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"Insulting Islam": One Way Street in the Wrong Direction

Nina Shea

Amsterdam’s Court of Appeals has decided to take up the hate speech case against Dutch Parliamentarian Geert Wilders for his provocative 15-minute film Fitna, which calls on Muslims to reject the Quran, comparing it to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. “The court considers this so insulting for Muslims that it is in the public interest to prosecute Wilders,” a summary of the court’s January 21 decision said.

The court no doubt was moved to overturn the prosecutor’s dismissal of the case out of the desire to placate irate Muslims, including foreign Muslim governments. Beginning with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and accelerating with the Danish cartoons, the Muslim world has pressured the West to enforce Islamic blasphemy rules- which this prosecution of “hate speech” against the Quran unmistakably is – against certain private expression within its borders.

This, of course, is a one-way street. There is no serious movement within the Muslim world to improve civil discourse by it against Jews, Christians, Baha’is, Hindus or others. Some individual Muslims who have tried — such as Saudi journalist Mansur al-Nuqaydan, who proposed “reconciling” Islam with the world, and Saudi schoolteacher Mohammed al-Harbi, who taught Jews are “nice” — have themselves been judged and punished for blasphemy. In recent weeks, even while demands grew to punish Wilders under hate speech laws, Muslim demonstrators in European capitals freely chanted, “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.” Insulting and even inciting violence against the religious “other” is sponsored by the state itself in some Muslim countries: Iran’s government held a cartoon exhibit mocking the Holocaust; Saudi Ministry of Education textbooks describe Jews and Christians as “apes” and “pigs” and call for Muslims to rise up and kill Jews; the state media of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, all promote the fabricated anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion as historical fact.

But, apart from the unfairness of protecting the reputation of one religious group and not others, criminalizing insults to Islam presents other problems as well. The main one is definitional. Derived from Islamic notions of apostasy and blasphemy, it is essentially a theological question and, since there is no black-letter definition of the crime in the Quran or other authoritative Islamic sources, it is one that remains unsettled.

“Insulting Islam” regularly appears in the sharia-based rules that vary from one Muslim state to another. Should the Dutch judges consult the case law in Muslim countries, they will find it difficult to determine precisely what constitutes religious insults or where to draw the line. In practice, such courts give it broad interpretation. “Insulting Islam” does not stop with frontal attacks on the Quran, like Wilders’ film, or irreverent depictions of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed, but can encompass nearly any criticism or rejection of Islam and Islamic authorities. In a recent case in Afghanistan, expressing criticism of the existence of this crime was itself considered an offense against Islam by the court.

The extensive case law existing in the Muslim world around this offence shows that its application can be as subjective, as it is sweeping. The charges can be brought by the state or establishment religious authorities, or even by individual Muslims who feel personally offended, including, as in the Wilders case itself, by political party rivals.

Punishment for blasphemy in Muslim countries varies. The death penalty is traditional, though this is not consistently applied even in places where apostasy and blasphemy are capital offenses. In addition, such prosecutions typically result in book burnings, web blockings, imprisonments, lashings, or firings. Posing obvious problems for the rule of law, according to Saudi Wahhabi, Iranian Shiite and some other interpretations, individual Muslims are authorized to take justice into their own hands and “spill the blood” of apostates and blasphemers with impunity. The publicity surrounding charges of blasphemy have been also known to enflame public violence either directly against the accused or even indiscriminately against the accused’s co-religionists at large. This was recently demonstrated in Sudan’s infamous “teddy bear” case, in which a British schoolteacher officially accused of blasphemy for naming a stuffed animal “Mohammed” almost lost her life in riots there. In Pakistan and Nigeria, entire Christian communities have been attacked by mobs incensed by reports of blasphemy by particular individuals within those communities. The false Newsweek report of a purported desecration of the Quran at Guantanamo, the Danish cartoons and the Islamic critique by Pope Benedict XVI at Regensburg were examples of publicized incidents that set off indiscriminate retaliatory killings of Westerners and Christians in distant places. In such instances, it is not unexpected that public violence is manipulated by the government, the government’s political opponents, or by some other political forces.

In analyzing the affects of such blasphemy laws in Egypt, a secular Muslim state, noted Islamic scholars Abdullah and Hassan Saeed write: “Censorship of books, films, plays and television programs by the official religious establishment is on the rise, leading to a gradual stagnation of creative, intellectual and cultural work.” The 2003 UN Arab Human Development Report put it this way: “In Arab countries where the political exploitation of religion has intensified, tough punishment for original thinking, especially when it opposes the prevailing powers, intimidates and crushes scholars.” Such repression affects not only scholars but also the whole range of those who would challenge and question the prevailing order.

