Dictionaries define blasphemy as an attack (whether physical, symbolic, ideological, etc…) on the sacred (objects, deities, symbols, places, etc…). Notwithstanding the fact that, for some of us, “nothing is sacred,” this definition fails to take into account that what is sacred for one may be totally different from what is sacred for the other, or, to say it differently, what is sacred for one, may not be sacred at all for the other. How can I be “blasphemous” if I do not believe in what is sacred for you?
Dominant organized religions vs “subaltern beliefs”
We usually think of blasphemy, contempt of religion, speaking irreverently or sacrilegiously about god, etc… with implicit reference to one of the three dominant monotheist religions; but there are many other beliefs that are not taken into account and are trampled on by people who are either ignorant of the transgression they are committing or convinced of the superiority of their beliefs over the beliefs of others. This is especially visible when it comes to so-called indigenous people coming into contact with, for instance but not exclusively, the dominant western culture. It is also visible in countries where a majority religion attempts to take prominence over religion/s of the minority/ies.
Should you talk about respecting sacred land and Mother Earth when international Capital is convinced one can find oil under it, you will for sure be laughed at. Should you ask for respect for fairy circles, djins or trolls, sacred trees and rocks, your demand will for sure be dismissed. Yet, Christians may expect you to pay respect to angels and those who believe in them. You may be expected to doubt the existence of ghosts and spirits of ancestors as they exist in many societies, but not to doubt that of the Holy Spirit that Catholicism makes part of the Divine Trinity. Still, you are expected to laugh at the multiplicity of Hindu divinities. (Three is okay, but not more…)
I will not here attempt to ridicule the countless unbelievable fantasies, miracles, supernatural interventions, nor the numerous taboos and utterly irrational rules that any dominant religion expects us to accept without questioning. I am just pointing at a form of cultural domination and at the subsequent subjugation of some cultures by others.
Clearly, what is seen by some as “sacred” and potentially endangered by unbelievers and “blasphemers” has been different across history and is still different from one region of the globe to another. So, to me, the first problem with the concept of “blasphemy”, as it is generally understood today, is that it excludes a great number of human beliefs from the very exclusive circle of those entitled to respect.
It follows suit that only dominant religions enforce respect for their beliefs. The others don’t have the power to do so. But what if they did?
If one looks at the world globally, it is tempting to say that, today, it is mostly monotheisms that use force to impose their beliefs and repress the absence of belief.
However, if one looks at it from a more local level, it is easy to see that other religions are just as fierce in imposing their views upon others. Take India and its devastating imposition of Hinduism over other religious minorities today, up to the point that even citizenship is now equated with the dominant religion, and sometimes subsumed under it. Looking at what has happened in Sri Lanka and Myanmar in the past few years, Buddhism, which generally enjoys such a jolly reputation of tolerance and peaceful ways, may be another good example. Interestingly, both Hinduism and Buddhism displayed themselves as violent and oppressive in circumstances when their representatives held political power.
When “respect” leads to totalitarianism
So, the point is that, although probably all religions tend to impose themselves on everybody, it is only those which benefit from the support of the state apparatus that can be truly devastating in doing so. Hence the need to separate religions from the state – particularly religious power from political power. For religious diktats cannot be changed by the will of the people, but political decisions can, should, and must, at least in principle, be allowed to be changed in a democracy.
It is important to note that organized religions and their followers are not generally satisfied with the right to live according to their beliefs as granted to them by the state; religious people tend to desire to impose their beliefs on others. The bottom line is that the mere existence and actions of those who do not follow in accordance with their ways are equated as being disrespectful of their beliefs. This is when the claim for respect for one’s beliefs turns into an aggression towards others’ beliefs.
For instance, Catholics believe that their God does not allow them to practice contraception and abortion. Even though no law forces them to practice birth control – as is the case in Western democracies where incitation to massive abortion or sterilisation campaigns were not practiced, contrary to what was done in many African and Asian countries – even if they can freely have large families if so they wish, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church never stopped fighting against the laws in Europe that allow for all citizens to regulate the size of their families by using modern means of contraception.
