In praise of blasphemy:
In praise of blasphemy
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
The dark, blood-drenched word “blasphemy” has lately re-appeared across the world, like some grotesque monster from the depths of humanity’s unconscious. It is always bad news, the prelude to unnecessary suffering. Someone in the United States made a video that some Muslims call blasphemous. So other Muslims, driven to a frenzy, have died in riots, along with non-Muslims, in order to “protest” this alleged offence against the prophet.
For centuries, unspeakable crimes have been committed in the name of regulating what people say about religion. During the long Catholic nightmare of the Spanish Inquisition the ecclesiastical authorities competed in devising punishments for those with unauthorized religious views. Boring a hole in the tongue with a hot wire was a common penalty. Laws against blasphemy have been favourite tools of all those who lust for power over their fellow humans — popes, kings, bishops, imams, theologians and professional inciters of the mobs.
A charge of blasphemy works as a screen hiding the schemes of would-be rulers who dream of Taliban-level dictatorships. The masses in the Arab countries learn of Danish cartoons and other blasphemies when they are told about them by rabble-rousers.
In democracies the charge of blasphemy should not be treated with sympathetic understanding, as it is so often. It is the enemy of tolerance as it is the enemy of modernity. On Saturday “Canadians Against Blasphemy” will hold a protest meeting in front of the U.S. consulate in Toronto, asking people of all faiths to join in their outrage.
Instead we should be praising blasphemy, in fact proclaiming its many virtues, rather than sheepishly apologizing for it as a necessary evil we must reluctantly tolerate because of our belief in the freedom of speech.
Bernard Shaw may have been overstating the case when he gave to one of his characters the pronouncement that “All great truths begin as blasphemies.” But not by much.
Blasphemy, the challenge of official doctrine, helped create freedom over the centuries — and still needs to create it in many countries, such as Pakistan and Indonesia. Blasphemy is a corollary to freedom of religion. It expresses the right to have no religion, in fact the right to disdain all religions.
The creators of Protestant Christianity were all denounced for blasphemy; so were generations of scholars in a dozen countries who campaigned for the critical examination of the Bible. Without the courage of those who were called blasphemers there would be only one acceptable religion in every country today. Certainly that’s how the royal and church authorities of the 18th century saw the future. As late as 1766, as the Enlightenment was proceeding, a freethinking 20-year-old Frenchman, Jean-François de la Barre, was tortured for blasphemy. He had his tongue cut out before he was burned to death, his copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary thrown on the fire with him. Today there’s a statue of him in Montmartre, as the last person executed for blasphemy in France.
Consider what happened in Hyderabad this week when a mob of hundreds, claiming to be upset about the American video, demanded that Haji Nasrullah Khan demonstrate solidarity with their cause by shutting his 120 shops. He said he didn’t feel like it. The mob accused him of supporting the video. They ransacked his house and drove him and his family into hiding. Leaders of a prominent mosque called for his death. The police chief said there was no evidence that he had blasphemed but a charge of blasphemy was brought against him because there was no other way to disperse the crowd.
The people who directed that mob may or may not have been honestly interested in religious truth. A pro-Taliban religious party and an al-Qaeda-linked militant group were said to be among Khan’s enemies. Police think agitation may have started with tenant shopkeepers Khan was trying to evict for late payment of their rent. Charges of blasphemy originate with many sources, some innocent, most of them vile.
In the Criminal Code of Code of Canada, blasphemy remains a crime, a remnant of the era when governments did all they could to satisfy the wishes of organized religion. Section 296 says that anyone who publishes a blasphemous libel can be jailed for two years. The section has not been used in 75 years but it lurks in the statute books, ready to be brought back to life by some eccentric prosecutor. Expunging it would be an appropriate symbolic act by the federal government. The best possible time to accomplish that reform would be before the end of this blasphemy-crazed year.