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Afghan Blowback

Nina Shea & Paul Marshall

Last weekend, there were violent demonstrations in Afghanistan to protest a Koran burning in Florida. The Afghans who incited the demonstrations have delivered on several key Taliban objectives. They scored important points in the battle for hearts and minds when the U.S. president and senior American and NATO military commanders went on the defensive before Afghan audiences. More troubling, powerful American voices expressed doubts about bedrock American freedoms of speech and religion.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid debated holding hearings on Koran desecration. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who boasts of being a chief sponsor of legislation against flag burning, expressed his wish to “hold people accountable” for Koran burnings, since, while “free speech is a great idea,” America is “in a war.” When given a chance to explain, he dug this hole deeper. This isn’t the first time that violence has secured concessions from U.S. officials: Last September, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer told an interviewer of his desire for a First Amendment exception that would allow those who immolate the Muslim holy book to be punished. These senior American leaders are, in effect, contemplating an Islamic blasphemy law — the first U.S. federal blasphemy law for any religion.

In response to this baleful drama, the first thing to understand is that accusations of apostasy, blasphemy, and insulting Islam are protean. In the Muslim world, blasphemy punishments are not used primarily against religious insult by the intolerant, but against those who express unpopular or dissenting views. International human-rights groups report that in Pakistan, blasphemy charges are also commonly used against neighbors and co-workers to settle personal scores.

Muslim blasphemy has recently been defined to include: denouncing stoning as a human-rights violation (Sudan), opening girls’ schools (Bangladesh), criticizing the Guardianship of the Jurists (Iran), petitioning for a constitution (Saudi Arabia), use of the word “Allah” by Christians (Malaysia), rejecting an order for violent jihad (Sudan), praying at the graves of relatives (Saudi Arabia), translating the Koran into Dari (Afghanistan), accidentally tearing a calendar page containing a Koranic verse (Pakistan), naming a teddy bear after a boy named Mohamed (Sudan), urging that the Koran be understood in its historical and cultural context (Indonesia), teaching Shiism (Egypt), and calling for a ban on child brides (Yemen). Mob violence, intimidation, court trials, and penalties accompany these cases.

And once in place, blasphemy laws are nearly impossible to reform. This year in Pakistan, Gov. Salman Taseer and cabinet minister Shabbaz Bhatti were murdered for opposing such laws.

Second, complaints of blasphemy are politically manipulated, particularly when levelled against someone in a foreign country. While, with political and social turmoil overwhelming many Organization of Islamic Conference members, the Florida Koran-burning case has the potential of going viral, so far it has not caused rioting in Mecca or anywhere else in the Muslim heartland, the Arab world. In fact, it is only rare Western “insults to Islam,” such as the Danish cartoons or the pope’s Regensburg speech (which linked Islam to violence), that become causes célèbres worldwide, and these occur only after concerted political campaigns to foment outrage.

Finally, by their nature, Muslim blasphemy punishments abjectly fail at bringing about social peace. Even aside from the problem of a law to protect only one religion, in the battle of ideas within Islam, blasphemy restrictions empower extremists, who use them to silence alternative voices. Muslim religious and political reformers working to lift their societies out of stunting ideological conformity are the first to be silenced.

As one such Muslim reformer, the late Egyptian scholar Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd, pointed out: “Having been at the receiving end of such allegations — and driven from my home in Egypt to exile in the Netherlands — I can state with conviction that charges of apostasy and blasphemy are key weapons in the fundamentalists’ arsenal, strategically employed to prevent reform of Muslim societies and instead confine the world’s Muslim population to a bleak, colorless prison of socio-cultural and political conformity.”

The ultimate goal of the Taliban and other radical groups is, of course, to impose strict Islamic rule, which critically hinges on the regulation of speech about and within Islam. If our leaders now entertain proposals for restricting speech about and within Islam, one blowback from Operation Enduring Freedom may be in fact the decrease of freedom — here at home.

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