The Fundamental Right to Blasphemy

to Munther Al-Sabbagh and Angie Bayouk

When as a response to Hillary Clinton’s call for governments in Arab countries to defend foreign embassies from the mob, the Prime Minister of Egypt called on the US to do all it can to stop insults against Islam, I wondered which forms of offense were the ones that he was referring to? Prime Minister Qandil’s request happens to echoe a strong move by several Middle Eastern countries that, over the past few years, have lobbied European governments for the promulgation of blasphemy laws. Insulting a god—any god, we should assume—would become in some manner or other, illegal.

In the context of what has apparently been the reaction to Sam Bacile’s The Innocense of Muslims, one would be excused for taking this plea as an exculpation of the mob. Sure enough, the words of Mr. Qandil were nuanced by asserting the guilt of perpetrators and by appeals to moderation and balance on both sides. That is, the side that in the name of free speech supposedly slandered the Muslim god and his prophet and the Muslim gangs that protecting the honor of their scriptural prophet went on a wild rampage. Yet, the basic idea that the Prime Minister was conveying was that even if these people torching buildings and killing diplomats are criminals, the blame lies ultimately with those who provoked them.

But what type of provocation are we talking about here? YouTube movies? Koran burning? At first blush, these seemed to be the offending acts which we would be safer avoiding. But then if these almost laughable exertions by amateurs theologians and high-school artistes were to be the target of the demand for silent respect to one or other god, what was to be of my offending interest in religion, my secularism and cosmopolitanism, my Facebook postings, my gay friends and my Jewish parents? In fact, we should take stock of what constitute offense to religious sensibilities, since that is what we are being asked to forestall and possibly even legislate. Let me give you a quick list of things that have been taken to offend god and for which people have paid with their lives:

Worshipping a god other than the one your neighbors worship, for instance a golden calf. Producing a semblance of the god who your neighbors like. Saying the word ‘god’ or swearing by it. Claiming that your god had a human body. Claiming that your god did not have a human body (Refer to the Christological disputes from the 1st century onwards and their toll in blood). Denying that a god is three and one at the same time. Affirming that a god is more than one (as in the Trinitarian controversies). Denying that there is a god at all. Affirming that the god has being. Protesting clerical hierarchy (Protestants in catholic territories). Defending clerical hierarchies (as it happened to members of the counterreformation). Not ceasing all activities the day of the week that your neighbors cease all activities. Ceasing all activities the day your neighbors work. Eating meat the day your neighbors don’t eat meat. Not burning a bull the day that your neighbors burn a bull. Eating pork. Not eating pork. Burning books. Not burning books.

Observing astronomical phenomena as did Galileo Galilei. Observing biological phenomena as did Darwin. Doing anatomical research and not finding a soul. Describing a psychiatric condition as related to the body. Having a psychiatric condition which was previously taken to be a demonic possession. Having metaphysical disagreements with Aristotle. Not reading the books your neighbors read. Reading the books your neighbors read without their authorization. Translating books which your neighbors don’t like as it was the case with the Song of Songs taken by the inquisition to be a judeizing book. Philosophizing and Reasoning. Engaging in the unauthorized practice of theology.

Painting nudes, singing loudly and dancing in just about any form. Drinking alcohol. Not drinking alcohol. Eating bread from the hands of a cleric. Not eating bread from the hands of a cleric. Having sex without the approval and certification of a cleric, that is, having sex without being married. Having sex with someone other than your spouse. Desiring someone of your own gender. Having sex with someone of your own gender. Having anal sex with someone of any gender. Falling in love. Dating.

Working or studying while having a vagina. Enjoying sex while having a vagina. Engaging in political activity or military campaigns while having a vagina. Dancing in a wedding party while having a vagina.  Wearing ‘modern’ clothing while having a vagina. Sporting a modern hairstyle while having a vagina. Exposing your legs while having a vagina. Exposing your arms while having a vagina. Exposing your shoulders while having a vagina. Exposing your neck while having a vagina. Exposing your face while having a vagina. Exposing any part of your body whatsoever while having a vagina. Thinking while having a vagina.

