In common usage blasphemy means words and actions which constitute an insult to God or other sacred entities. To the modern mind the term may seem obsolete, a leftover from primitive superstition. It is anything but obsolete to many people in the contemporary world.
Toward the end of January two stories involving the issue of blasphemy were widely carried in the media. They hardly merited first-page treatment. They nevertheless raised interesting issues.
The first story concerned the comedian Jay Leno. In his television show on January 19, he showed a photo of the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion. He joked that it was a summer home of Mitt Romney, whose wealth had just become a topic in the Republican primaries. This seemingly trivial event provoked a storm of fierce hostility by Sikhs in America and elsewhere, adding a presumably unwelcome dimension of religious hatred to Leno’s usually uncontroversial celebrity. A Dr. Randeep Dhillou, a denizen of California, sought to sue Leno for hate speech against a religion. Vayalar Ravi, the minister in the Indian government dealing with affairs of overseas (so-called “non-resident”) Indians, called the incident “quite unfortunate and quite objectionable”. Another Indian minister chimed in by saying that “freedom does not mean hurting the sentiments of others”.
The matter was apparently deemed sufficiently important to lead to an official pronouncement by Victoria Nuland, a spokesperson of the State Department: “His [Leno’s] comments are constitutionally protected in the United States under free speech and, frankly, they appeared to be satirical in nature.” (“Frankly”? Was there some discussion in Foggy Bottom as to whether Leno was not only a comedian but also a religious scholar?) She also pointed out that Barack Obama was the first president to celebrate, in the White House, the birthday of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. She gave no details of this celebration. She also said: “Our view is obviously that Sikh Americans have contributed greatly to the United States”. [“Obviously”? “Greatly”? But let’s not quibble. The State Department meant well.]
In the same month another celebrity, though perhaps a more upmarket one, also encountered a problem with blasphemy. For him, alas, it was not the first time. Salman Rushdie, author of the 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, had been sentenced to death (fortunately in absentia) on grounds of blasphemy by the Ayatollah Khomeini (the Iranian leader thus becoming what must be the author of the most negative book review in the history of literature). Rushdie went into hiding after that and thus avoided those eager to carry out the Ayatollah’s sentence, but other individuals associated with the novel became victims of violent assault). By the way, the title of Rushdie’s novel refers to an obscure legend, not mentioned in either the canonical Koran or any reliable tradition, that Satan led the Prophet to insert some subsequently revoked verses into the Koran which permitted prayers to pagan goddesses. Not having read the novel, I cannot say whether Rushdie’s use of this apocryphal story was also intended satirically.
The current event also involves India, one of the countries which has banned Rushdie’s novel. He was supposed to appear at several events on the program of a literary festival held at Jaipur. When warned by the local police that he would be in danger of assassination, Rushdie decided not to attend. Instead he was supposed to attend via video. That participation was cancelled by the organizers of the festival, also under pressure from the police. Sanjoy Roy, the producer of the festival, said: “Once again we are being bullied and we are having to step down.” Rushdie commented: “That’s what we call tyranny. It’s much worse than censorship, because it comes with the threat of violence.” A number of prominent Indian intellectuals criticized the double cancellation of Rushdie’s appearance. I have not come across any comments from Indian government officials. It is unclear how imminent the threat of assassination was; Rushdie expressed some doubt. There can be no doubt about the fierceness of the Muslim reaction. An influential Muslim scholar said that Rushdie should be barred from India: “He has hurt our religious sentiments”. [Again this business of “sentiments”!] The actual situation in Jaipur was indeed ominous. A crowd of Muslim activists had assembled at the site of the festival. One of them said to a journalist: “Rivers of blood will flow here if they show Rushdie.”
There is a larger context for both stories—calls, mostly from Muslim-majority states and Muslim organizations, for laws against blasphemy. Though penalties for blasphemy are not mentioned either in the Koran or in recognized tradition (hadith), Islamic law recognizes the offence and the death penalty for offenders. There have been resolutions in the General Assembly of the United Nations calling for the prohibition of blasphemy in international law, with no support from Western democracies. It has rightly been pointed out that there is a long tradition of anti-blasphemy laws in Judaism and Christianity. The last execution for blasphemy in Britain took place in 1697, when one Thomas Aikenhead suffered the death penalty for denying the veracity of the Old Testament and the miracles of Jesus. There were such laws in the American colonies, notably in Massachusetts, but of course they were all declared by the federal courts to be unconstitutional in violation of the first amendment. Pennsylvania enacted an anti-blasphemy law as recently as 1977. When a state district attorney (whose training in first-amendment law clearly left something to be desired) decided to prosecute under this law, the action was promptly and predictably stopped by a federal court.
