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Non-violent ways to combat blasphemy

Published Nov 06, 2012 12:05am

SINCE religious, racial and ethnic identities are central to human conceptions of self-worth, non-constructive speech whose sole purpose is to deliberately insult such identities should certainly be discouraged.

Pakistanis burnt vehicles, theatres and Obama effigies incessantly for days following the uploading on YouTube of The Innocence of Muslims. However, such self-directed violence obviously has little chance of success, and wisdom lies in considering non-violent strategies for combating blasphemy.

Moreover, one must pursue not only formal but also informal non-violent mechanisms to increase the chances of success. A dispassionate review of the feasibility of both mechanisms can help allocate effort appropriately across both options.

Focusing mainly on formal mechanisms, people often propose asking the UN to impose a global blasphemy ban. However, the UN can only develop international conventions. Each member country is free to decide whether to ratify individual conventions fully, partially or not at all.

Thus, Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights already mandates that “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law”.

However, when ratifying this convention, the US submitted reservations (as did Pakistan against numerous other articles of this convention) against Article 20 stating that it would not adopt it since it contradicted its free speech provisions. Consequently, the UN cannot penalise America for not enforcing this article domestically.

Furthermore, the UN also lacks enforcement powers against even those countries which violate international conventions they have previously ratified unless all five veto-wielding countries agree. Such agreement is possible only in cases of grave global security threats given the vast differences in the priorities of veto-wielding countries. As such, achieving UN-imposed blasphemy bans and subsequent action against non-complying countries, especially veto-wielding ones, will require enormous effort.

Muslim countries will ultimately have to influence domestic opinion and legislation in every country individually, which also is an enormous task. They could focus more immediately on Western countries since most blasphemous speech originates there given their lenient free speech provisions.

Since free speech exceptions exist even in Western countries, Muslims could first review whether current exceptions could outlaw blasphemous speech. Thus, privacy/confidentiality laws in Western countries usually trump free speech rights, but are largely irrelevant against blasphemy issues.

Slander is a crime in a number of Western countries, but such provisions mainly protect living individuals and companies rather than identity groups or deceased individuals. Hate speech instigating violence or intimidation against identity groups, beyond just ridiculing them, is banned. However, this provision would not cover blasphemous speech which does not explicitly instigate violence.

Speech which would invariably create public commotion and injury is banned, e.g., shouting ‘fire’ falsely in a dark theatre since it will understandably instigate almost everyone to run reflexively to save their lives.

While blasphemy causes commotion in Muslim countries, it clearly represents an avoidable choice rather than reflex action since most Muslims remain peaceful. Moreover, such commotion occurs beyond the boundaries of responsibility of Western governments, making them largely immune to it.

Thus, existing Western free-speech exceptions, reflecting Western individualistic and materialistic values, largely cover concrete losses to live entities and do not protect sacrosanct matters, including even Western religions.

The ban on Holocaust denial in some European countries is an exception to this trend, which Muslims could use to convince Westerners to have free speech exceptions cover other sacrosanct matters. However, even that ban has emerged from their own histories where six million Europeans were massacred.

Just as Muslim countries are loath to change their laws to please Western sensibilities, Western countries may not easily change their laws to please Muslim sensibilities. Thus, while it is still certainly worthwhile to pursue global blasphemy bans diplomatically, one must be mindful of the enormous challenges involved in achieving such bans.

Given these long odds, it is important to simultaneously consider informal mechanisms for combating blasphemy in the West. While Western societies do not prohibit identity-based insults legally, it is possible to discourage such attacks informally there.

Xenophobic right-wing groups in the US have a long history of disparaging minorities, e.g., blacks and Jews. However, Jews and blacks have become better organised and have also developed linkages with sympathetic societal groups to challenge right-wing vitriol.

Thus, even though such insults are not prohibited legally, anyone making anti-black and anti-Semitic insults faces severe public censure today and the frequency of such attacks has reduced significantly.

Such informal censures are much weaker in support of some recent immigrant groups, including Muslims, partly because they are not as strong economically, organisationally and/or numerically as blacks and Jews.

Since their economic and numerical strength is relatively fixed in the short term, the easiest option for such new groups is to enhance their organisational strength and develop linkages with sympathetic societal groups.

Thus, strengthening the advocacy and networking activities of Muslim political groups in Western countries may yield more immediate dividends in combating blasphemy than long, contentious battles in international bureaucracies and may even eventually help win these battles.

However, sympathy for some immigrant groups, including Muslims, is also weak in Western countries because minorities in these groups’ original countries face far worse excesses. For example, minorities cannot even pray openly in some Muslim countries.

The contentious movie itself was a deplorable reaction to excesses against Egyptian Christians. Thus, Muslims must also treat their own minorities better to garner greater sympathy and respect globally. As the saying goes, ask not for justice just for yourself but for everybody, for in doing so you make justice more assured for yourself.

The writer is a political economist at the University of California, Berkeley.