blasphemy laws

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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The age in which we live: Readers seeking Asia Bibi news may need to look in op-ed pages

The age in which we live: Readers seeking Asia Bibi news may need to look in op-ed pages

It was nearly 16 years ago that GetReligion.org opened its cyber doors (with our next birthday just ahead on Feb. 2).

That is an eternity in Internet years.

Anyway, one of the things that co-founder Doug LeBlanc and I decided right up front is that — with very few exceptions — we would focus on hard-news coverage of religion in the mainstream press. Even then, there was all kinds of interesting stuff running on op-ed pages and in magazines that offered a mix of news and editorial comment. The World Wide Web was already a pretty wild place.

Over time, we started pushing “think pieces” to the weekend — pointing readers to commentary pieces that directly addressed issues relevant to religion-beat pros and news consumers who focused on religion news, broadly defined. Eventually, we sought out veteran reporters — think Richard Ostling and Ira Rifkin — to write memo-style essays addressing where they thought trends in the news were heading.

But something else was happening at the same time. To be blunt, opinion pieces cost way less than news coverage. In recent years, it has become common to see major stories “broken” in commentary pieces. Sometimes, if you want updates on actual news stories, you need to look in the editorial columns.

Lately, I have had some readers send me emails wondering what has happened with the case of Asia Bibi, the Catholic mother in rural Pakistan who was accused of blasphemy. It made headlines when she was found not guilty. Then she went into hiding, as mobs threatened to kill her. Attempts to find asylum in other lands have been futile.

So what’s going on? Where’s the news coverage?

Well, click here for this week’s “think piece” — which actually contains background on the news. The headline, in tis recent opinion piece at The Washington Post: “My client’s death sentence for blasphemy was overturned. She still cannot leave Pakistan.”

My client? The author is Saif ul Malook and here is the description of the editorial process:

Saif ul Malook, a lawyer, represented Asia Bibi in the successful appeal of her blasphemy conviction. Mehreen Zahra-Malik, a former Reuters correspondent based in Islamabad, assisted in the preparation of this op-ed.

If you want an actual summary of recent events, this is not a bad place to start — even though this is not, of course, a news piece. Here is a sample:

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Looking for life-and-death updates on Asia Bibi? You need to turn to European media

Looking for life-and-death updates on Asia Bibi? You need to turn to European media

Here is the religion news question that haunted me over the long Thanksgiving weekend: Why is the unfolding story of threats to Asia Bibi of Pakistan a major story in England and Europe, but not here in the United States? (Click here for recent podcast linked to this topic.)

Let me be more blunt: Are journalists on this side of the Atlantic waiting for you know who — Donald Trump — to address this tense, deadly situation in a tweet?

OK, I will be more blunt: At what point will leaders of the pro-Trump evangelical niche show up at the White House and demand that this Christian woman — cleared of blasphemy charges, but now in hiding, trapped in house arrest — be granted asylum? What if the president sent his own private plane to Pakistan to retrieve her? Maybe this would be awkward with the violent drama on the US-Mexico border?

One more blunt thought: Is part of the problem that Bibi is Catholic, not evangelical? I keep watching the headlines for evidence that Pope Francis might intervene. Right now, the main news on that front consists of fake photos circulating online claiming to show a Bibi meeting with the pope. Let me stress: The reports are fake.

For those seeking an update, here is the top of a recent Daily Mail report. Do I need to note that this outlet is considered “conservative” news?

Asia Bibi may have escaped the hangman, but her freedom comes with a heavy price. Today, when she should be reunited with her five children, she is being hunted across Pakistan, forced to scuttle under cover of darkness from one safe house to another in fear of her life.

It is a desperate situation — and one not helped by Britain which refuses to offer the mother-of-five sanctuary.

Last month the Supreme Court in Pakistan decided that Asia, 52, who spent eight years on death row, had been falsely accused of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed. While most of the country erupted in fury at her release, nowhere did the anger burn more fiercely than in her home village of Ittan Wali, 40 miles south-east of Lahore, where her extraordinary ordeal began. Following news of her reprieve, women took to the streets to protest, a bus was torched and children ran riot.

Until now, beyond a few sketchy details, little about Asia’s persecution has been forthcoming.

The Mail team sent reporters to Bibi’s home village and came back with plenty of harrowing details about her history and the current crisis.

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What next for Asia Bibi? It seems everyone in Pakistan linked to this story may be in danger

What next for Asia Bibi? It seems everyone in Pakistan linked to this story may be in danger

Day after day, many journalists do the kind of work that is done by detectives.

