"No one has the right to a world in which he is never despised."

Why attacking free speech is an even greater blasphemy than a slur on the divine


Are you disgusted by the scenes of thousands of Muslims in more than 20 countries breaking into American embassies, shouting  "Death to America" in mass demonstrations, burning down schools and KFCs (of all things), and killing Americans over a stupid, cheesy 14-minute YouTube video called Innocence of the Muslims? I am. But why do you and I feel this way? In a word, blasphemy.

But hold on, isn't that why the Islamist protesters say they are rioting? For example, Iranian Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezayee declared, "The Muslim world is outraged at the US for allowing the production of the blasphemous movie, which insults Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and depicts Islam as an oppressive religion." Mohamed Badie, the spiritual leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has called for the "criminalizing of assaults on the sanctities of all heavenly religions." He added, "Otherwise such acts will continue to cause devout Muslims across the world to suspect and even loathe the West, especially the U.S.A., for allowing their citizens to violate the sanctity of what they hold dear and holy."

So what is blasphemy?  Dictionary.com offers these two useful definitions: "Impious utterance or action concerning God or sacred things," and, "irreverent behavior toward anything held sacred, priceless, etc." Clearly, Innocence of the Muslims is blasphemous with regard to the first definition. I contend that the murders and riots by Islamist protesters are blasphemous in terms of a "sacred" value that modern Americans particularly cherish, freedom of speech and press.

As it happens, one of the landmark decisions on blasphemy laws by the U.S. Supreme Court was issued in 1952 in the case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson. In that case, the State of New York had banned the showing of the Italian neo-realist movie The Miracle on the grounds that it was "sacrilegious." For what it's worth, sacrilege is defined as "the violation or profanation of anything sacred or held sacred." The Miracle depicted a man who wickedly impregnates a naive peasant girl who thinks she's the Virgin Mary by pretending to be Saint Joseph. In New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman denounced the film as "vile, harmful and blasphemous."

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision thoroughly vindicated the right of free speech, declaring, "From the standpoint of freedom of speech and the press, a state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them which is sufficient to justify prior restraints upon the expression of those views. It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures."

As far as I know, no Americans stormed the Italian embassy or firebombed an Italian restaurant to vent their anger at the showing of The Miracle.

Of course, not every American regards freedom of speech as sacred. Back in 1999, Dennis Heiner, a retired school teacher, defaced Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary at the Brooklyn Museum by smearing white paint over it. Ofili's work incorporated elephant dung and cutouts from pornographic magazines. Asked why he did it, Heiner replied, "It's blasphemous." Cardinal John O'Connor denounced the painting as "an attack not only on our Blessed Mother, but, one must ask if it is not an attack on religion itself and in a special way on the Catholic Church."

An outraged Mayor Rudolph Giuliani cut off the museum's funding and sought to evict it from its city-owned building. A federal court ordered him to restore the funding and stop the eviction procedures on freedom of expression grounds. For what's it worth, I saw that particular exhibition and thought Ofili's painting was boring and ugly. Of course, if the government had not been in the business of spending taxpayer dollars on art exhibitions, much of the controversy could have been avoided. Heiner was fined $250 for his crime.

Which brings up the absolutely salient point that there is no U.S. government role in the creation of Innocence of the Muslims. In an editorial on September 12, the New York Times observed that "whoever made the film did true damage to the interests of the United States and its core principle of respecting all faiths." The makers of the video clearly aimed to incite Muslims, but they are under no moral or legal obligation to respect other people's religious beliefs. Whatever damage to U.S. interests the film has caused among Muslims, the interests of U.S. citizens would suffer far graver harm if our government were permitted to engage in censorship.

As the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes plain, it is indeed a "core principle" that the U.S. government cannot favor one religious doctrine over any other and must respect everyone's faith or lack thereof. President Thomas Jefferson expressed this view well in his 1802 letter to Danbury Baptists, "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."

This wall of separation is largely responsible for the relative social peace our religiously diverse country enjoys. A comparison of the Hudson's Institute's Index of Religious Freedom for countries in the Middle East and North Africa with the World Bank's indicators for political violence and for voice and accountability finds that the lack of freedom of religion and speech goes hand-in-hand with social violence and political instability. Where church (mosque) and state are entwined, social and political violence are far more common.

In an op/ed for the Arabic news service Al Jazeerah, Palestinian journalist Khalid Amayreh declares both the film-makers and protesters "wrong" and admits that Muslim demonstrators "overreacted." Amayreh then writes, "Having studied at and graduated from a number of American colleges, I realize how most Americans are jealously fanatical about preserving and clinging to their constitution, especially the First Amendment." So far, so good. He continues, "However, Americans and others westerners ought to understand that the religious and cultural traditions of other people, e.g. Muslims, ought to be respected as well. The First Amendment must not be used as an excuse to offend Muslims and their faith, as well as other religious traditions."

Cultural understanding is not a one-way street. Muslims have a responsibility to understand and respect the cultural traditions of Americans. It is evident that despite his years in the United States, Amayreh does not truly comprehend American core values when he says, "In the final analysis, my right not to be offended and insulted overrides a scoundrel's right to malign the Prophet of Islam in order to satisfy his sick Islamophobia." No, it does not. As the United Nations representative for the International Humanist and Ethical Union, Austin Dacey, persuasively argues in his insightful book, The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in the Age of Human Rights, "No one has the right to a world in which he is never despised." Instead, what each of us has is an uninfringeable right to denounce and ridicule scoundrels in public. That's a right that every human being should be allowed to exercise.

So how should Americans think about and react to this current outburst of Islamic violence and hatred? First, the only task that American officials have is to explain that the American government does not endorse any religious or anti-religious views and that Americans are free to say any damned thing that they want. If foreign governments cannot or will not defend the lives and property of Americans living in their countries, officials and citizens should leave and take their foreign aid and investments with them.

Second, we must never reward violence. "We can understand the practice of violent retaliation against sacrilege as analogous to the violence employed by terrorists in pursuit of a political goal, or by kidnappers and extortionists in pursuit of personal gain," argues Dacey. In such situations, government officials properly adopt the "No Compliance Principle" – they do not give into the demands of the terrorists and kidnappers. Doing so will simply encourage others to engage in terrorism and kidnapping later. Similarly, refusing to comply now with the demands by violent Islamists to shut down free speech will prevent even more harm in the future. "By adopting a presumption of refusing to comply, and being seen to refuse to comply, we are doing what we can to uphold the rule of law and to contribute to a culture of open public discourse, in which no lawful expressive acts are prevented by threats of violence," explains Dacey.

Reverence for free speech ultimately protects the free exercise of religion. If a believer cannot speak in defense of his faith, then he has no real freedom of religion. That is why an attack on free speech is a greater blasphemy than is an insult to the divine.