When Giving Offence Is a Crime

Curious as to why Salman Rushdie’s 1989 novel The Satanic Verses  had upset  Muslims,  I picked up of a copy of the “inflammatory” work not long ago (somewhat after the fact, granted). I must confess that I never did finish reading the book, even after a second determined attempt, and ended up giving it away to a family member who enjoys the challenge of trying to make sense of abstruse literature.  I don’t think he finished it, either.  To me, it was mind-boggling that this novel (a highly-overrated one, in my estimation) could provoke violent spasms throughout the Islamic world and send its author into hiding for years, victim of an Iranian ayatollah’s fatwa or death edict, a fatwa which included not only the author but also anyone connected with the work’s production.  A Japanese publisher paid with his life for his involvement with the novel.

In 2007, when cartoons depicting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, I managed to get a copy of a magazine that carried them, no small feat, given that few publishers on this side of the Atlantic were willing to publish the cartoons. The cartoons seemed pretty innocuous to me, yet their creator also had to go into hiding.

And now, a movie trailer less than fourteen minutes long, “Innocence of Muslims,” has triggered violence throughout the Islamic world once again (that is, if one believes that the movie trailer is responsible for all the killing and assaults on embassies, and not merely a pretext for the violence).  Fifty-one people have now died. Ironically, the actual movie was shown to fewer than ten people in a rented theatre in Hollywood, according to reports. With all the attention given to the movie trailer it was inevitable that countless numbers around the globe, including me, would check out the YouTube to see what all the fuss was about.  And, yes, I agree with its critics, the movie trailer is crude and clearly intended to be provocative.

Tragically, the reaction to the movie trailer follows an all-too-familiar pattern by now:  enraged mobs, death threats, murder and mayhem. Railways minister Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, member of the Pakistan government, has placed a $100,000 bounty on the head of the maker of the movie trailer who, we now know, is a former Egyptian Coptic Christian with a criminal background living in the US.  If the government hands the perpetrator over to him, Bilour says that he will finish him off with his own hands. To us in the West, the idea that the creator of some tawdry movie trailer should be hunted down and murdered, by a cabinet minister, no less, is monstrous.

But that’s not the view of some of those who follow the dictates of shari’a or Islamic law.  In their eyes, Salman Rushdie, the Danish cartoonist, and the Coptic creator of the movie trailer are all blasphemers, and therefore deserving of death.  As the Pakistan Penal Code, based on shari’a, states, whoever defiles the sacred name of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, whether by spoken or written word, by visible representation, or by innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, is to be put to death. Indeed, any irreverent behaviour towards Islam’s Prophet Muhammad is blasphemy. And, importantly, the law against blasphemy applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims. Even though I, a non-Muslim, might resoundingly reject the notion that I am subject to the same blasphemy laws as Muslims, Muslim jurists would argue otherwise.

In what, to me, is a disturbing development, Muslim leaders have been demanding increasingly that those who give offence to Muslims to be treated as criminals. Beginning in 1999 and up until 2010, the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) put forward yearly resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council calling for an international agreement among UN member countries which would penalize blasphemy and insults to religious figures.  (And we all know which particular religious figure the OIC has in mind.) A resolution more in line with Western thinking has since been passed, Resolution 16/18, which criminalizes, not blasphemy, but “incitement to violence.” As critics of Resolution 16/18 point out, however, this resolution is no improvement, for anything that upsets Islamic cultural sensibilities has the potential to incite violence.

Even more troubling to me has been the response of some in the West, namely, the US.  Inexplicably, those who should be most strongly resisting such resolutions are in agreement.  Despite the First Amendment in the American Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech, the US voted for Resolution 16/18 and, indeed, was instrumental in its passing.  And President Obama, in his recent speech at the UN General Assembly, warned, “The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam.”  A Chicago law professor recently stated that Americans need to learn that the rest of the world—and not just Muslims—see no sense in the First Amendment. Another US academic called for the movie trailer maker to be thrown in jail.

It is disheartening to me to see the US fall in line so quickly with OIC demands.  President Obama speaks of “slander,” but to slander is to defame falsely.  Merely recounting incidents in the life of Islam’s Prophet Muhammadwhile such incidents may make some Muslims uncomfortableis not slander. For example, the Satanic verses referred to in the title of Rushdie’s book relate to a well-recorded event in Muhammad’s life.  And it was this story that fascinated me, not Rushdie’s novel.

In what was a jaw-dropping moment for me the other morning, I heard a British participant in a political forum on t.v. refer to “that insane American Constitution.” To be fair, she wasn’t speaking about the First Amendment, but just hearing someone call the American Constitution “insane” was jarring, ominous, even.   It’s a sorry state of affairs, I say, when the American Constitution is seen as insane, yet criminalizing those who give offence is regarded as reasonable thing to do.

 

 

 

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