"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Silence, Blasphemy, and Apostasy

The problems of what to do with those who abandon a religious tradition, and those who speak harshly and--to the minds of some, blasphemously--against the divine have been met with a variety of responses depending on the tradition in question and its surrounding sociopolitical context. Until recently many common-law countries had laws against blasphemy--just as we had laws against  pornography, adultery, sodomy, and many other things no longer criminalized today. Whether we should have abandoned those laws or not is open to debate. Certainly Christians are not of one mind as to whether that which is sinful should also ipso facto be criminal. Most Christians today, it seems, would rather strongly prefer not to criminalize speech even when it is defamatory of Christians themselves, or sacrilegious or blasphemous. 

Islam has often taken a different approach (though one must note that St. John of Damascus was scathing in some of his comments about Islam, and left unmolested by Muslims in Syria for his views) as, e.g., the journalist Hrant Dink, filmmaker Theo van Gogh and politician Ayan Hirsi Ali all know to their peril.

For their part, Eastern Christians have long and often bloody experience with what may or may not be said about Islam by Christians living under its suzerainty. A forthcoming book from Oxford University Press, to be released in October, shows that these issues are alive and well today, and have spread beyond traditional eastern homelands: Paul Marshall and Nina Shea, Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide (OUP, 2011), 544pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us that it contains:               
  • The first world survey of the range and effects of blasphemy and apostasy charges
  • Foreword by the late Abdurrahman Wahid, former President of Indonesia and head of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world's largest Muslim organization, as well as short chapters on religious freedom within Islam by noted scholars Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd and Abdullah Saeed
  • Multiple detailed case studies of Muslims and others who have faced blasphemy charges
The fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the 2005 Danish cartoon fracas awakened many people to the potency of blasphemy accusations in the Muslim world. Accusations and charges such as "blasphemy," "apostasy," "insulting Islam," or "hurting Muslims' religious feelings" pose a far greater danger than censorship of irreverent caricatures of Mohammad: they are increasingly used as key tools by authoritarian governments and extremist forces in the Muslim world to acquire and consolidate power. These charges, which draw on disputed interpretations of Islamic law and carry a traditional punishment of death, have proved effective in crushing or intimidating not only converts and heterodox groups, but also political and religious reformers. In fact, one reason for the recent growth of more repressive forms of Islam is their use of accusations of blasphemy, apostasy, and related charges to intimidate and silence their religious opponents and make any criticism of their own actions and ideas religiously suspect. The effect of such laws thus goes far beyond what might narrowly be called religious matters.

This volume provides the first world survey of the range and effects of apostasy and blasphemy accusations in the contemporary Muslim world, in international organizations, and in the West. The authors argue that we need to understand the context, history, impact, and mechanics of the blasphemy phenomenon in modern Muslim societies and guidance on how to effectively respond. The book covers the persecution of Muslims who convert to another religion or decide that they have become agnostic or atheists, as well as 'heretics:' those who are accused of claiming a prophet after Mohammed, such as Baha'is and Ahmadis. It also documents the political effects in Muslim societies of blasphemy and apostasy laws, as well as non-governmental fatwas and vigilante violence. It describes the cases of hundreds of victims, including political dissidents, religious reformers, journalists, writers, artists, movie makers, and religious minorities throughout the Muslim world. Finally, it addresses the legal evolution toward new blasphemy laws in the West; the increasing use of laws on "toleration" in the West, which may become surrogate blasphemy laws; increasing pressure by Muslim governments to make Western countries and international organizations enforce laws to restrict speech; and the increasing use of violence to stifle expression in the West even in the absence of law. Its foreword is by Indonesia's late President Abdurrahman Wahid.  
In addition to this, another recent book treats of the question of blasphemy in a Christian context: David Nash, Blasphemy in the Christian World: A History (Oxford UP, 2010), 286pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Tracing the subject from the Middle Ages to the present, David Nash outlines the history of blasphemy as a concept - from a species of heresy to modern understandings of it as a crime against the sacred and individual religious identity. Investigating its appearance in speech, literature, popular publishing and the cinema, he disinters the likely motives and agendas of blasphemers themselves, as well as offering a glimpse of blasphemy's victims. In particular, he seeks to understand why this seemingly medieval offence has reappeared to become a distinctly modern presence in the West.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments are never approved. Use your real name and say something intelligent.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...