Spain

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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Israel, Saudi Arabia and claim that once land is Muslim, that land is always Muslim

Israel, Saudi Arabia and claim that once land is Muslim, that land is always Muslim

The Jewish state of Israel and the Sunni Islamic kingdom of Saudi Arabia have a complicated relationship. Official diplomatic relations between the two are non-existent. Yet unofficial contacts not only exist but appear to be thriving

Why? Because for all the bad blood between them, both consider Shiite Iran the greater threat. It's one of those enemy-of-my-enemy hookups.

Israel would love the relationship to play out officially and in public as a grand sign to the world of its desired acceptance as a sovereign Jewish nation in the heart of the Muslim Middle East.

The Saudi monarchy has a more complex agenda, however.

Whatever it's political goals, the Saudi royals also must mollify their nation's ultra-traditional religious establishment, the staunch support of which has allowed the descendants of King Abdulaziz Al Saud to rule over the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula since the nation's founding in 1932.

Saudi Arabia is the cradle of Islam, containing the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad. Because of the kingdom's centrality to Islam, religious backing is critical to the ruling family's continued reign.

Problem is, those religious leaders show little willingness to compromise their rigid Wahhabi Muslim theology for the sake of earthly political considerations.

Here's an example of how the game is played.

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Painful group memories and the news media's (potentially) curative powers

Painful group memories and the news media's (potentially) curative powers

I've been semi-detached from the dread, anger, loss, and pain that have dominated American and international headlines the past two weeks while my wife and traveled across the Iberian Peninsula's north.

But only semi.

Full detachment is impossible for me (a) because of the electronic communication devices I take with me on vacation, and obviously (b) because of my obsessive newshound personality. The former allows me and the latter impels me to keep up -- at least to some degree -- with humanity's daily dose of self-inflicted trauma.

Spain and Portugal make it even easier for me to stay connected to this irrational state of affairs thanks to their particular histories. They abound with reminders of past injustices heaped upon the region's Jews, with which I fully identity. (Click here: I posted on this at the start of my trip.)

Human history seems a litany of communal hurts we never fully overcome. Not to mention that these hurts are continually updated.

In one Portuguese town -- Viana do Castello, just south of the Spanish border -- I parked next to a stone wall defaced by graffiti. The only parts of the scrawl I could decipher were the swastikas and the word "Sion," or Zion. I doubt the full message was complementary toward Jews or Israel.

Then there was this despicable anti-American, anti-Semitic and blatantly racist cartoon circulated by Spain's United Left political party, which holds eight seats in the nation's 360-member bicameral parliament (Click here for New York Times backgrounder). It was timed to coincide with President Barak Obama's brief visit to Spain last weekend. (Spain and Portugal now offer citizenship to foreign Jews of Sephardic ancestry, meaning those who can prove their families were forced out of Iberia during the Inquisition.)

I mention my experience as a prelude to commenting on a story published by The New York Times that reported international Muslim anger at perceived insufficient Western outrage and compassion toward terror attack victims in Bangladesh, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey during the just completed Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

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Musing about Brexit lessons in the literal birthplace of the Spanish Inquisition

Musing about Brexit lessons in the literal birthplace of the Spanish Inquisition

As the repercussions from the momentous Brexit vote play out, I find myself in the charming and more than 1,000-year-old  hillside village of Sos del Rey Catolico in northeast Spain. Ferdinand III of Aragon, who with his wife Queen Isabella I, launched Cristobal Colon on his voyage to the New World -- and the start of the destruction of the indigenous tribes of the Americas -- was born here.

The royal couple also threw the Jews out of Spain and can lay claim to the Spanish Inquisition. Pretty accomplished, weren't they?

A day earlier I was in Madrid. When I arrived, a large banner hung from Madrid's City Hall, proclaiming in English, "Refugees Welcome." The following day, Spain held parliamentary elections in which gains by the conservative establishment made for banner headlines.

And the day after that, the "Refugees Welcome" banner was gone.

Was it a coincidence? A political decision? For all I know the banner lacked official approval in the first place.

But between the banner and my stay in Sos del Rey Catolico -- which, of course has its ancient and now Judenrein Jewish quarter that persists as a tourist site -- it all feels hopelessly tribal.

I've written here before that journalists need to understand that globalization has been and is about far more than cheaper products. That its about people -- people moved by dreams and a desire, perhaps "need" is a better word -- to be the consumers of those products and no longer only the producers. If they were lucky enough to have a job, that is.

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Flashback 2015: Jewish news, an all-pope Top 10 list and trends on evangelical left

Flashback 2015: Jewish news, an all-pope Top 10 list and trends on evangelical left

OK, here is one final set of some Top 10 religion stories lists for the now distant 2015. If you have missed the previous installments, click here and then here to back up a post or two and catch up. There was also an end of the year "Crossroads" podcast.

One of the reasons that journalists dig into these kinds of lists, especially those prepared by leaders in specific religious flocks, is to learn about stories that may not have made headlines at mainstream news sites -- yet.

So here are three lists of this kind. Once again, please put any 2015 Top 10 lists that I missed in our comments pages.

We will start with A. James Rudin, a name familiar to all journalists who cover events and trends among Jews in North America and elsewhere. This Top 10 Jewish news events list was prepared for Religion News Service, but the link is to The Washington Post. You have Bernie Sanders, Nostra Aetate and a rabbi scandal or two. However, his top story is one that has been growing in importance for more than a decade, one sure to grow in importance with the rise of the Islamic State.

1. Anti-Semitic attacks escalate across Europe.
In January an Islamic terrorist killed four Jews inside a Paris kosher market, and in February a terrorist killed a synagogue guard in Copenhagen. The number of French Jews moving to Israel grew during the year.

Then there was this story, which our own Ira Rifkin flagged early on:

3. The BDS campaign gathers force.

In June, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ approved a resolution calling for the denomination to divest and boycott certain companies doing business with Israel.

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The Guardian: Ridiculing the saints, the Virgin and prayer

Why do we fight? Why do we write? What motivates our editor tmatt and the team at GetReligion to do what we do? For me, as I expect it is for my colleagues, it is the love of the game. To showcase the best examples of the craft of journalism — while chiding those that fall short.

I began to follow GetReligion shortly after it went online in 2004. I was a professional acquaintance of one of its co-founders, Doug LeBlanc and a long time admirer of his work and that of the editor, Terry Mattingly. Their call to improve the craft (not police it as some critics have charged) resonated with me. When I joined three years ago I was honored by their invitation and the opportunity to participate in their work by looking at the English, European and overseas press.

I was tasked with looking at stories such as this one from last week’s Guardian entitled: “Spanish government questioned over claims of divine help in economic crisis”, with an eye towards applying the standards of classical Anglo-American journalism to the story, as well as offering American readers a window into the British and European press world.

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Reporting on gay marriage in Spain

Laying out the front page of the November 7 issue presented a few problems for the Madrid daily El País. Journalists at Spain’s largest circulation newspaper (345,000) began a walk out this week after management announced that it was cutting 139 of the paper’s 460 posts. Those who still had jobs would see their pay cut by 13 per cent.

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