Imprimis

Blasphemy and Free Speech

Paul Marshall
Center for Religious Freedom, The Hudson Institute


Paul MarshallPaul Marshall is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. He has published widely in newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times the Wall Street Journal, the Washington PostFirst Things, The New Republic, and The Weekly Standard. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books on religion and politics, including Their Blood Cries Out, Religious Freedom in the World, and Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion. Most recently he is the co-author, with Nina Shea, of Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide.



The following is adapted from a lecture delivered at Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C., on February 3, 2012.


The encroachment of de facto blasphemy restrictions in the West threatens free speech and the free exchange of ideas. Nor will it bring social peace and harmony. As comedian Rowan Atkinson warns, such laws produce “a veneer of tolerance concealing a snake pit of unaired and unchallenged views.” Norway’s far-reaching restrictions on “hate speech” did not prevent Anders Behring Breivik from slaughtering over 70 people because of his antipathy to Islam: indeed, his writings suggest that he engaged in violence because he believed that he could not otherwise be heard.

In the Muslim world, such restrictions enable Islamists to crush debate. After Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was murdered early last year by his bodyguards for opposing blasphemy laws, his daughter Sara observed: “This is a message to every liberal to shut up or be shot.” Or in the words of Nasr Abu-Zayd, a Muslim scholar driven out of Egypt: “Charges of apostasy and blasphemy are key weapons in the fundamentalists’ arsenal, strategically employed to prevent reform of Muslim societies, and instead confine the world’s Muslim population to a bleak, colourless prison of socio-cultural and political conformity.”

President Obama should put an end to discussion of speech with the OIC. He should declare clearly that in free societies, all views and all religions are subject to criticism and contradiction. As the late Abdurrahman Wahid, former president of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, and head of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization, wrote in his foreword to Silenced, blasphemy laws

. . . narrow the bounds of acceptable discourse. . . not only about religion, but also about vast spheres of life, literature, science, and culture in general. . . . Rather than legally stifle criticism and debate—which will only encourage Muslim fundamentalists in their efforts to impose a spiritually void, harsh, and monolithic understanding of Islam upon all the world—Western authorities should instead firmly defend freedom of expression. . . .

America’s Founders, who had broken with an old order that was rife with religious persecution and warfare, forbade laws impeding free exercise of religion, abridging freedom of speech, or infringing freedom of the press. We today must do likewise.