Earlier this month two Coptic Egyptian boys — nine and ten years old — were arrested under anti-blasphemy laws for “insulting Islam.” They were accused of tearing up pages of the Qur’an, but in a public statement their father claims the children can’t read and were unaware of the papers’ significance. He says they found the papers in a white bag when they were playing on the street near a rubbish heap. The boys have since been released, but not acquitted.
This follows the arrest of a fourteen-year-old Christian girl in Pakistan for destruction of papers containing verses from the Qur’an, though it appears the evidence was at least partially planted. Either way, she won’t be able to return home, as there was already a mob formed to burn her alive for the offence.
Now an amateurish low-budget anti-Islam video is at the centre of the blasphemy ban controversy. The video was posted online from California by a filmmaker using an alias; and Albert Saber, a young Egyptian Coptic Christian, was arrested for allegedly linking to it on his Facebook page. He returns to court November 13 and could face up to five years in prison for insulting religion. A Muslim television station that broadcasted sections of the film – this brought it to the public’s attention which, ironically, ignited riots and numerous fatalities — will not likely be charged as they claim they were just trying to warn viewers of a “threat to Islam.”
You Tube has disabled the video in several Muslim-majority countries for safety reasons and to comply with blasphemy laws. Other Middle Eastern countries are demanding the same, but Google Inc. (which owns YouTube) says the video is within their guidelines and is not considered “hate speech” as it is against Islam, but not Muslim people. Several countries are now blocking You Tube and other Google sites in protest.
In an article in The Daily Beast about anti-blasphemy laws and the anti-Islam video, Hussein Ibish keenly observes how the violent outcry resulting from the video is being used to falsely legitimize the importance of anti-blasphemy laws.
Amazingly, there has been virtually no pushback or reaction to remarks by the Emir of Qatar in his recent U.N. speech, which sought to place the blame for the violence entirely at the feet of the authors of the video and implicitly exonerated the rioters and extremist organizations behind them for the deaths for which they were directly responsible. He alleged that “freedom should not cross reasonable limits and become a tool to hurt and insult the dignity of others and of religions and faiths and sacred beliefs as we have seen lately, which regrettably led to the killing of innocent people who have not committed any crime.”
This is a perfect window into the through-the-looking-glass world of blasphemy-ban advocates. In this reality, those who engage in offensive speech (and there’s no question that the video is patently Islamophobic and hateful) bear the full responsibility if others cynically exploit their intentional, calculated provocations for their own political and social purposes. If people are killed, that’s the fault of the provocateurs, not the killers. These statements implicitly absolve extremist and violent reactions to provocative speech and suggest that the proper response is not to denounce and yet still protect offensive expression, but to suppress it in order to prevent a violent reaction.
The Emir, in effect, was making common cause with the violent extremists, using their deplorable and criminal behavior as a rationalization for the suppression of offensive speech.
Ultimately, only time will tell how an international blasphemy law will take shape in the future. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – after 10 years of lobbying the UN to institute a worldwide ban on defaming religions – announced earlier this year that they will not renew their efforts for an international blasphemy ban. However, with the rise in violence over the recent amateur video and other recent media viewed as blasphemous, there’s again mounting pressure from certain Muslim communities that a ban be made universal.