“Blasphemy” is sometimes regarded almost as a kind of simple and predictable transaction: the “blasphemer” provokes, for whatever reason, and offence is caused, so the “blasphemer” must be punished either through the law, or through violence. Law-abiding apologists for the concept of criminalizing religious offence will of course decry vigilantism, let alone violent extremism. But the terrorists seeking “revenge” against insult, or to prevent future blasphemy from the same source, will sometimes commit their atrocities on the explicit basis that they are acting where the law has failed, and/or in accordance with their own presumed religious law.
Either way, the naive assumption is that there is a kind of cause-and-effect relation. The “blasphemer” provokes (cause), and there is pushback (effect). People may conceptualize “blasphemy” in this simple transactional way regardless of whether they agree that it should be a crime – or on the contrary that it is a religious prohibition and should not in and of itself impinge on anyone else’s freedom of expression.
But this model is a false conception of what is happening during most “blasphemy” incidents. It oversimplifies to the point of failure. It fails to recognize the complexity of the process at work in creating someone capable of being so “provoked”. And it fails to recognize that either prosecution or persecution in the name of defending religion against “blasphemy” is a substantial and proactive process.
A massacre in Paris
On 7 January, 2015, the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked by two terrorists. 12 people were murdered. The victims were a maintenance worker, a police bodyguard for the threatened editor, five cartoonists, one of whom was also a columnist, four more workers for the magazine serving as writers and editors, and a police responder on the street outside.
The stated motivation for the attack was to defend the Prophet Muhammad from insult. On the run in the days following the massacre, one of the two perpetrators was interviewed by a journalist from BFM TV. “We are not killers”, the murderer said. “We are defenders of the prophet, we don’t kill women.” There was, in fact, one woman among the dead in the Charlie Hebdo offices, columnist Elsa Cayat. “We kill no one. We defend the prophet. If someone offends the prophet then there is no problem, we can kill him … We have an honour code in Islam.” The first police responder on the scene in Paris, Ahmed Merabet, was shot at close-range in the head while he lay wounded in the street.
Giving his TV interview, the perpetrator then goes on to agree with the interviewer that this was an act of revenge. “You just said it well. You said it yourself, we sought revenge.”
I generally agree with the principle of minimizing the importance of mass-shooters and other terrorist actors by refusing to amplify their names, ideology, or life-circumstances. But I do want to make a point connected to the personal histories of the two perpetrators here, so some limited detail is necessary.
The attackers were brothers, born in Paris to Algerian parents, orphaned and looked after by the state for most of their adolescence. But this difficult start in life did not mean they would be disconnected in their adulthood. In fact, their allies and acquaintances within global Islamist networks was a roll call of known terrorists and extremist preachers. Without going into every event, the younger brother would join a gang in Paris that performed militaristic training exercises. This group, though informal, was organised enough to send would-be jihadists to Iraq, to swell the ranks of al-Qaeda in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion. He was himself prevented from heading to Syria in January 2005. While imprisoned for this activity, he met Djamel Beghal, serving 10 years in connection with a bomb plot against the US embassy in Paris. Beghal would mentor the younger brother, and would see both brothers in later years. Beghal himself had once been a regular at Finsbury Park Mosque, London, and a disciple of the well-known hate preachers Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada.
This is just one example of a chain of mentorship, or at least influence, within Islamist extremist networks. The chain crosses borders and infects minds. Sometimes those exploited are damaged and suggestible people. We can analyze this as “vertical” transmission: higher members of the hierarchy, raised up by reputation, position, funding, or infamy, radicalizing those below them in the pecking order.
But once the infection takes hold, it spreads out through hidden networks, with “horizontal” transmission that supports or enables radicalization. During their long radicalization, the brothers would meet in jail the Islamist responsible for the 1995 Paris Métro and RER bombings, which resulted in eight fatalities. The older brother visited Yemen and met Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who later that year would attempt to bomb Northwest Airlines Flight 253. The older brother would train with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and met extremist preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American alleged recruiter and senior member of Al-Qaeda (controversially killed by a US drone strike in 2011). The brothers claimed that Anwar al-Awlaki actually funded their activities. And they used their funding to obtain weapons supplied via the criminal underworld in Brussels. Connections everywhere!
And let’s not forget that in the days following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, as the brothers were holed up in the printworks office, another attack, inspired by their atrocity, took place at a kosher supermarket in east Paris. Hostages were taken. The attacker killed four men because he had determined they were Jewish. The previous day, it was later revealed, this attacker had murdered a police officer in another shooting incident. Again, the supermarket attacker was no lone wolf. He had met the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attack in prison, he was a “close friend” of the pair in fact, who had his own access to automatic weapons, and said he would kill the remaining fifteen hostages in the kosher supermarket if the brothers were harmed. (In the end, both sieges were broken by police at the same time, and the two brothers as well as the supermarket hostage-taker were all killed.)
The construction of “blasphemy”
What can we discern from all this? One lesson is that while lone actors as such are possible, suicide terrorists (I include here those who blow themselves up, and those like the Charlie Hebdo attackers who explicitly said they wanted to become “martyrs”) are always influenced by someone, and often they are radicalised over a number of years, groomed by men that are higher up the extremist hierarchy, while at the same time they become “connected to” or “affiliated with” various branches of branches of extremist groups, with “networks” that transit several countries.
