The Importance of Blasphemy

Everyone’s religion is someone else’s blasphemy.

800px-Quran_coverAs a deeply religious person, I don’t like blasphemy. My religion and its holy books are sacred to me. And I understand perfectly well why a Muslim would not care for a cartoon of a naked Mohammed.

But the debates over freedom of speech and the sensitivity of religious feelings also miss the point.

For non-Muslims, the right to blasphemy is also the right to believe. While we may think of blasphemy in terms of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, each religion is also mutually blasphemous.

Muslims argue that the West should “respect prophets” by outlawing insults to Mohammed and a panoply of prophets that it gathered from Judaism and Christianity. But Islam considers the Christian view of Jesus to be blasphemous and Christianity considers Islam’s view of Jesus equally blasphemous.

If we were to truly prosecute blasphemy, the legal system would have to pick a side between the two religions and either prosecute Christians for blaspheming against Islam or Muslims for blaspheming against Christianity. And indeed in Muslim countries, Christians are frequently accused of blasphemy.

Malaysia’s blasphemy laws were used to ban Christians from employing the word “Allah” for god and to seize children’s books depicting Noah and Moses. The reason for seizing the children’s books was the same as the reason for the attack on Charlie Hebdo; both featured cartoons of prophets.

While Charlie Hebdo pushed the outer limits of blasphemy, every religion that is not Islam, and even various alternative flavors of Islam, is also blasphemous relative to Islam.

It isn’t only secularist cartoonists who blaspheme against Islam. “Mohammed seduced the people by promises of carnal pleasure,” St. Thomas Aquinas wrote. Maimonides called him a madman.

To Bill Donohue, there may be a world of difference between Charlie Hebdo and Aquinas, but not to Islam.

In a multi-religious society in which every religion has its own variant theological streams, the right to blaspheme is also the right to believe. Liberal theology can contrive interchangeable beliefs which do not contradict or claim special knowledge over any other religion. But traditionalist faiths are exclusive.

Everyone’s religion is someone else’s blasphemy. If we forget that, we need only look to Saudi Arabia, where no other religion is allowed, as a reminder.

Blasphemy is the price we pay for not having a theocracy. Muslims are not only outraged but baffled by the Mohammed cartoons because they come from a world in which Islamic law dominates their countries and through its special place proclaims the superiority of Islam over all other religions.

Almost all Muslim countries are theocracies of one sort or another as a legacy of the Islamic conquests which Islamized them. Egyptian President Sisi’s gesture of attending a Coptic mass was so revolutionary because it challenged the idea that Egyptian identity is Islamic.

In a theocratic nation, citizenship is linked to religion and even in countries such as Egypt, where non-Muslims are citizens, fundamental restrictions link Islamic identity to Egyptian citizenship. For example, Egyptian Muslims who convert to Christianity have found it extremely difficult to have the government recognize their change of religion by issuing them new identification cards.

Muslims who question freedom of speech are not calling for a special status for all religions, but only for their religion. They don’t intend to censor their own Hadiths which claim that Jesus will return and break the cross or that the apocalypse will climax with Muslims exterminating the Jews. Their objections aren’t liberal, but exclusively theocratic. They want a blasphemy law that exclusively revolves around them.

Islam relates to other religions on its own terms. It grants special treatment to Christianity and Judaism, despite persecuting them, because of their relationship to Islam. It persecutes other religions even more severely because of their greater distance from Islam. Islamic theocracies and blasphemy laws are not respectful of religion, but respectful of Islam and disrespectful of all other religions.

Religious people need not embrace the extremes of French secularism or the anti-religious positions of the ACLU to see that some distance between religion and state is a good thing for both. A separation between religion and state should not mean compulsory secularism, but at the same time it avoids the religious tests for office which existed in colonial times in states that banned Catholics, Quakers and Jews, among others, from holding political office.

A neutral state allows us to believe what we please. Islamic efforts on blasphemy however warp us all around the theology of Islam.

When governments prosecute tearing the Koran or drawing offensive cartoons under hate crime laws, they are eroding the separation between state and mosque. Their efforts lead to a theocracy which not only hurts critics of Islam, but destroys the religious freedom of all religions.

The legal distinction between secular blasphemy and interreligious criticism disappears in a theocracy. Each religion has beliefs that offend the other, actively or passively. When one belief becomes supreme, then religious freedom vanishes, as it has throughout the Muslim world where the practices of Christianity and Judaism are governed by how intensely Muslims choose to be offended by them.

While some religious people may take issue with the celebration of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, equating them with such things as the infamous “Piss Christ”, there is a fundamental difference.

Piss Christ or a museum which exhibited photos of naked women dressed in Jewish ritual garments are acts committed against the unresisting making them the equivalent of spiteful vandalism. There are no Jews or Christians murdering artists or bombing museums. By attempting to enforce the theocracy of blasphemy laws, Muslims themselves made the Mohammed cartoons into a symbol of free speech.

It was not the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, who specialized in offending all religions, who made their Mohammed cartoons into a symbol. It was their Muslim enemies who did it by killing them. It is intellectually dishonest for Muslims to create martyrs and then to complain about their martyrdom.

Blasphemy against Christianity and Judaism fizzles because the lack of a violent response makes those responsible seem like bullies. Instead of revealing flaws in those religions, works like Piss Christ or Monster Mohel reveal the flaws in their makers. Their attempts at blasphemy prove self-destructive.

Muslim violence against the Mohammed cartoons however turns them into the bullies. The Hebdo cartoons did no damage to Christianity or Judaism. They did a great deal of damage to Islam, not because they were well done, but because Islam is shot through with violent anger and insecurity.

The spiritual power of religion balances between violence and non-violence. Most religions believe that there is a time to fight, but only Islam believes in violence as the first and final solution.

Mohammed cartoons exist because of the Islamic inability to cope with a non-theocratic society. Islamic Cartoonophobia is not only a danger to cartoonists. It’s a threat to all of our religious freedoms.

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