It seems to me that there are four interesting issues raised by the two stories. The first issue, of course, is legal. In the United States the basic situation is clear: Barring an onset of collective amnesia in the Supreme Court, there is no chance of overt anti-blasphemy legislation. But it is important to point out that the concept of so-called “hate speech” offers a usable substitute, and it has achieved considerable judicial approval both in this country and in Europe. Here the insult is not deemed to be against God, but against the presumably tender “sentiments” of some believers. As far as I know, this concept has not played itself out in the federal courts.
There is a second issue, not domestically but for US foreign policy: How to deal with countries who do not share the American understanding of the separation of church and state, and who consequently have various degrees of legal establishment of this or that religion. In the case of India, the tendency of government to clamp down on any departure from interfaith politeness is understandable: There is a collective memory of the horrendous violence between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs at the birth of independence, and of the continuing eruptions of similar violence since then. India defines itself as a secular republic, but no doctrine of secularism is deemed worth the risk of offending religious “sentiments” with the result of renewed violence. The issue is much sharper when the United States must deal with a country like Saudi Arabia, where the notion of blasphemy is anything but obsolete. Diplomats, whose profession demands that they have polite relations with fanatics of all sorts, probably prefer not to have to worry about religious practices that could not pass scrutiny in American courts. Congress won’t let them alone. It has not only forced the State Department to submit an annual report on the condition of human rights in every country in the world (the entry on Switzerland is very brief), but to issue a separate report on international religious freedom. This one has a lot in it about people being persecuted for alleged blasphemy. The issue is the degree to which the consideration of such matters can be allowed to interfere with hard strategic or economic interests.
The other two issues are less legal or political. There is the interfaith etiquette of civility, which is necessary to avoid conflict in a modern pluralist society. It is not only religious fundamentalists whose “sentiments” must be treated gingerly. And then there is what could be called the ethics of satire: Are there topics or persons that should be immune from being satirized? This is not an easy question to be answered. Karl Kraus was a superb satirist of Austrian society from the beginning of the twentieth century to his death in 1936. His masterpiece was a gigantic play (he said that it would be performed on Mars after the destruction of the earth), The Last Days of Humanity, which ferociously criticized the cruelties, stupidities and corruption of the First World War. An admirer of this work was once asked what Kraus really believed in. He answered: You must look for what he did not satirize. I don’t think that I can pursue these last two issues here.
But I do want to conclude with the one episode when I thought for a few moments that I would witness an execution for blasphemy. In 1993 I attended the conference commemorating the anniversary of the 1893 Chicago World Parliament of Religions, an important event which, among other things, drew American public attention to the great religious traditions of Asia. I have not seen a program of the earlier event. In 1993 the program strongly emphasized non-Christian religions. There were exhibits of every conceivable tradition, except Christianity. I only noticed one exhibit put up by a Methodist publishing house, empty of visitors and staffed by a depressed-looking young man. Walking around the hotel where the conference was held I happened into a session on Sikhism. As best as I now remember, the following happened: The session was very sparsely attended, by a handful of people who did not seem to be Sikhs. But a group of some twenty people stood together in the back of the room, led by an impressive old man dressed in traditional Sikh dress. He sported a large white beard, and he was very angry. So, it seems, was his cohort of younger men. At the front stood the chairman of the session and the speaker. Both were clearly nervous. The chairman had just introduced the speaker, in English, when the bearded old man shouted out something in a language I did not understand. The chairman explained to the equally nervous audience that the group in the back was protesting something the speaker had written about the Guru Granth, the holy book of Sikhism. He had referred to it as a holy book, while orthodox Sikhs spoke of it as the holy book. The protesters considered this to be blasphemous. As the chairman was explaining all this, the protesting group began slowly to move forward. Then the speaker intervened. He assured them (in English) that he fully accepted the Guru Granth as the sole sacred scripture of the Sikh religion. He apologized if his choice of language had given the contrary impression. Apparently the apology was accepted. The old man said something that sounded conciliatory and the Sikh contingent sat down. The speaker, clearly relieved, proceeded to give his lecture. Most of the audience, including myself, rather hurriedly departed.