Speaking at a conference in Milan, Italy, on May 8, 2013, that city’s archbishop, Cardinal Angelo Scola, called for the abolition of blasphemy laws worldwide. Such a step would significantly help protect globally the freedom of speech and religion desperately needed by Christians in particular while countering Islamic fanaticism with freedom.
Once favored to become pope, Scola made his remarks at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart for the opening of a conference focusing on Roman Emperor Constantine’s 313 Edict of Milan granting imperial toleration to Christianity. Scola advocated a “healthy secularism” allowing religious freedom, defined by him as a “true litmus test” for a civilized society. To Scola, this “freedom means above all encouraging religious pluralism and opening to all forms of religious expression,” including “eliminating laws that criminally punish blasphemy.”
As the Catholic cable television channel EWTN reported online, the role of blasphemy laws in Muslim-majority countries in persecuting Christians and other religious minorities formed the global context of Scola’s remarks. As reviewed previously by this writer, the authors of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians have extensively documented that “Christians are the single most widely persecuted religious group in the world today,” a “terrible trend…on the upswing.” Moreover, “it is in the Muslim world where persecution of Christians is now most widespread, intense, and, ominously, increasing.” Abolition of Muslim blasphemy laws, often used to prohibit propagation of Christian beliefs contradicting Muslim doctrine, would eliminate one important instrument of Islamic repression.
Such religious freedom would protect not just private rights, but also public peace. “Religious freedom,” notes Scola’s fellow Catholic, Professor Thomas F. Farr of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs, “the evidence shows, can be an antidote to religion-related extremism, including terrorism.” Freedom, analyzes Farr, dilutes fanaticism by forcing various faiths to justify their claims intellectually without coercion in a marketplace of ideas. “What if,” speculates Farr,
Osama Bin Laden had been raised in a Saudi Arabia that allowed for religious freedom? What if, instead of being steeped exclusively in the toxic teachings of Wahhabism and Sayyid Qutb, he had been exposed to other forms of Islam, to critics of Islam, to other forms of religious belief, and to liberal religion-based arguments about justice and the common good?
Christians like Scola and Farr have a perfectly sound theological basis for faith-based advocacy of religious freedom. As the prominent Protestant pastor and theologian John Piper has written, numerous Biblical verses relate that “Christ did his work by being insulted” in stark contrast to Islam in which the “work of Muhammad is based on being honored.” As the somewhat religiously eclectic but committed freethinker Thomas Jefferson wrote to a majoritarian-Christian America in his landmark 1779 (adopted 1785) Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, “all attempts to influence” individual religious belief
by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations…are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone.
Ironically, Christian calls for religious freedom with respect to Islam would manifest precisely the Christian concept of the “church militant” (ecclesia militans). Muslim entities like the 57 Muslim-majority member states (including “Palestine”) of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have often tried to hide advocacy of de facto Islamic blasphemy laws behind a supposedly “ecumenical veneer” of opposition to “defamation of religion” in general. Christian calls for religious freedom, come what may in criticism and/or condemnation of any particular faith, ostentatiously breaks ranks with this united front claimed by some Muslims, leaving them to defend religious repression on their own.
European opponents of blasphemy laws like Scola, though, will have to begin actually with their own continent. Scola’s native Italy as well as seven other European countries (out of a total of 45, or 18%) had blasphemy laws according to a 2011 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study. Somewhat similar to blasphemy laws, laws against “defamation” of religion also existed in 36 European countries (80%), while collectively religious restrictions of various sorts exist in 47% of countries worldwide.
As many have already noted (see here, here, and here), ultimately arbitrary European enforcement of such laws today more often than not involve the Islamic faith of recently arrived immigrant communities, not Europe’s historically dominant Judeo-Christian beliefs. Accordingly, concerns about limiting free speech with respect to Islam played a role in the 2012 abolition of the blasphemy law in one of the eight European countries listed by Pew in 2011, Holland. The Dutch precedent is a model to follow for all faithful people who believe that they have a religious truth that will set free, a truth that need not fear freedom.
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