11-17-2011By Pamela King Takiff
Earlier this month, the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were destroyed by a Molotov cocktail. The bombing coincided with the magazine’s impending release of a special edition entitled “Charia Hebdo” that played on the French translation of the word “Sharia” and featured a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. Such depictions of the prophet are considered by many Muslims to be deeply offensive and have created controversies with violent consequences in the past.
Many French readers may find such satire to be humorous. Others will find it offensive. But few should be surprised about its publication given Charlie Hebdo’s prior record of irreverence to sensitive issues. They have a long track record of exercising their right of free speech – one that is fundamental to any democratic and rights-based society.
That said, just because Charlie Hebdo’s publication is protected speech, it doesn’t mean it can’t be challenged and debated. There are ample ways to challenge such depictions that are well within the bounds of healthy societal debate and that don’t undermine fundamental rights to free expression.
Violence, however, is definitely not among those ways. French authorities have rightly condemned the Charlie Hebdo bombing describing the attack as an assault on freedom of the press, and have promised a thorough investigation into the incident. Prosecution of the suspected arsonists will send a strong signal that such violence will not be tolerated. Importantly, the French Council of the Muslim Faith and other Muslim groups have also condemned the violence. Condemning such violence while defending free speech is essential, but the government and others should also take this and other opportunities to promote tolerance, oppose discrimination and affirm that Muslims are equal members of French society.
While such instances of violence are still rare in France as in Europe as a whole, speech and expression that is perceived by some to “defame” religions more frequently comes under attack in other parts of the world. Attacks and threats by private individuals – combined with a failure of governments to respond to them – have undoubtedly had a chilling effect on the exercise of free speech in many countries. Indeed, it is often governments that have been among the leading forces seeking to suppress speech that is deemed blasphemous that send down harsh punishments for those who “violate” blasphemy laws.
Human Rights First’s recently updated report, Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions,” documents over 100 incidents from 18 countries. It illustrates how blasphemy laws are frequently invoked to stifle dissent and harass rivals. The report also shows how blasphemy laws can provide state-sanction for discrimination against minority religions and faiths. Since the laws are discriminatory in their open-endedness they enable governments through their application to essentially determine which ideas are acceptable and which are not. As such, accusations of blasphemy have led to arbitrary arrests and detentions and restrictions in the practice and worship of minority religions.
The chilling number of incidents cited in the report of angry mobs taking the law into their own hands provides a window into the violence that blasphemy or rumors of blasphemy can incite. The majority of cases of mob violence hail from Pakistan and Indonesia. Sometimes mobs target government officials for not being strict enough in their application of blasphemy laws. But the violence is most frequently directed toward religious minority communities where the practice of their religion has been deemed blasphemous or, where simply a misspoken word or alleged desecration of the Koran incites retaliation. Violence goes unpunished and sometimes it is rather the victims of the violence that are prosecuted for their role in protecting themselves, their homes, and their places of worship.
A sampling of the numerous cases cited in Human Rights First’s report of mob violence against perceived blasphemers includes:
- Last month in Tunis a group of more than 100 men armed with knives and Molotov cocktails gathered outside the home of a television station owner causing considerable damage. Why? The television station had earlier in the week aired the 2007 animated film Persepolis which depicts God as a bearded man. Later that day, as many as 1,000 individuals mobbed government offices and had to be disbursed with tear gas.
- In May, a mentally ill Pakistani man charged with blasphemy was handed over to the police by his family seeking protective custody after an angry mob threatened to take the law into their own hands. In June, another man charged with blasphemy sought protective custody after a mob of 2,000 blocked the road demanding that the accused be handed over to them.
- In April in Punjab, Pakistan hundreds of protesters armed with clubs and batons attacked a church and government offices after the police released two Christian men from custody who were falsely accused of desecrating the Koran. Eighteen people were injured during the outburst, including three police officers. Three thousand families fled their home fearing that the violence could escalate.
- This February in Java, Indonesia, more than 1,000 villagers armed with machetes and sticks stormed a house of Ahmadiyya worship, killing three and wounding six others. The violence was justified by an Indonesian declaration that singles out members of the Ahmadiyyah as heretics. The attackers were caught on tape stoning their victims to death, then beating the corpses as police officers and villagers watched and did nothing to stop the bloodshed. Though Indonesia’s President condemned the attacks and ordered legal action be taken, a victim of the assault received a stiffer punishment that those who committed murder. In response to the sentencing of individuals involved in the fatal attack, an Ahmadi mosque was stormed by hundreds of protestors armed with machetes in October.
- In February, a mob of over 1,000 strong stormed an Indonesian courthouse and set Christian churches on fire in protest after a “too-lenient” sentence of five years imprisonment was handed down to a Christian man accused of blasphemy.
Much work needs to be done to challenge deeply-held societal views that make blasphemy – or allegations of blasphemy – lethal. At the same time, governments do a great disservice to fundamental rights by pursuing harsh prosecutions under blasphemy laws or turning a blind eye to vigilante violence.
Though every country comes to the issue of hatred and intolerance with different historical and cultural perspectives, the same standards apply when it comes to confronting it: protect free expression, condemn and prosecute violence, speak out against hatred and affirm equal rights for all.