It is also true of Evangelical Christians in the USA who fight teeth and nails (and quite successfully) to change reproductive rights laws all over the country and who physically attack abortion clinics.
The point, as we can see, is not to be allowed to live according to their beliefs, but to have the political capacity to impose their way of life on people who do not share their beliefs, either because they do not belong to the same religion, or because they have none. The very fact of living differently is a challenge to their beliefs that they cannot tolerate. Those who live differently are equated to blasphemers.
Similarly, Muslims believe that their God does not grant the same share of inheritance to men and women. No state law forces a believing Muslim woman to accept an equal share to inheritance; even in a country where the law grants equal rights to men and women in matters of inheritance, nothing prevents her from freely disposing of her equal share and leaving half of it for her brothers, if she thinks that is what religion demands. A notary will easily finalize her will according to her wishes. However, we can clearly see that – as was recently the case in the UK – Muslim clerics demand, in the name of their beliefs, a change in the general law, i.e. a modification of rights for women that have been won democratically by the vote of the people.
We can see that organized religions turn the demand for “respect” for their own beliefs into the imposition of these beliefs, behaviours, ways of life onto all – regardless of freedom of conscience for believers and unbelievers alike, including those who are deemed as belonging to one religion by virtue of their place of birth.
In this context of totalitarian domination, “blasphemy” law can be a powerful instrument to silence dissent, when placed into the hands of a coalition between religion and political powers. States with a state religion use their staying-power to enforce religious rules that have not been endorsed by the people through a democratic process. Meanwhile, many of them nevertheless still call themselves democracies.
The “industry of hurt sentiments” at the hands of the religious far-right
One of the last victims of blasphemy law in the Catholic kingdom of France was a young man who refused to take off his hat and kneel while a religious procession was passing in the street; his name was François Jean Lefebvre, Chevalier de la Barre, and he was barely 20 years of age. He was a free thinker, a follower of Diderot and Voltaire. He was atrociously tortured before being executed, and his body burnt to ashes in 1766. It is believed that the circumstance of his martyrdom was one of the elements that sparked the French revolution of 1789 and inspired the subsequent law of separation of religion from state.
In 2013, when the Council of ex-Muslims in France was set up, an explicit reference was made to the Chevalier de la Barre: «Today, numerous Jean François Lefebvre de la Barre are threatened, tortured, imprisoned, and put to death for apostasy, blasphemy, heresy, and refusal to bend to Islamist diktats ». The Council of ex-Muslims is the first organisation which regroups, in France, atheists, secularists, and free thinkers of Muslim background. By acknowledging the similarities of their situation with that of Chevalier de la Barre, ex-Muslims point at the terrible situation that unbelievers face in so-called Muslim countries, especially in situations where Islam is a state religion, when laws are imposed in the name of God, and when freedom of conscience applies only to those who adhere to Islam.
New Chevaliers de la Barre have been martyred in many of our countries in the past decades: for instance, during the nineties in my country, Algeria, where about 200 000 victims fell at the hands of “Islamists,” i.e. extreme right political forces aiming at political power and working under the cover of religion. Many of their victims – among whom a majority were women – were deemed as “insulting Islam” for not abiding by the rules that the new rulers wanted to enforce: women were branded as blasphemers and slaughtered when they did not cover their head, when they worked for wages outside the home, when they were students, and when they taught children in schools according to official programs (i.e. non-religious). These blasphemy accusations also applied to women for going to the hairdresser or the beauty salon, and even when going to bath at the hammam, etc…among many other circumstances. All of these otherwise normal behaviours were deemed “blasphemous.” Not to mention people who openly professed atheism or were proponents of a secular state… Believers in Islam were also not spared: they too were seen as “blasphemers” if their practice of Islam did not match the views of the new religious authorities.
Nowadays, you don’t have to spit on a cross or eat pork in public during Ramadan to be called a blasphemer… you just have to think differently from fundamentalists. The proliferation of armed groups, who take it upon themselves to enforce their own views of what is blasphemous and what is not, has evidently shown the increasing use of gun power in defence of religion: Taliban, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Islamic Salvation Front, The Guardians of the Revolution, Islamic Armed Groups, the Shebab, and numerous others.
