Some very concerning news from our neighbour up north, where the outgoing governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, was sentenced to two years in jail for the crime of blasphemy against Islam. Ahok is ethnic Chinese, which is not a particular popular ethnic minority around the south-east Asia on the account of the “overseas Chinese’s” overwhelming dominance of national economies, but he also happens to be a Christian. That he was previously elected to this high office was an encouraging sign of pluralism and tolerance in this overwhelmingly Muslim country; that he is now going to jail makes for the opposite sentiment.
Ahok’s blasphemy, committed on the campaign trail in his unsuccessful bid for re-election late last year, is so far from what we in Australia would consider to be a blasphemy as to be surreal. What Ahok said at a rally was that his opponents were using a Koranic verse that suggested a Muslim cannot be ruled by a non-Muslim against him. The recording, later used to convict him, was edited to make it sound like Ahok was suggesting the Koran itself was wrong on that particular point as opposed to some people’s interpretation and application of a specific verse to current circumstances.
The sort of argument that Ahok was making at that fateful rally is in fact the essence of the hopeful case made by many in the West that we can all coexist, as the famous bumper sticker has it, and do so in peace and mutual respect and tolerance. The court in Jakarta now seems to be implying that it is not only a wrong view, which would be worrying enough in itself, but it is so wrong that to argue along this line is blasphemy, or offence against Allah.
Indonesia, once a model of a moderate majority Muslim polity that constitutionally recognises its ethnic and religious plurality, is increasingly turning conservative. But Indonesia is far from being alone in being subsumed by creeping intolerance.
I see two essential rationales for the existence of blasphemy laws. The first one is to protect your deity. With the greatest of respect, the omnipotent, omniscient, eternal god who created the entire universe hardly needs your assistance to be shielded from an offence. OK, I can’t prove that this is the case, but neither can one prove the case to the contrary, and mine has the benefit of being the more logical one. The second one is to protect the sensitivities of believers. Again, with the greatest of respect, if you are offended, that’s tough. I know that it is not nice to have you deepest and most cherished spiritual beliefs questioned, ridiculed, or abused. But there are more important things in life than your feelings.
As far as I’m concerned, there are several courses of action open to you in response to what you perceive as blasphemy or an insult to your religious feelings. You can speak out (whether in a letter to the editor or by protesting – peacefully) and say, for example, that people who go out of their way to purposefully insult others’ religious feelings lack class and good manners and you feel pity for them – and no doubt all religious, as well as many non-religious people will agree with you. If the alleged blasphemer has made a specific point regarding the history or theology of your religion, you can clearly and passionately argue why he or she is wrong. Or you can pray. Depending on your temperament and inclination you can either pray that your god sends down a lighting to strike dead the blasphemer as punishment and as a lesson and a warning to others, or you can pray that your god sends down some grace and peace to soften the heart of the blasphemer so that he or she realises the error of their ways. Note that none of these alternatives involve killing, harming, threatening or silencing the person who you feel offended you and your feelings. Neither do they involve invoking the machinery of the law. All are consistent with the principles of liberty, democracy, freedom of speech – as well as tolerance properly understood, which means just that, tolerating, not liking, agreeing or embracing what you don’t like in others.
For the past several decades, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has heavily lobbied the United Nations to adopt religious anti-vilification laws (or “defamation of religion”), but so far the “international community” has resisted. Less often – though increasingly – one hears calls for the domestic racial discrimination laws to be extended to include religion in their remit; if not specifically Islam then Islam is the almost always the reason for such call (you don’t hear the Buddhists or Christians for that matter arguing for this sort of a legal protection). In the case of our Australian law this would make it an offence to “to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone on the basis of their religious or spiritual beliefs. Race and religion are, of course, apples and oranges (most importantly, the former an inborn characteristic, the latter a personal choice), and despite frequent muddying of the water, Islam is not a race, even if an overwhelming majority of its adherents are not white. The fact that the experience of “discrimination” or “vilification” is not assessed against an objective test but is a matter of subjective feelings adds to the potential legal horror. For most Muslims, merely questioning any of the tenets of their religion amounts to both blasphemy as well as an offence or insult to their religious feelings. In a sense, therefore, all those who believe in the divinity of Christ, for example, are walking, though mostly unspoken, blasphemies against Islam.
Now, in a society like Australia, I’m free to express my opinion that Mohammed was not the final and true prophet of One God, but merely one of the millions of people who throughout human history have heard voices in their head, albeit clearly charismatic enough to turn his subjective experience into a vibrant and expansionist religion. It does not matter for practical purposes if I’m a Muslim or a Christian or an atheist when expressing this personal opinion (which also accords with my own religious beliefs); as far as Islam is concerned I am a blasphemer and I have insulted every Muslim by disagreeing with one of the cardinal beliefs of their faith. Technically and historically, the fitting punishment for me voicing this opinion is death. Were I to publicly express these words in many majority Muslim countries (or at least publicly enough to come to the attention of the religious or civil authorities), I would be arrested and tried, though not likely to be executed any more, except in a very few places around the world. It is possible that even those these words have been written and published in Australia, were I to subsequently at some point in the future visit a number of Islamic jurisdictions I can still get arrested and persecuted if I were again notorious enough to attract the attention of the authorities. For a (fortunately) very small minority of Australian Muslims there is a strong enough case here to take the law into their own hands and “avenge the Prophet”. Fortunately we have not had any such cases here yet. But some prominent people in the West have not been so lucky, including Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands or the Danish and the French journalists who published the Mohammed cartoons. Others, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Salman Rushdie live under a 24-hour protection.
Now imagine if there was a law in Australia – or the United States, or if the United Nations really lost their remaining marbles and succumbed to the OIC pressure – that sought to protect one’s religious feelings from hurt. Never mind that the very theory of it is incompatible with liberal democracy as inspired by the Enlightenment values, but in practice it would prove to a nightmarish fount of never-ending litigation to silence any discussion of religion by anyone straying outside of the particular orthodoxy.
If you think that it can’t happen, you clearly have not been paying the attention to the canaries in our civilisational coal mine. In a few Western countries, the old blasphemy laws are still on the books, the legacy of their Christian past. In most cases, these laws have not been used for decades – until recently, for example in Denmark, against a man who burned a copy of the Koran. As Flemming Rose, the publisher of the Danish newspaper at the heart of the Mohammed cartoons controversy recalled soon after the French and the Danish terrorist attacks:
In 2006, at the height of the Jyllands-Posten crisis, Javier Solana, then the EU’s coordinator of foreign policy, called the secretary general of the OIC and assured him that Europeans viewed the publication of Muhammad cartoons in Jyllands-Posten and other European media outlets with “resentment and disgust”. He then travelled to Saudi Arabia, one of the most oppressive countries when it comes to freedom of religion, and said that the EU would do its utmost to make sure such cartoons were not published in future.
Earlier, philosopher Pascal Bruckner, novelist Michel Houllebecq, journalist Oriana Fallaci, actress Brigitte Bardot, all were dragged through French and Italian courts for voicing their (negative) views of Islam. Agree or disagree with the substance or the particular expression of their views, I believe in their right to voice them, just as I believe in the right of the comedian Stephen Fry to say on the (Irish, in this case) TV that he cannot respect “a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world … full of injustice”, without being investigated by the Irish police, based on one person’s complaint.
It’s time we not just render but leave altogether what’s Caesar’s to Caesar and what’s God’s to God. Or to paraphrase the apocryphal words spoken by a Catholic bishop during the Cathar Crusade, let God kill them all AND sort them out.