The weight and complexity of this influence in turn teaches us something important. Because some commentators who defend the idea that “blasphemy” per se must be criminalized, and certainly the outright apologists and proponents of violence reprisal, depend on that simple transactional view of “blasphemy” as a cause-and-effect relationship. They work on the assumption that such atrocities are a mere response to offence, as if insult was made and retribution was invited.
Such commentators and apologists miss that there is a worldwide business of terror; that the networks and leaders of those networks are highly pro-active in fomenting the outrage, and seeding the hate required to commit acts of gross violence. They overlook the evidence that shows that, frequently, there is a multi-levelled, consistent, sometimes systematic process of turning someone into the kind of person who can be motivated by perceived “blasphemy” to commit acts of mass murder.
“Blasphemy” is not a crime committed by the critic, the satirist, the philosopher or the author. Rather, it is a sensitivity constructed by the preacher, the over-sensitive legalist, the theologian or the hate-monger.
And violent responses to supposed acts of “blasphemy” are not simple, singular transactions. Rather they are part of the business model for extremism.
This is not to say that some people don’t feel harsh criticism or ridicule of their beliefs very strongly. After all, it’s a trope in discussion of “blasphemy” in the context of Islam for defenders of criminalization (and apologists or advocates for violence) to claim that insult against the Prophet Muhammad is comparable – more serious, even – than an insult against “your own mother”. That you should feel it like a personal attack on your nearest and dearest. If you are told this repeatedly, then of course it may become an instinctual response, or if not, then you may feel compelled to act as if it were an instinctual response, because you’ve been told it’s a point of “honour”.
Of course, even when perceived “blasphemy” is genuinely felt as a deep psychological wound, neither criminalization, nor the necessity of violence, can be inferred! Insulting someone’s mother is not in itself a criminal offence anywhere in the world, that I’m aware of, let alone a justification for murder.
It is also not to say that some utterances construed as “blasphemy” are not intentionally hateful. A particular utterance, dependent on the context, might run afoul of incitement to hatred laws. The same can be said of articles printed in newspapers, or a political speech, or a poem. It’s possible to incite hatred in any media or format. That doesn’t mean you ban that media or format. Indeed, every media or format – including expressions that others might call “blasphemous” – have their legitimate and sometimes necessary uses.
So yes, offence may be provoked by some supposed acts of “blasphemy”. But actually the process of being offended starts much earlier. It is pre-empted, cultivated even, years in advance. One might even say there’s a “big business” in cultivating this offence: attracting dark money, obtaining arms, recruiting volunteer militia.
Obviously the extremists and radicalizers perform this cultivation in the extreme, very explicitly, by actively encouraging acts of “revenge”. But many moderate preachers (of almost any religion) do cultivate the same taboos against criticism or ridicule of religious propositions. And all laws against “blasphemy”, “blasphemous libel”, “hurting religious sentiments” and “insult to religion” (some of the various nearly functionally-identical terms used in such laws around the world) lend false credibility to that same taboo.
Properly understood, then, “blasphemy” is not a simple transactional provocation, starting with the supposed “blasphemer”. Instead, consciously or otherwise, enshrining the concept of “blasphemy” is one of the strategic priorities of the business of religion. “Blasphemy” always requires some cultural gestation, at least to instil in the offended the background assumption that a sleight on a religious idea is a great cosmic taboo, akin to insulting your mother, deserving at least some legal recourse. As the child sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has demonstrated all too well, that taboo of course serves to protect religious beliefs – as well as practices, leaders, and churches – from too close an examination, sometimes allowing real crimes to fester for decades in the dark.
And in the extreme case, terroristic responses to “blasphemy” are a tangible product of the wider crypto-fascist movement that is Islamist extremism. (Compare: anti-Semitism is another tangible product that is shared by both crypto-fascist Islamist extremism and by similarly fascist or crypto-fascist white nationalism.)
Progress and regress around the world
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, numerous humanist and secular groups came together to form the End Blasphemy Laws campaign. In a coalition also open to religious groups and other organisations advocating for freedom of expression, we worked with partner organisations to create or uplift campaigns against “blasphemy” laws at national level. Over the next five years we saw the abolition of “blasphemy” laws in nine countries where the campaign and its partners were active: Norway, Iceland, Malta, Denmark, Canada, New Zealand, Greece, Ireland, and the only province of France with a “blasphemy” law still technically on statute. The Charlie Hebdo attack was a prominent feature at some stage in the debate on all these laws. I take it as a signal that in Europe and the west (as all these countries were) the debate is well and truly won. There is a new consensus: “Blasphemy” is not the kind of thing that a nation should criminalize, indeed criminalization essentially relies on the same underlying assumptions that drive the religious groups and ideologies that use “blasphemy” accusations as a means of building protective taboos, or even as a means of fostering outright hatred and violence.
The situation elsewhere, however, remains dire. There are 69 countries in the world that still have ‘blasphemy’ or quasi- ‘blasphemy’ laws on the books. In several countries the “blasphemy” laws have actually been hardened, or been actively employed in new and insidious ways, in the past few years. I’ve written about that in the Editorial Introduction to the 2019 edition of the Freedom of Thought Report.
Bob Churchill worked at Humanists International from July 2012 to December 2019. During that time he coordinated the organization’s work on the “End Blasphemy Laws” campaign, and served as Editor of the Freedom of Thought Report, on discrimination against non-religious people. He is currently enjoying a career break turned Coronavirus lockdown in the English countryside.