The Bible prescribes death for anyone who “blasphemes the name of the Lord” (Leviticus 24:16), but Jews and Christians have long since discarded this law along with most (though not all) of the Old Testament’s anachronistic prohibitions. In citing the Biblical rule, foreign affairs commentator Fareed Zakaria joined the many other experts who have stressed during the past week that the Koran contains no analogous prohibition against blasphemy.
To the contrary, the many experts say that Mohammed preached tolerance for persons of other faiths during his life. Yet despite the lack of any scriptural basis, too many present-day Muslims not only jihadists, but also Islamic governments believe that they are entitled or even commanded to punish those who take Mohammed’s name or image in vain.
The Kouachi brothers in France acted most dramatically on this misguided belief last week [Jan. 7] in their terroristic assault on the staff of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The native born Chérif and Saïd Kouachi killed 12 people in all in the noontime assault on the newspaper’s Paris offices, including the editor and four of the cartoonists responsible for the mocking images of Mohammed.
The cartoonists were not actually mocking Mohammed, but those present-day Muslims who invoke his name to justify jihadist attacks on the United States and the West and the universal principles of freedom of speech and religion. In one, a weeping Mohammed is shown saying, “C’est dur d’être aimé par les cons” (“It is hard to be loved by idiots”).
The killings sparked indignant rage in France and around the world along with defiant solidarity with the victims: “Je suis Charlie.” Encouragingly, many Muslim leaders in France and the United States unambiguously denounced the attack. Two days later, the Kouachis died in a gunfight with French police; an apparent accomplice was killed in a separate gunfight after having first murdered four innocents in a kosher butcher shop.
The dramatic events overshadowed two other disturbing instances of Islamist excess later in the week carried out not by individual terrorists but by established governments in Muslim countries. In Pakistan, an accused blasphemer, Abib Mahmood, was killed by gunmen [Jan. 8] after authorities released him on grounds of mental illness.
Mahmood’s release belies Pakistan’s harsh policies toward blasphemy. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported in March that 33 people were imprisoned in Pakistan for blasphemy: 14 under sentence of death and 19 others serving life terms. The Associated Press story on Mahmood’s death noted that in Pakistan “people often take the law into their own hands.”
The next day, a dissident Saudi blogger, Raif Bawadi, was flogged publicly 50 times in Jeddah as the start of a 1,000-lash sentence for supposedly insulting Islam. Badawi was arrested in 2012 for criticizing Saudi Arabia’s clerics on his now banned website Liberal Saudi Network. He was spared a possible death sentence after he was cleared of apostasy, but his criticism of the religious establishment still drew a 10-year prison sentence and $266,000 fine along with the flogging to be carried out over 20 weeks.
The U.S. State Department sharply criticized the punishment being carried out against Bawadi and has long urged Pakistan to revise its anti-blasphemy laws. But the supposed U.S. allies have taken little if any heed. The religious freedom commission noted that another U.S. ally, Egypt, has four people in prison for blasphemy convictions.
What can the United States and its European allies do to counter the separate issues of terrorism and freedom-suppressing Islamic governments? Some things, but only so much. Along with human rights groups, the United States and its allies can continue to argue bilaterally and in international forums against anti-blasphemy laws and prosecutions, in individual cases and more generally. To make the case, they can stress, as the religious freedom commission notes, that the laws in operation actually promote religious discord instead of harmony.
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, most of the officials and experts appeared to concentrate on the law enforcement aspects of counterterrorism policies. It was noted that the Kouachis had long been on the radar of intelligence and law enforcement agencies in France and the United States, but surveillance lapsed as the brothers lay low for a period of years.
Along with law enforcement, however, European governments in particular must counter the Islamists’ anti-West narrative by providing a more welcoming environment for Muslims, according to the U.S. State Department’s former special representative to Muslim communities. In a conference call arranged by the Council on Foreign Relations, Farah Pandith explained that many Muslim millennials, like the Kouachi brothers, have come of age since 9/11 and have been “saturated with narratives saying that they don’t belong.” Unsurprisingly, Pandith says, a radical Islamic narrative finds fertile ground among some.
Pandith, who served at the State Department from the Danish cartoon crisis of 2003 through 2013, says the government’s programs for countering the Islamist terrorist narrative are underfunded. European governments, she says, need to dismantle policies that limit religious expression for Muslims and to be more receptive to claims of anti-Muslim discrimination. Unfortunately, many European politicians exploit instead of seeking to redirect the anti-Islamic sentiments among the public.
Muslim organizations and individuals have a responsibility as well. The world’s 1.5 billion Muslims have no collective responsibility for the Kouachis, of course, but silence = death. Islam’s faithful believers must do all they can to speak out and act against the jihadists and authoritarian Muslim governments who are the true blasphemers of Islam of present times.