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Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide
Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide
Nina Shea; Paul Marshall
Oxford University Press, 2011
480 pp., 57.00

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Matt Reynolds

The Big Chill

Apostasy and blasphemy codes.

In contemporary America, the charge of "blasphemy" carries a distinctly archaic ring. It evokes images of a long-distant past, of Puritans in powdered wigs harrumphing at heretics. Who, nowadays, pronounces this peculiar anathema? Only, it seems, as an expression of mock incredulity does such old-fashioned language endure. "Thin crust superior to deep dish? Why, that's blasphemy!"

Elsewhere in the world, however, accusations of religious heterodoxy remain a deadly serious business. Especially in nations where the regnant orthodoxies belong to Islam, paddling against dominant streams of opinion can bring frightful consequences. Even, to an alarming degree, within the strongholds of Western civilization, Muslim sensibilities increasingly constrict the parameters of acceptable public discourse.

Paul Marshall and Nina Shea, representing the Hudson Institute's invaluable Center for Religious Freedom, have devoted many years to understanding and publicizing this malign phenomenon. Their exhaustive, courageous research is on brilliant display in Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide. Marshall and Shea compile a thorough dossier of existing Islamic blasphemy restrictions, show how they operate to bludgeon dissent, and chronicle a concerted campaign to export them around the globe. That alone would be a worthy achievement. But in addition, Silenced provides a ringing defense of free expression, upbraiding those who would acquiesce—out of craven fear, or flaccid political correctness—to a climate of self-censorship.

Silenced takes the reader on an extensive tour of those nations, clustered in the Middle East, southern Asia, and pockets of Africa, where radical forms of Islam permeate law and culture. Marshall and Shea burrow beneath the blankets of religious repression under which these societies suffocate. In meticulous detail, they document how anti-blasphemy provisions ensnare non-Muslims, dissenting Muslims, converts to other religions, and liberal reformers, subjecting them to harassment, employment and housing discrimination, imprisonment, torture, and sometimes death.

An old saw has it that a resourceful American prosecutor, if so inclined, could indict a ham sandwich, so numerous and nebulous are the laws at his disposal. Such prosecutorial discretion reaches unparalleled heights in the Islamic world, where despotic regimes can choose among a plethora of hazily worded, near-limitlessly elastic prohibitions. Consider Iran, which punishes such offenses as "friendship with the enemies of God," "hostility towards friends of God," "corruption on earth," "fighting against God," "obstructing the way of God and the way towards happiness for all the disinherited people in the world," "spreading lies," "insulting the Prophet [Muhammad]," "attracting individuals to the misguided sect of Baha'ism," "insulting Islam," "calling into question the Islamic foundations of the Republic," and "creating anxiety in the minds of the public and those of Iranian officials." Good luck staying out of trouble.

Alas, bad as all this is, the danger extends well beyond formal blasphemy codes, however wide-ranging and susceptible to interpretive legerdemain. Amplifying the writ of tyrannical governments are legions of freelance enforcers, readily whipped into a pious frenzy by obstreperous clerics, and routinely allowed to inflict extralegal punishments. Pakistan, for instance, has never executed anyone condemned to death under its draconian blasphemy law, since vigilantes have carried out the killings preemptively. Even where courts elect to show leniency, clouds of suspicion linger over the accused, making them permanent targets of potential mob violence.

Of course, the compounded threat of state-sanctioned brutality and thuggish improvisation intimidates into silence any number of would-be critics. And this throttling of inconvenient protest is very much by design. For the architects of blasphemy codes are not punctilious theologians, anxious to refute doctrinal errors, but self-interested sovereigns jealously guarding their ruling privileges. Both Islamic theocrats and secular strongmen invoke blasphemy to stifle domestic debate. In countries like Iran, whose leaders profess to incarnate divine authority, opposing government policies—or scrutinizing the stated rationale for political rule—is thought tantamount to opposing the will of Allah. More secular dictatorships, while careful to prevent radical Islamists from seizing the levers of political authority, often enjoy cozy alliances with established Muslim authorities (Egypt's Al-Azhar University, for instance), to whom they delegate broad powers of censorship and legal mischief-making.

In such settings, the ambit of "blasphemy" expands ineluctably to cover unwelcome exhortations for political, social, and economic reforms. Speaking out on behalf of democracy and women's rights, or against state sponsorship of terrorism, has branded an assortment of intrepid journalists, writers, poets, professors, artists, and activists as enemies of God. Questioning blasphemy laws can itself qualify as blasphemy, as confirmed by the 2011 murders of Salman Taseer, the Muslim governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, and Shabbaz Bhatti, the country's outspokenly Christian Minister of Minority Affairs.

Can anything be done to break the authoritarian stranglehold? The grounds for pessimism greatly outweigh the grounds for optimism. International resolutions, economic sanctions, and moral censure might secure occasional victories for religious and political liberty, but Western pressure alone cannot topple this fortress of repression. Though Marshall and Shea would welcome a flowering of freedom across the regions they review, their purpose is less to eradicate blasphemy codes within the Islamic world than to prevent their migration to free societies.