The list, actually, goes on. And these are only a few of the activities that have been earnestly taken to insult someone’s god and for whom people have paid with stoning, stabbing, decapitation, shooting, hanging, burning or quartering. In this light, the ultimate responsibility for the murder of Theo VanGogh in Amsterdam was his own, the blame for the attack of Danish diplomatic missions was the Danish government’s and the blame for the demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban and the destruction of the mausoleums in Timbuktu by members of Ansar Dine were, well, the builders and designers of these monuments who offended some or other god.

It is indeed at this very juncture where we can see with glaring clarity the importance of the right to blaspheme. Or perhaps we should explain this right in terms that those who are inclined to defend theological concepts with theological categories can understand: it is here where we should see with complete clarity the sanctity of the right to blaspheme in a democratic society.

The respect that is demanded from us under threat of extreme violence is the pious abandonment of our right to reason. This right is incompatible with religious respect because reason offends belief and rational deliberation is incompatible with irrational conviction. It is by reason that we assert the rights of women to bare their arms and legs, to study and to work as autonomous human beings. It is by reason that we assert the right of dancers to dance and painters to paint and it is by reason that we assert the right of the members of our society to believe what they may chose to believe irrespective of whom that may offend by thought or expression. It is by reason that we assert the right to reason and understanding and this right we take to be fundamental. That is to say, the right to think and express offensive thoughts is for us members of cosmopolitan societies, inheritors of the enlightenment the fundamental right to express our reasons against the demands of belief. And this has to mean being free and thus protected from violence against the expression of our reasons. It is the zealot who will have to find a better way to deal with discomfort. Just as all adults learn to do.

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  1. David Martinez says: -#1

    I couldn’t agree more. Even Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, showed his comprehension of the anger provoked by the American film in Muslim countries and condemned the supposed offenses against the prophet ( I’d like to contribute with two poems of victims of this dreadful readiness to be offended: Fray Luis de León (whom you quote) and Tommaso Campanella (who to had to pretend that he had lost his mind to save his life).

    Fray Luis de León (1527-1591)

    Aquí la envidia y mentira
    me tuvieron encerrado.
    Dichoso el humilde estado
    del sabio que se retira
    de aqueste mundo malvado,

    y con pobre mesa y casa
    en el campo deleitoso
    con sólo Dios se compasa
    y a solas su vida pasa
    ni envidiado ni envidioso.

    Lo, where envy and where lies
        Held me in the prison cell:
        Blesséd was the lot that fell
    To the humble and the wise
    Far from earth’s chagrins to dwell;
    Who with thatch and homely fare
        Rests him in some sylvan spot,
    Lone with God abiding there,
    And none else his thought to share,
        Envying none, and envied not.
                        —Thomas Walsh (translator).

    Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639)
    Al carcere
    Come va al centro ogni cosa pesante
    dalla circonferenza, e come ancora
    in bocca al mostro, che poi la devora,
    donnola incorre timente e scherzante;
    così di gran scienza ognuno amante,
    che audace passa dalla morta gora
    al mar del vero, di cui s’innamora,
    nel nostro ospizio alfin ferma le piante.

    Ch’altri l’appella antro di Polifemo,
    palazzo altri d’Atlante, e chi di Creta
    il laberinto, e chi l’Inferno estremo
    (ché qui non val favor, saper, né pietà),
    io ti so dir; del resto, tutto tremo,
    ch’è ròcca sacra a tirannia segreta.


    As every heavy thing falls to the center
    from the circumference, and as yet
    the weasel runs fearful and playful into
    the mouth of the toad that then devours it;
    so each lover of great knowledge
    who passes boldly from the stagnant pond
    to the see of truth with which he falls in love,
    in the end sets foot in our cell.
    That some call it “the cave of Polyphemus,”
    others “Atlante’s palace,” still others
    “the laberynth of Crete” and some the pit of hell
    (since here neither favor nor knowledge nor pity avails),
    I can tell you; besides I tremble to the core,
    because this is the sacred fortress of secret tyranny.
    (tr. Sherry Roush)

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