We're all blasphemers now

Never a dull moment on the religion news beat. And the latest clash is a full-on battle over blasphemy laws. There's been a fair amount of coverage. Here's a Washington Post story headlined "Egypt’s President Morsi tells U.N.: Insults to Muhammad ‘unacceptable’." One thing I liked about the piece was how it gave three full paragraphs of quotes to substantiate this, the fourth paragraph:

In an address before the U.N. General Assembly that marked his debut as an international statesman, Egypt’s first democratically elected president presented an unapologetically Islamic view of world events and Egypt’s role in them. He said outrage over insults to Islam does not justify violence but said nothing directly about the attack two weeks ago on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

I always get nervous when paragraphs such as this are the lede. What does "unapologetically Islamic" mean, really? But because of the very meaty quotes from the first three paragraphs, it was delivered at the right moment with the proper amount of substantiation.

The Obama administration has been pushing the line that anti-American protests are nothing other than a reaction to the YouTube video. And some leaders of Muslim countries are using that as an avenue to discussing blasphemy laws. From the same story:

“Egypt respects freedom of expression,” said Morsi, who was the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood movement once banned by the U.S.-backed secular dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. But “not a freedom of expression that targets a specific religion or a specific culture.”

Morsi’s stance underlined the challenges facing the Obama administration as it attempts to recalibrate the U.S. relationship not only with Egypt but also with other countries in the Middle East and North Africa roiled by the Arab Spring. The reaction to the YouTube video that denigrated Islam has proven to be a critical flash point.

Obviously, in America, you can denigrate any religion you want. Ask Bill Maher, anyone funded by NEA grants, or the South Park boys. If you really don't like Methodists and want to spend your entire life making YouTube videos against them, you are free to do that. (I've always thought there was something mildly fishy about Methodists, amiright?) If you're an atheist who wants to denigrate all religious thought and write books about it, we say, "Go right on with your bad self. Enjoy the gobs of cash and media attention that are going to come your way." If you want to be a Lutheran who rejects Catholicism or a Jew who does not believe Jesus is the Messiah, or any other thing, you get to do that. I couldn't find a good mainstream media example that explores this reality about America, but here's a great op-ed that ran in the Huffington Post from which I stole the headline above.

It's messy and it's full of conflict, but we baked the blasphemy protection into the Constitution right there up front so no one would miss it. But the leader of the Arab League says our Constitution is all wet. And he used very strong language to say so, according to the Associated Press report headlined, in part, "Arab League urges criminalization of blasphemy":

But perhaps the most controversial argument came from the Arab League’s Nabil Elaraby, who told the U.N. Security Council that if the west has criminalized acts that result in bodily harm, it must also criminalize acts that insult or cause offense to religions. He condemned the violence that erupted throughout the Muslim world in response to an anti-Islam film produced in the United States. But, he said that unless blasphemy laws are enacted and enforced, similar incidents could happen again.

“While we fully reject such actions that are not justifiable in any way, we would like to ring the warning bell,” Elaraby said. “We are warning that offending religions, faiths and symbols is indeed a matter that threatens in international peace and security now.”

Seems like we're at an impasse. Because just as surely as P.Z. Myers, Jon Stewart and Pat Robertson exist, we're all about offending religions, faiths and symbols.

So how has the media handled this looming battle that threatens to break out into global unrest? Other than, you know, running a bunch of op-eds criticizing freedom of speech and religion? (USA Today, Slate, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, to name a few)

Well, we've learned about the curious decision of the Obama administration to run $70,000 in ads in Pakistan denouncing one of its citizens' expression of speech. And Religion News Service has this very cheery piece headlined "Obama at the U.N.: A new religion doctrine." It says that Obama "gave a forceful speech at the United Nations, in which he challenged much of the world’s assumptions about free speech and religion." Not quite how I heard the speech, although it was quite effective, but I'm sort of a First Amendment obsessive. For a dramatically different view than the one presented by RNS, you might read Reason editor Matt Welch's analysis of the speech -- and how its rhetoric matches with the Obama administration's actual actions in the aftermath of the YouTube brouhaha.

So the media presents the views against freedom of expression and the media highlights Obama's "new religion doctrine" that presents a sort of mild defense of our First Amendment.

But what I wonder is whether there's a better way to approach the story. Some harder-hitting questions to ask of the various groups. Should those hard questions only come from partisan outlets or is there a role for the mainstream media to play here?

Do you get the feeling the media really "get" the conflict at hand here? Are they overdoing the "explainers" as to how some people don't share American views on free speech? Are they underdoing the "explainers" as to why this issue is so important to Americans? Are they accurately conveying the implications of laws against blasphemy? Are you satisfied with the coverage? Do you see room for improvement?

Photo of blasphemy law protest via Shutterstock.

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