For the punishers of religious incorrectness pay no heed to territorial boundaries. Trans-gressions against Islam count the same in Texas as in Tehran. Marshall and Shea revisit the travails of British novelist Salman Rushdie, whose most infamous work, The Satanic Verses, incited murderous rage throughout the Muslim world. Targeted for execution in Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 fatwa, Rushdie lived for years under police protection, eluding numerous attempts on his life. Muslim extremists managed to kill or injure international publishers, translators, and others associated with the book. While Rushdie's assailants failed to bag the big game, the sordid affair still served, in the words of Marshall and Shea, to enshrine "the principle that blasphemy committed in the Western world should carry a penalty as if it were committed in a Muslim country."

Muslim radicals in the Western world have been assiduous in attempting to vindicate this principle. Riots, menacing threats, and targeted assaults have greeted such episodes as Pope Benedict XVI's Regensburg lecture, which alluded briefly to Islam's early history of violent conquest; the publication in Denmark of newspaper cartoons depicting Muhammad, one of which showed the Prophet with a bomb in his turban; and the release of two films (Geert Wilders's Fitna and Theo Van Gogh's Submission) harshly critical of Muslim beliefs and practices. Outspoken dissidents, like the Somali-born feminist and former Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali, have frequently been forced into hiding.

Marshall and Shea eviscerate the popular myth that these violent outbursts represent spontaneous uprisings of ordinary Muslims, justifiably miffed at prejudicial attacks on their religion. This narrative ignores the complicity of Islamic governments in fanning the flames of outrage. Far from innocent bystanders, these governments actively foment scenes of chaos, inflaming native audiences with orchestrated presentations of the allegedly blasphemous material. (Marshall and Shea remind us that Muslim fury over the Danish cartoons didn't erupt until months after their initial appearance.)

Beyond making life miserable for certain troublesome individuals, governments affiliated with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have banded together in a campaign to compel the criminalization of blasphemy outside their dominions. Each year, for over a decade, the OIC bloc has introduced a United Nations resolution urging member states to prohibit, in its self-servingly deceitful phrasing, the "defamation of religions." (Any guesses on which "religions" qualify for protection?)

Western nations, for the most part, have stood steadfastly against bids to circumscribe free expression, voting down the "defamation" resolutions and thwarting the many diplomatic maneuverings by which Islamic nations hope to weave anti-blasphemy strictures into the fabric of international law. And thankfully, the OIC refrained last year from introducing the resolution, based largely on negative fallout from the high-profile murders in Pakistan. The great danger, for Marshall and Shea, is not that Western societies will truckle to any un onslaught, but that Western "hate speech" restrictions will end up punishing blasphemy by proxy. Already, under this hopelessly amorphous category, authors, artists, and commentators have been hauled into court and made to answer for opinions deemed injurious to Islam and its adherents. As Marshall and Shea explain, from the perspective of OIC countries, bans on hate speech function as surrogate bans on blasphemy. Where high-minded tribunes of the people see commendable efforts to stamp out bigotry, OIC panjandrums see Western dupes doing their dirty work.

As with blasphemy codes, hate speech charges chill debate on a variety of religiously fraught subjects. Officialdom's dragnet sweeps up not just suspicions about Islam itself but misgivings about the mistreatment of women and lack of assimilation within Europe's swelling Muslim enclaves. Even where juries and magistrates fail to return convictions, defendants limp away saddled with legal fees, and beset by bruised reputations. As Canadian publisher Ezra Levant once remarked, speaking from firsthand experience about the deterrent effect of hate speech prosecutions, "the process is the punishment."

Why, among freedom-loving folk, is the outcry not louder? For starters, the sentences meted out to hate speech violators, however indefensible, do not shock the conscience quite like stoning and severed limbs. And in America, at least, where our muscular First Amendment heritage won't allow for the secular inquisitions tolerated elsewhere, the power of principle contends with a lack of urgency.

But another, perhaps overlooked reason for ambivalence toward the hate speech charade is discomfort at defending unsympathetic victims. Consider the lately acquitted Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, whose platform consists of discontinuing immigration from Muslim countries, halting the construction of mosques, and banning the Qur'an, which he compares to Mein Kampf. Thoughtful champions of free expression may indeed rally to his cause, but not without consternation. Certain critics of Islam poison the reservoirs of public sympathy with ill-informed speculation, needless provocation, or juvenile foolishness. When the speech police come calling, shrugging shoulders may well abound.

Marshall and Shea do not condone genuine defamations of Islam. Nor do they venture to define a "true Islam" against which defamatory missteps might be perceived. What they do assert, emphatically and rightly, is the moral illegitimacy of governments and self-appointed guardians of Islam standing sentinel at blasphemy's borders and dealing ruthlessly with anyone who crosses over. America, if it would avoid the ignominious fate toward which Europe is slouching, should take the lessons of Silenced to heart.

Matt Reynolds is an associate editor at Christianity Today magazine, where he presides over the Books section and works on the Global Gospel Project.

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