How are we still getting blasphemy so wrong?
In the aftermath of Samuel Paty’s beheading and a violent attack in Nice leaving three dead, there has been plenty of commentary about who is to blame for the violence in France, what should be done, and what these attacks mean for freedom of expression.
Most people agree this violence is wrong, and must be condemned. But when it comes to assigning blame for the violence, the consensus starts to break down — a number of people believe that the responsibility is shared between the attackers, who have committed the act, and the victims, whose expression has “provoked” it.
Take this statement from the Spokesperson of the High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilization, for example. It asserts, in part:
The High Representative is following with deep concern the growing tensions and instances of intolerance triggered by the publication of the satirical caricatures depicting Prophet Muhammed, which Muslims consider insulting and deeply offensive. The inflammatory caricatures have also provoked acts of violence against innocent civilians who were attacked for their sheer religion, belief or ethnicity. The High Representative stresses that insulting religions and sacred religious symbols provokes hatred and violent extremism leading to polarization and fragmentation of the society.
Here, caricatures are cast as the catalyst for violence, which is treated as an unavoidable result of religiously offensive expression. The takeaway: Stop insults to religion, and thus avoid violence.
And in a piece published in Politico, Farhad Khosrokhavar — studies director at EHHS, the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, in Paris — wrote that France’s “embrace of blasphemy” has fueled violence:
Defenders of blasphemy invoke freedom of expression, but what blasphemy does, in fact, is trap France in a vicious cycle of reactivity to jihadist terror that makes it less free and less autonomous.
The immoderate use of caricatures in name of the right to blaspheme ultimately undermines public debate: It stigmatizes and humiliates even the most moderate or secular Muslims, many of whom do not understand French secularists’ obsessive focus on Islam, the veil, daily prayers or Islamic teachings.
The result is a harmful cycle: provocation, counter-provocation, and a society’s descent into hell. As French secularism has become radicalized, the number of jihadist attacks in the country has multiplied.
French secularists claim to be fighting for freedom of expression. As they do so, innocent people are dying, Muslims around the world are rejecting French values and boycotting the country’s products, and French Muslims are facing restrictions on their freedom of expression in the name of thwarting Islamist propaganda.
Again and again, it is blasphemy that is trapping France in a cycle of violence.
This piece is frustrating in a number of ways but there are two that stand out: 1) Like others, Khosrokhavar lays the blame for violence at the feet of blasphemers and then 2) decries France’s restrictions on free expression while blaming free expression for the problems in France.
There is valid criticism to be made here; France’s treatment of the headscarf, for example, is a clear violation of Muslim women’s right to freedom of expression and religion. Forced secularism is wrong. But arguments against France’s treatment of Islam would be best made alongside full acknowledgement of the right to blaspheme.
People should be free to openly practice their faith, including wearing religious garb. The other side of that coin is that people must be free to challenge faith, even if done so in a manner that is subjectively offensive, controversial, or in poor taste. Both secular cartoonists and religious believers should be able to express themselves without violence or government interference, whether they’re honoring religion or rejecting it.
However, this is generally not the public discussion that is occurring. Instead, scores of politicians, public figures, and writers have looked at acts of violence committed against people guilty of nothing other than speech, and have concluded that they bear some of the responsibility for their pain.
It should not need to be said that “blasphemers” are in no way responsible for the violence they have encountered. This is true for Samuel Paty, for Charlie Hebdo, and for the many people who are currently imprisoned or in legal peril for blasphemy violations. And that is what makes this discussion especially frustrating: In reality, the scope of “blasphemy” is much broader than Charlie Hebdo and cartoons, though it includes them too. It is deeply unsafe to be a blasphemer in many parts of the world, and even the accusation of religious offense can result in extrajudicial murder.
So, those willing to blame blasphemers for “provoking” violence — a position that is currently popular in many circles — should realize that those standards have impacts far beyond cartoonists in France.
If you’re interested in learning about the extent of the global treatment of blasphemers, I recommend checking out End Blasphemy Laws, which tracks these laws and advocates for their abolishment.
Update, Nov. 1: Editor-in-chief Stephen Brown tweeted that Politico Europe took down Farhad Khosrokhavar’s article because it did not meet “editorial standards.” It can still be read here.