No, they don’t do hands-on inspections of crime scenes or natural disasters (although I have heard of that happening, in a few rare cases). Instead, reporters find themselves working through a mental equation that resembles the following.

(1) What has happened in this story so far?

(2) Looking back, what has happened in similar stories in the past?

(3) What do “stakeholders” — people intimately involved in the story — think will happen next?

(4) OK, what could happen? What are the possibilities?

(5) What do I think is likely to happen next? How do I get ready to cover that?

By the way, are journalists covering this story in danger, if they ask questions about Bibi?

You see, sometimes you have to think ahead to what could happen in a story so you can be in the right place, with the right set of contacts, in order to cover it.

However, journalists have to be humble about this process, because we are often wrong. And surprises happen. You have to be honest enough to cover the story that unfolds, not just the one you thought was going to happen.

Case in point? Let’s just say that the 2016 White House race didn’t turn out the way most scribes in elite zip codes thought that it would. Thus, they were not in a position to cover the story that happened. They ignored half of America. Click here for lots of background about a liberal journalist who was stunningly honest about that. The name: Liz Spayd.

During this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, host Todd Wilken and I worked our way through this process while looking at the news coverage of the acquittal of Asia Bibi in Pakistan. Click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and get it.

Bibi is, of course, the Catholic woman who was accused of making inflammatory remarks about Muhammad — thus violating that nation’s controversial blasphemy laws. Human-rights activists all over the world have for years been seeking her release.

So now she is free to go. End of story?

That’s when reporters start thinking about the hard realities in this story. What happens next?

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Asia Bibi acquitted, but is she safe? Fighting over blasphemy in Pakistan is far from over

Asia Bibi acquitted, but is she safe? Fighting over blasphemy in Pakistan is far from over

This is a day that human-rights activists have wanted to see for a long time.

Asia Bibi has been acquitted of blasphemy charges in Pakistan.

That’s the lede. What has impressed me in the early coverage of this decision is the degree to which international desk pros in several newsrooms grasped the importance of the news that will unfold after this story. I am talking about the reaction among Muslims who defend their nation’s blasphemy laws, which are used to punish freethinking Muslims more often than Christians, like Bibi, and believers in other religious minorities.

I could have lived without some of the political labels that many editors allowed in descriptions of key players in this story. I was also surprised how few reporters seemed interested in Bibi and the details of her own story.

But we will come back to that. Here is the top of a strong NPR story with the breaking news:

Pakistan's Supreme Court on Wednesday announced the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was convicted and sentenced to death in 2010 for blasphemy in a case that has roiled the country.

In the courtroom, it took less a minute for the Chief Justice, Saqib Nisar, to upturn a series of legal rulings that had kept Bibi on death row for eight years. In terse remarks to the hushed, packed courtroom, he said that Bibi's conviction and sentence had been voided. 

In a 56-page verdict issued after the ruling, the three-judge bench appeared to side with Bibi's advocates. They have maintained that the case against the 51-year-old illiterate farmhand was built around a grievance by her fellow Muslim workers who appeared angry that she might drink from the same vessel as them. She was ordered by a local landlord to bring water to the women on a day while they were picking berries.

If you want to dig into the details, head over to this strong collection of background material that the BBC team had ready to go.

A major question: Bibi is now free, but is it safe for her to be free?

After all, most alleged blasphemers are killed by mobs, not legal representatives of the state. And, in the past, state officials who dared to criticize the blasphemy laws have paid a high price.

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It's not just DC and the Vatican: Saudi Arabia and Indonesia make worrisome news

It's not just DC and the Vatican: Saudi Arabia and Indonesia make worrisome news

It's time for an update on the inseparably braided political and religious goings-on in two key Muslim nations; Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, and Saudi Arabia, Islam’s birthplace and site of the recently concluded hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that is one of the world’s largest religious gatherings.

As you may expect, it’s not good news.

Moreover, it’s news that’s in danger of going under-appreciated because of the undeniably more alluring headlines -- for American news junkies, at least -- related to the Catholic Church’s sexual corruption cover up, and the Trump administration’s equally crumbling cover up of sexual, financial and all-around political corruption.

Let’s start with Indonesia, which once enjoyed, and capitalized on, a reputation for being one of the most politically moderate and religiously open-minded of Muslim nations.

These two pieces provide a refresher, should you require it. The first is a news report from Reuterswhile the second is a previous GetReligion analysis by editor Terry Mattingly ("That wave of attacks on churches in Indonesia: Is the 'moderate' Muslim news hook gone?"

Now, it seems, the situation in the Southeast Asian archipelago nation has gone from bad to worse, and perhaps to the absurd.

Here’s what The Washington Post reported last week.

