Wednesday, February 08, 2006
Good column by John O'Sullivan on the cartoons, but I wish he had dwelt longer on the arguments for a law against blasphemy. The arguments are worth airing, and seeing their implications. The most important implication is not for free speech but for freedom of religion.
"Blasphemy" is not a synonym for "offense." Blasphemy is a deliberate insult to the sacred, violating the third commandment, spuriously claiming powers or attributes properly reserved for the divinity, etc. To define blasphemy, you need to define the sacred, and the divine, and the attributes thereof. And religions do not agree about these definitions. Indeed, religions can conflict radically on these central points. For this reason, an egalitarian anti-blasphemy law cannot be conceived.
Christianity is, strictly speaking, blasphemous according to Islam. A convert to Islam makes a very simple declaration of faith: there is no God but God, and Muhammad is His prophet. These two beliefs - the unity and singularity of the divine, and the truth of Muhammad's prophecy in the Quran - are all that one can say with certainty a Muslim must affirm. According to any Muslim's interpretation of the former, Christianity is blasphemous. Christianity asserts that God was incarnated as the man, Jesus of Nazareth. The Quran explicitly instructs Muslims to reject this teaching. The Quran explicitly says that the doctrine of the trinity is blasphemous. A blanket prohibition on blasphemy would necessitate the prohibition of Christian evangelization.
Islam is, as well, blasphemous according to Christianity, or at least the Quran contains material that could be considered blasphemous. I'm thinking specifically of the fact that according to the Quran, Jesus was never crucified; instead, God replaced Jesus at the last minute with a dummy. As blasphemy, that's roughly comparable to Salman Rushdie's offense in writing The Satanic Verses, part of the conceit of which was that some verses of the Quran were dictated not by the Archangel Gabriel but by Satan. A blanket prohibition on blasphemy would therefore necessitate the prohibition of public reading or dissemination of the Quran.
Obviously, once we throw other religions into the mix the situation gets even more impossible. Jewish particularism is problematic for both Islam and Christianity. Hinduism is a problem for all monotheistic faiths; it's also a problem for Buddhism because of its characterization of the Buddha as an avatar sent to promulgate false doctrine. The LDS Church is considered idolatrous and blasphemous by most Christians. And so on and so forth.
A proper blasphemy law protects the established religion of a jurisdiction. And while arguably an establishment need not be unitary in character (I suppose you could establish the Protestant religion without establishing a particular denomination), it cannot be radically internally inconsistent and even contradictory. Which is what a law prohibiting blasphemy against any religion would effectively require: the establishment of all religions, in spite of their mutual contradiction. The only way to make an egalitarian blasphemy law work, then, would be by severe curtailment of freedom of religion, as well as speech.
Of course, since freedom of religion is impossible, I suppose we don't have to worry about that.