threat to freedom of speech and religion quite well, but does not cherish them as much as it likes to think.

Leave a Reply