Based on the record of modern Muslim cases, those most frequently accused of “insulting Islam” include scholars, publishers, bloggers, human rights activists, political commentators, novelists, education reformers, professors, theologians, artists, filmmakers, politicians, Muslim liberals and dissidents, members of disfavored religious groups, converts to Christianity, members of faiths that originated after Islam. It is not hard to see why “insulting Islam,” and the family of crimes relating to apostasy and blasphemy to which it belongs, is singled out as a principal reason for the Muslim world’s underdevelopment. The vagueness of how this offence is defined undermines due process and chills speech in broad areas. A quick review of a small sample of recent court cases of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt shows how broadly corrosive criminalizing the offence of “insulting Islam” would be to Dutch rights to both freedom of speech and religion, and to Western culture itself.

  • In 2008 in Saudi Arabia, after Ra’if Badawi operated a website that criticized that country’s religious police and questioned Wahhabi interpretations of Islam, authorities charged him with “setting up an electronic site that insults Islam.” Faced with both the possibility of five years’ imprisonment and an $800,000 fine, as well as private threats against his safety, he was forced to flee the country.
  • In 2005, a Saudi sharia court found Dr. Hamza Al-Maziani, a linguistics professor at King Saud University, guilty of “mocking religion,” for publishing an article lamenting the deteriorating quality of education at the University due to the influx of foreign Islamists; the sentence of lashes and imprisonment was the following year vacated by the King and replaced with a fine.
  • In 2005, Baha al-Aqqad, a recent convert to Christianity in Egypt, was arrested, detained and repeatedly subjected to interrogations centering on his alleged “insults” to Islam. His lawyer was told that al-Aqqad was held under emergency laws on suspicion of “insulting a heavenly religion” a charge under Article 98-F of the Egyptian penal code. His detention was renewed every 45 days until he was released without having been tried and without explanation two years later.
  • In 2000, after Islamists declared Haydar Haydar an apostate because one of the characters in his book “A Banquet for Seaweed” insulted the Quran, and the head of Al-Azhar called for the book to be publicly burned, Egypt’s government banned the book and fired the officials who allowed it to be published.
  • In 2007, Egyptian police arrested Adel Fawzy Faltas and Peter Ezzat, who work for the Canada-based Middle East Christian Association, on the grounds that, in seeking to defend human rights, they had “insulted Islam.” That same year, another rights defender, prominent Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman was sentenced to four years imprisonment for “insulting Islam.”
  • In 1997, Egyptian author Alaa Hamed received a one year sentence for writing a novel that “insulted Islam,” and a High State Security Court ordered Sayed El Qimny’s book “God of Time” to be banned because a religious court found it offensive. In 1998, two books by Khalil Abdel Kerim were seized by police on the order of the higher state security prosecutor because a religious court disapproved of their content. An issue of the Cairo Times was banned for including an interview with Karim on the grounds that it “harmed the image of [the religious educational center] Al-Azhar” and the magazine was subsequently told by the General Authority for Free Zones and Investment that it could no longer be printed in Egypt.
  • In early 2001, Egypt’s government arrested 18 people, most of whom were Baha’is, in Sohag, on suspicion of insulting a heavenly religion and violating a law abolishing Baha’i institutions. They were released only after months of imprisonment without trial. Though the reasons behind their arrest may never be known for certain, human rights experts believe it is because they are members of a faith that was established after Islam, and thus seen by some Muslims as an “insult” to Islam.
  • In 2002, Hashem Aghajari, then a history Professor at Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran, delivered a speech entitled “Islamic Protestantism” arguing that the clergy should not be seen as mediators between God and mankind, “religion has performed badly when it has gone along with power,” and other such statements deemed “insulting to Islam” by the authorities, and was sentenced to death.” In 2004, he was retried and again found guilty of “insulting Islam” but, after intense protests, his sentence was commuted to a steep fine.
  • In 1999, Iran put on trial for “insulting the Prophet, his descendants, and the Ayatollah Khomeini,” and other charges, Abdollah Nouri, the former Minister of the Interior Rafsanjani and Khatami cabinets. He had been arrested because a daily paper he founded discussed the limits on the Supreme Leader’s powers, the rights of unorthodox clerics and groups to air their views, the right of women to divorce, and whether laughing or clapping were un-Islamic. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and fined, which was later commuted on humanitarian grounds.

I disagree with Wilders’ film but I defend his right to make it. The Netherlands no longer seems to want to make this basic argument for individual freedom.

The Dutch court may think it is taking the path of least resistance by prosecuting Wilders, but this is only the beginning. Once among the freest of nations and most permissive of societies, it will not find it easy to follow the path of the repressive dictatorships of the Muslim world.

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