Organization of Islamic Cooperation

As European blasphemy laws endure, journalists should consider how words can get them in trouble

As European blasphemy laws endure, journalists should consider how words can get them in trouble

Here’s an explosive combination: The democratic demand for freedom of speech and the equally emotionally laden demand that sincerely held religious beliefs not be subjected to indiscriminate insults and scorn.

Religiously speaking, we’re talking about blasphemy, an issue contemporary Westerners are apt to believe is more of a concern in Muslim communities and highly autocratic nations such as Russia — and which they would be correct to conclude.

Journalistically and artistically speaking, we’re talking about the magazine Charlie Hebdo and the novelist Salman Rushdie. Both were victims of blasphemy charges by Muslim. The former ended in horrific violence.

Now, Foreign Policy magazine — on the occasion of the Hebdo attacks fourth anniversary, and the 30th anniversary of the blasphemy fatwa issued against Rushdie by Iran’s revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini — has published an intriguing analysis piece on this issue. It ran under this headline:

30 Years After the Rushdie Fatwa, Europe Is Moving Backward.

Blasphemy laws have been given new life on the continent.

Here’s a hefty chunk of the Foreign Policy essay.

But despite the unanimous rhetorical support for free speech after Charlie Hebdo, blasphemy bans have become more firmly anchored in some parts of the continent in recent years. In a recent case, the European Court of Human Rights even reaffirmed that European human rights law recognizes a right not to have one’s religious feelings hurt. The court based its decision on the deeply flawed assumption that religious peace and tolerance may require the policing rather than the protection of “gratuitously offensive” speech. Accordingly, it found that Austria had not violated freedom of expression by convicting a woman for having called the Prophet Mohammed a “pedophile.”

Some have argued that the court’s decision was a necessary defense of an embattled Muslim minority vulnerable to bigotry and religious hatred. But laws against religious insult and blasphemy are generally different from hate speech laws—which are problematic in themselves—that purportedly protect people rather than abstract religious ideas and dogmas.

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Story theme borrowed from another beat: Whatever happened to science in Islam?

Story theme borrowed from another beat: Whatever happened to science in Islam?

Religion reporters should look beyond their ghetto for story themes, and here’s a good one: Why does science lag so notably in the Muslim world, and what can be done about it?

That question was raised by assistant editor Ross Pomeroy at www.realclearscience.com. Some religionistas may recall his 2012 piece for biologos.org titled “Why Strict Atheism is Unscientific.”

The latest Pomeroy headline is equally controversial: “Can Islam Come Back to the Light of Science?” He presents data to highlight the problem, which is far broader than simply Mideast sheiks flying to London or New York for medical treatments:

In 2005, Harvard University alone produced more scientific papers than 17 Arabic-speaking nations combined. The Muslim population of 1.6 billion has produced only two Nobel Prize-winners in chemistry and physics in history, and both moved to the West to work.

Now, Jews are outnumbered 100 to one by Muslims globally yet boast 79 such Nobel laureates. The 57 nations in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation spend less than a percent of their collective gross domestic product on research and development, a third of the global average; Israel spends 4.4 percent.

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