A decade earlier than us Algerians, the Iranians took the blow in the seventies, when living in a religious state under the Ayatollahs. All continents have faced a similar rise in Islamist religious fundamentalism and the subsequent wave of repression of “blasphemers,” i.e. all those who did not bend to the new religious rules decreed by them – many of them, as we experienced in Algeria, totally unknown to local believers.
Malian women quickly learnt that the boubou they had been wearing for centuries was “un-Islamic,” and Senegalese women, who used to dance in villages’ festivities till the early hours of the morning to the sound of what became one of the best appreciated music worldwide, were informed that their behaviour was “un-Islamic” too. South Asia witnessed the slaughter of free thinkers whether in India, in Pakistan, in Bangladesh or in Afghanistan. Afghan women were notoriously confined to their homes and could not participate in public life in any form. In recent years, Middle East was devastated by Islamic fundamentalist armed forces that ruled entire territories and forced the population to abide by their rules, any transgression being seen as “un-Islamic.” Europe and the USA have suffered numerous murderous attacks from fundamentalist believers who saw their way of life as inherently threatening to Islamic principles. It is far from being over.
While in a not so distant past, it was Christianity that had been dominating, co-opting, and mingling with political powers to impose their views onto all, it seems we are now living in times where it is mostly Islam that plays this role at a global level and spearheads the rise of politico-religious extreme-right movements. While resistance exists absolutely everywhere and persists even under the most dire circumstances in all the affected areas, it is more and more difficult to make ourselves heard outside of our national context. More and more potential allies defect, namely progressive people and human rights defenders worldwide who would not hesitate to defend Christians or Jews if they were attacked by extreme-right proponents from their own religions, but fail to extend the same helping hand to those who, wittingly or unwittingly, are branded Muslims. “Tolerance” is their buzz word, while we do not benefit from any tolerance from the religious extreme-right that accuses so many of us of blasphemy.
Even in a country like secular France, where many Algerians took refuge in the nineties – fleeing the threat to their lives by armed Islamist groups – the very concept of blasphemy, which was eliminated from the law since the times of the French Revolution, is surfacing again (as was very recently the case in the so-called “Mila affair”) under the guise of “hurt sentiments.”
A word of warning: my dear friends in Africa and in Asia, you may think that this is a distant story which is not your priority, but let me tell you that if the secular bastion France falls, it will have echoes for us all over the world.
This trend calls for our attention. It seems that secularists, agnostics, and atheists should be less visible and speak in a lower voice in order not to “hurt” the religious feelings of this vociferous religious extreme right; as if we did not deserve the same respect as believers, as if our “sentiments” – and our bodies and our lives! – could not be “hurt” by the ferocious enforcement of what fundamentalists believe to be Islam; as if we could not enjoy the same universal human rights, which in this instance is our simple freedom of expression. Our mere freedom of conscience and our freedom of expression are considered blasphemous by the extreme right forces that pretend to exclusively represent Islam.
What we see happening is the fragmentation of people, of fellow citizens, into smaller and smaller competing entities that each demand different rules be applicable to them and their “community” in the name of cultural and religious identities. They are competing to force the state to trade with them and grant them more rights than to another “community.” They are competing to induce the state into recognizing that they are “hurt” by others’ ways of life (and that it is for others to change their ways). By their standards, they claim that this difference constitutes in and by itself a form of blasphemy. They play a dangerous power game that evolves from a position of victimhood: “your blasphemy hurts me more than mine hurts you,” to a position of domination and threat: “my blasphemy is more powerful than yours”… and if you don’t relent, you will see what I can do to you.
Communalism and its competing “communities” over state power is the very plague of our time. Laws that were voted by all citizens are challenged to the benefit of supposedly divinely ordained laws—a direct attack on the very principle of democracy. With the resurgence of the concept of blasphemy, we witness the eradication of the very notion of citizenship and that of universal rights too.
Marieme Helie Lucas is an Algerian sociologist; she taught epistemology in the social sciences in Algiers university. She is the founder of the Women Living Under Muslim Laws international solidarity network (wluml.org) and served for 18 years as its international coordinator. She also founded and coordinates Secularism Is A Women’s Issue (siawi.org).