Couldn’t the UN just put a stop to it?

Katha Pollitt on blasphemy. She starts with a public radio chat in which John Hockenberry said to BBC chief Jeremy Bowen:

Hockenberry: I’m wondering if it’s possible for the United Nations to create an initiative that would talk about some sort of global convention on blasphemy, that would create a cooperative enterprise to control these kinds of incidents, not to interfere into anybody’s free speech rights but to basically recognize that there is a global interest in keeping people from going off the rails over a perceived sense of slight by enforcing a convention of human rights, only in this particular case it would be anti-blasphemy?

So he wants a global convention to enforce an anti-blasphemy convention of human rights…not (of course) to interfere into anybody’s free speech rights, but to –

Well how would you enforce an anti-blasphemy convention without interfering with free speech rights?

So the only thing preventing some sort of international convention against “blasphemy” is that people can’t agree about what it is? Perhaps the UN could ask Vladimir Putin, who was eager to send three members of Pussy Riot to prison for appearing at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior to perform an anti-Putin “punk prayer” to the Virgin Mary. Their crime: “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” The rise of the Russian Orthodox church in the former Soviet Union, and its connections to a corrupt authoritarian regime, shows that Islam has no monopoly on religious freakouts or their exploitation for political purposes.

Quite. We also know that the only reason the Vatican doesn’t do the same thing is because it can’t. When it could, it did. It didn’t stop because it got nicer; it stopped because that wouldn’t fly any more.

Sorry, John and Jeremy, there is just no way to “control these kinds of incidents” without suppressing free speech, because the very concept of “blasphemy” entails powerful clerics deciding what a religion “really” says, and what questions about that are legitimate. And why shouldn’t religion be fair game for rude remarks, mockery and humor, to say nothing of bold challenges and open expressions of disbelief? Ethnic attacks like Geller’s ad are disgusting—calling Muslims savages is like calling Jews subhuman—but I’d say on the whole “blasphemy” has been a force for good in human history. It is part of the process by which millions of people have come to reject theocracy and think for themselves.

When it comes to ideas—and religions are, among other things, ideas—there is no right not to be offended.

Happy blasphemy day.


  1. says

    This creates problems, as every religion blasphemes all the others.

    So if we are say, Anglicans running a Sunday school, we will have to make sure that answers to questions like ‘the Muslims say Mohammed was the Prophet of God. Is that true?’ are given a carefully scripted answer, appropriately checked and witnessed.

    It’s a minefield. But I am sure that lawyers would see its virtues straight away. Well, a fair few of them, anyway.

  2. Anonymous Atheist says

    “This creates problems, as every religion blasphemes all the others.
    So if we are say, Anglicans running a Sunday school…”

    And how about the branches of Christianity that don’t even agree on Sunday being the ‘holy’ day of the week… 😉

  3. Randomfactor says

    Well how would you enforce an anti-blasphemy convention without interfering with free speech rights?

    Well, I suppose you could handle it by focusing on the people doing the rioting in violation of the secular law, the same way EVERY FREAKING OTHER CRIME IS HANDLED.

    But that might be a radical idea.

  4. StevoR says

    The UN has long been pretty much totally useless and rightly criticised as little more than a dictators debating club.

    It would be sadly ironic if this anti-blasphemy law was the one and about only thing the UN managed to actually enforce.

    Also very surprising given the inability of the UN to stop the was and slaughter in Rwanda, Bosnia, Syria, etc .. which, after all, was its original and primary purpose.

    If it can’t manage that job -what good is it? If the Un starts banning “blasphemy” perhaps its existence needs to be questioned and at the very least some serious reforms to it made?

    Freedom of speech is, I think under immense attack by the religious everywhere and deserves defending however negative some of its consequences might be.

    I do very strongly agree with the adage -frequently wrongly attributed to Voltaire – that “I may disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.”

    As for Happy Blasphemy Day -cheers! (Raised beer salute.)

    Ed Brayton’s FTB blog has this thread :

    on that worth looking at too.

