In a quarter of the world’s countries and territories, people are legally killed, imprisoned or persecuted for blasphemy and apostasy. It is astonishing that in the 21 Century, thought, and opinion are still criminalised in this way.
The argument for blasphemy laws is that the “insulting” of sanctities is so dangerous for society that in order to protect public morality and social order, there is a need to discipline and punish. But this is a smokescreen as not everyone in any given society thinks alike. What is sacred to one can be insignificant, absurd, or even superstitious nonsense to another. The “public” doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the dominant narrative imposed by the state, “community leaders,” and self-appointed arbiters of morality – especially since belief is a lived experience and a personal matter. We are individuals, after all, and not extensions of the state and clergy. Freethought exists everywhere – though cultural relativists in the West seem to think that they are the only ones who are capable of dissent. In fact, anti-clericalism and anti-religion tendencies in theocracies are widespread, especially given the religious-Right’s interference in every aspect of public and personal life. The tsunami of atheism and ex-Muslims in countries under Islamic rule and the Diaspora is one such indication. We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg of this phenomenon because of social media somewhat levelling the playing field and giving freethinkers access to information, ideas, and networks denied by authoritarian states.
Whilst everyone blasphemes at some point in their lives – at least against religions they deem heretical, inferior, or irrelevant – not all forms of blasphemy are the same. Why some forms of it are considered dawah and devotion whilst others end up with dead bodies boils down to the all-important question of political power. For those in power, religion is a very useful way of maintaining control and quashing dissent. Which is why the more religion and the state are intertwined, the more severe the punishment for blasphemy.
Where earthly and divine power are deemed as one and the same, criticism of religion or God is considered a direct attack on state authority or God’s representatives on earth. In Iran, for example, people can be charged with enmity against God for criticising the Supreme Spiritual Leader, Khamenei, or the Islamic regime in Iran. Criticise God and you criticise the state. Criticise the state and you criticise God… It’s this link to power that makes blasphemy so deadly in some contexts – not the heightened “sensitivities” of imagined homogenous “Islamic societies” or “Muslim communities.”
The well-meaning in Europe who frown upon blasphemy as a defence of “minority” sensibilities wittingly or unwittingly miss this key point. Rather than a defence of the powerless, defending censorship to avoid offence and “hurt” actually defends the powerful. This further explains why minorities are most at risk of blasphemy laws – whether they be religious minorities like Christians, Bahai’s or Ahmadiyya or freethinkers like atheists and ex-Muslims. Even in Europe where Muslims are a minority, de facto blasphemy laws via the backdoor with accusations of Islamophobia affect minorities within minorities and help maintain the status quo and the religious-Right’s grip on the “Muslim community.”
Accusing blasphemers of “inciting hatred” because of what they think and believe is no different than accusing gay people for inciting hatred against heterosexuals because of who they love. The bitter irony in all this is that nothing incites hatred and violence more than religions in political power.
The “marketplace of offence” aside, the fact of the matter is that religion or belief in Gods are ideas like any other and must be open to criticism, review, and dissent.
Rights and freedoms are for people, not for ideas. People have to be equal, though not all ideas are equal or equally valid. People have to be respected, but ideas can be questioned, disrespected, discarded, mocked. Ridiculous ideas can and should be ridiculed. It is not the same as ridiculing, mocking, or disrespecting people who hold those beliefs. Isn’t that how human society has progressed? By challenging and discarding bad ideas?
Yes, of course, it is not only Islam that has such a severe punishment for blasphemy. All Abrahamic religions call for the death penalty for blasphemers. That they don’t still hang blasphemers in Europe, though, is not because the Bible has been edited or Christianity is a nicer religion but because of the dwindling role of Christianity in the state and increasing secularisation.
The measure of a free society is the extent of freedom of conscience (including the right to disbelief) and freedom of expression (including the right to criticise and mock the sacred). And it is secular societies that most guarantee these basic freedoms. Secularism is not the end all – there is still racism, misogyny, xenophobia, capitalism… but secularism is a minimal framework that ensures the separation of religion from the state, which most protects minorities and minority opinions.
Let’s not forget that minority opinions can become majority opinions and create new status quos with criticism, questioning, and dissenting via progressive political and social movements and struggles, such as the anti-colonial struggles, the US civil rights movement, or women’s suffrage.
The ex-Muslim movement should be seen within the same light – as a community in protest demanding the rights to apostasy and blasphemy. When one can be killed for blasphemy and apostasy, celebrating dissent is an important act of survival as well as of civil disobedience and resistance.
When the public space is so oppressively full of fear, subverting, flouting and disobeying absurd and inhuman rules not only challenges dogmas, the sacred, and taboos, but it reclaims and transforms the public space and society.
Celebrating blasphemy responds to violence with humour and non-violence. It diminishes fear and feelings of despair, and it increases democratic and participatory politics. It brings hope and courage. It insists on the human rights of freedom of conscience and freedom of expression, and it does so in practice and not as theoretical or abstract concepts and notions.
Celebrating blasphemy, which is fundamentally celebrating the right to thought and opinion, goes to the core of what it is to be fully human and enables us to reimagine society and the world without blasphemy laws.
This is especially crucial given the increasing numbers of people who are persecuted, imprisoned, or are languishing on death row for the “crime” of thought and opinion. Non-believers like Soheil Arabi in Iran and Ayaz Nizami in Pakistan or believers like Tijjaniya Sunnis in Nigeria or Qurani Muslims in Sudan.
Much of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain’s work over 12 years has been to normalise blasphemy and apostasy. From nude protests to challenge modesty culture, eat-ins at embassies that persecute people for fast-defying during Ramadan to atheist azaans (calls to prayer) and “Allah is Gay” placards at Gay Pride in London, blasphemy in the public space says to the parasitical imams and fundamentalists that they do not have power over us, they cannot silence us. and that we will not submit.
As Southall Black Sisters says: Our Tradition: Struggle not Submission.
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