International Blasphemy Rights Day 2011

September 22, 2011

So Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Salman Taseer, has confessed to the murder. We were hardly in suspense. Prior to his formal plea in court, Qadri had boasted of his killing Taseer. In the minds of many Pakistanis, he had reason to be proud—Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, had proposed changes to Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws. Allowing insults to Islam? Unimaginable. When Qadri was first brought before a court in January, he was showered with rose petals.

Although Qadri confessed to the murder, he continues to maintain the killing was justified. Qadri submitted to the court a lengthy written statement, referring to eleven Quranic verses, twenty-eight quotes from Sunnah, four decisions of “the Righteous Caliphs” and the views of Imam Hanfi, Imam Shafi, Imam Malik, Imam Hanbal, Imam Jafferi and several other Muslims jurists, all supporting his position that every person who commits blasphemy or supports a blasphemer deserves death.

Pakistan is not the United States, of course. Even among Islamic countries it stands out for the severity of its blasphemy laws, and the support for such laws among its population. But although in most of the West there are no longer legal sanctions imposed on blasphemers, social taboos against criticism of religious beliefs remain strong. Express doubt about the divinity of Jesus? Question the claim of the Jews to be the chosen people? Suggest that Muhammad may not have been a divinely inspired prophet? It’s just not done (at least not outside the context of a book). The penalty is not jail time or execution—merely stony silence, angry condemnation, or ostracism. As a result, all too often religion gets a pass.

If religious persons kept their beliefs entirely to themselves, then, at least arguably, there would be less need for critical examination of these beliefs. But of course many of them do not. Far from being a purely private matter, religious beliefs are continually thrust into our faces, at public ceremonies, political debates, policy discussions, encounters with those sharing the “good news,” and so forth. If a belief is put forward for acceptance by the public, it should be subject to rigorous examination and criticism.

That’s one of the principal reasons we have International Blasphemy Rights Day: to make the point that religious beliefs should not be immune from criticism.

And we shouldn’t worry too much about the form that criticism takes. There was much hand-wringing among some self-described humanists when we announced the first IBRD in 2009. They worried that some might commemorate the day by making jokes about religious beliefs. Oh, horrors. Apologies were made to believers; we were compared to anti-Semites; blog posts were put up with swastikas.

Of course, if we are serious about the position that religious beliefs are subject to criticism, that implies that religious beliefs are entitled to no greater and no lesser respect than any other belief. Political beliefs are subject to refutation in learned essays, magazine articles, and blog posts; they are also ridiculed by polemicists, professional comedians, and ordinary folk. We should feel free to comment on religious beliefs in any and all of these ways.

Making a point by poking fun at some of the absurdities of religious beliefs is a method long followed by the religious themselves. No less estimable a figure than St. Augustine aimed for belly laughs when he ripped into pagan beliefs in Book IV of The City of God. What’s good enough for Zeus seems good enough for Yahweh, Allah, or the Trinity.

There’s no reason comedy shouldn’t be part of IBRD observances. And, in fact, at CFI’s headquarters in Amherst, we are having a night of comedy on September 24. (We’re getting a jump on the holiday.) Mr. Deity and his diabolical pal Lucy will be taking the stage. Yes, God is paying a visit to CFI. (I’m sure many suspect that Lucifer has always been in residence here.) Joining them will be comedians Joe Dixon and Philip Machemer. The show is called “Nothing Sacred.” We mean that. We’re expecting a few jokes about atheists. We can take it.

With respect to the form of commemorations on September 30 itself, we leave that to the good judgment of all those who maintain that no belief is entitled to special protection. We do urge everyone to take some time to reflect on the value of free speech and to commit to support the right of people everywhere to express their views about any topic. If  we care enough about free expression, and commit to continued advocacy on this issue, perhaps one day Pakistanis can voice doubts about Islam—or any religion—without risking death.