A Buddhist woman’s conviction this week on blasphemy charges has alarmed many in Indonesia who were already worried about the erosion of religious pluralism in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.


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The New York Times got it right: Faith had something to do with Sister Ruth Pfau's ministry

The New York Times got it right: Faith had something to do with Sister Ruth Pfau's ministry

If you drew up a list of the 10 most common complaints made by GetReligion readers about mainstream religion news coverage, this would be one of them.

The complaint: Why do so many journalists ignore the role that faith plays in the lives of prominent and inspirational figures, especially when writing major profiles or, most symbolically, in their obituaries?

No, we're not just talking about sports heroes and entertainers.

In this latest case, we are talking about one of the world's most courageous Catholic nuns, the woman often called the "Mother Teresa of Pakistan." Here is the top of a major report from Al Jazeera:

Tributes are pouring in for a German nun who spent more than half a century in Pakistan battling leprosy and helping the country's most vulnerable people.
Pakistan's Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi announced in a statement that a state funeral would be held for Ruth Pfau who died on Thursday, aged 87.
"She gave new hope to innumerable people and proved through her illustrious toil that serving humanity knows no boundaries," the statement said. ...
Pfau trained as a doctor in her youth and went on to join a Catholic sisterhood. She arrived in Pakistan, where she spent the rest of her life, in 1960. She specialised in the treatment of leprosy, a disease that causes discolouration of the skin, sores, and disfigurements.

Now, some of the stories -- because of her medical training -- referred to this Catholic hero as "Dr." Ruth Pfau.

However, it took some time to find a report that included a rather important word -- "Sister." As a GetReligion reader noted: "Might this woman's faith have had something to do with her work?"

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Podcast thinking: Do Pokemon Go protesters have a right to crash worship services?

Podcast thinking: Do Pokemon Go protesters have a right to crash worship services?

The other day, during my first GetReligion meditation on a nasty protester who invaded a symbolic Russian church while playing Pokemon Go, I asked readers to ponder a hypothetical case under what could be considered parallel circumstances.

I asked what German authorities would do if alt-right Holocaust deniers invaded Berlin's Ryke Street synagogue during worship, approached the Bimah, did some kind of mocking behavior and later posted a nasty, anti-Semitic video that offered an F-bomb version of a Jewish prayer.

Then I argued that, in a news account about this event, journalists would need to let readers know the details of what happened in that sanctuary. Did the protester interact with a rabbi? What service was taking place? What was being said in the prayers? Was the protester asked to leave? 

In other words, I was requesting basic, factual questions so readers could picture the scene. These were the same questions I thought journalists should have asked about that Pokemon Go video that a protester filmed during a prayer service at the Church of All Saints in Yekaterinburg, 900 miles east of Moscow. This sanctuary was built on the site where Czar Nicholas II and his family were executed by the Bolsheviks.

At the end of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), I thought of another "sacred" setting that might be relevant for U.S. journalists.

Instead of worship services, let's talk about Broadway. What if some Donald Trump supporters invaded a performance of "Hamilton," approached the stage, ignored requests to leave, and later posted a racist video about this act of symbolic speech? Would authorities have taken any kind of action?

To answer that question, wouldn't you need to know some of the actual details of what happened?

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Case of the missing blasphemy defense: What Ireland's Independent, BBC and the Daily Mail skipped

Case of the missing blasphemy defense: What Ireland's Independent, BBC and the Daily Mail skipped

According to the online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, theodicy is defined as a "defense of God's goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil."

It's a word not at all unfamiliar here at GetReligion central.

As it turns out, the question of theodicy might well be the linchpin of a potential police investigation in the Republic of Ireland involving a British comic named Stephen Fry. Since Fry is British, let's go to the recent account by the BBC (original spellings and style retained).

This is long, but essential. Read carefully.

Police in the Republic of Ireland have launched an investigation after a viewer claimed comments made by Stephen Fry on a TV show were blasphemous.
Officers are understood to be examining whether the British comedian committed a criminal offence under the Defamation Act when he appeared on RTE in 2015.
Fry had asked why he should "respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world. ... full of injustice".
He later said he was not "offensive towards any particular religion".
According to a report in the Irish Independent newspaper, no publicised cases of blasphemy have been brought before the courts since the law was introduced in 2009 and a source said it was "highly unlikely" that a prosecution against Fry would take place. ...
Appearing on The Meaning of Life, hosted by Gay Byrne, in February 2015, Fry had been asked what he might say to God at the gates of heaven.
Fry said: "How dare you create a world in which there is such misery? It's not our fault? It's not right. It's utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?"

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