  5. StevoR says

    @3.Randomfactor :

    “Well how would you enforce an anti-blasphemy convention without interfering with free speech rights?” – Ophelia Benson.

    Well, I suppose you could handle it by focusing on the people doing the rioting in violation of the secular law, the same way EVERY FREAKING OTHER CRIME IS HANDLED. But that might be a radical idea.

    I’m pretty sure that rioting is already a criminal offence and is NOT the same thing as blasphemy or free speech.

    Not sure I see a connection really.

    Blasphemy and free speech can lead to riots by, for example : Muslims upset at a flippin’ Z-grade film somewhere. The Muslim rioters then are criminals for rioting and should be focused on under the law they’ve violated.

    The person or people who’ve blasphemed by producing OTOH are NOT responsible for the rioting response. (They may be guilty of producing bad stupid art but nothing worse. No victim blaming against them for the actions of others in response to that, plz thx!)

    Now I do accept that there are some minimal and reasonable limits on free speech :

    – Shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre.

    – leaking state secrets and violating official secrecy acts.

    – making libellous /slanderous statements.

    But non-one has any right NOT to be offended. No religion or ideology should be immune from mockery and criticism.

    Any blasphemy law that prevents such mockery or criticism and effectively gives the thin-skinned uber-zealous religious fanatics a veto on what may and may not be said is I would say obviously a ridiculous and very wrong thing.

  6. Jean says

    My religious beliefs are that there is no God(s) and that Jesus and Mohammed are fictional characters in fairy tales book. And anyone saying otherwise is blasphemous.

    So should I have the right to destroy any church and mosque because of that? And will the UN protect me from being offended everyday by the billions of Christians and Muslims who do not respect my sacred beliefs?

  7. says

    Ian, that’s actually what’s happening here in Indonesia. Indonesia passed blasphemy laws; it has since had serious issues with growing religious intolerance.

    The Indonesian minister of Religious Affairs stated that Shia Islam was blasphemous. After which a surge of attacks on Shia Muslims has been sweeping the country. Pathetic 3 week sentences for 11 men convicted of murdering 3 Shia’s does nothing to deter further killings.

    A Christian man denying that the prophet Mohammad was a prophet was sentenced to 2 years for blasphemy.


    All major religions are exclusive. They believe all other religions are wrong; this means that every major religion considers every other religion to be blasphemous. The blasphemy laws in Indonesia did not eliminate blasphemy; it simply warranted the violent persecution of minorities.

  8. F says

    Yes, the UN (which certainly should not have this capability), to whom no one listens or properly supports, should just be able to make some world blasphemy law. Chortle.

    StevoR @5, I think that is exactly Randomfactor’s point. You deal with the criminal activities, even if they are (allegedly) in reaction to some “blasphemy”. Even if you, the gov/law enfarcement, are all worked up about this “blasphemy” as well.

    (What used to be popular was to issue a fatwah against the actual blasphemer (OK, with some rioting as well), but now the “offended” are too lazy for that and want instant gratification, regardless as to whether their victims are any way involved.)

    The UN has the power member states give it, which is little to none, and the big players make sure of it. Of course the UN can’t stop wars or ethnic cleansing except by positioning themselves between groups, with agreement of said groups. They cannot waltz in and make war on an aggressor – even if every other country in the world recognizes one side clearly as the aggressor. They can barely fire weapons in self-defense. They are meant to take their APCs and run.

  9. Kimpatsu says

    “…calling Muslims savages is like calling Jews subhuman…”
    Except that Islam is a philosophy and Jewish is an ethnicity. How can you equate the two?

  10. davidhart says

    Depending on how you look at it, though, Kimpatsu, Islam is a ‘philosophy (by which I think you mean ‘religion’), and Judaism is also a philosphy (i.e. a religion). The fact that Jews also constitute a vaguely-defined ethnic group does not negate that. Indeed, the fact that ‘Jews’ as an ethnic group have been subject to so much systematic persecution, in a way that other ethnic groups such as ‘Catalans’ or ‘Bavarians’ or ‘Welsh’ or ‘Ukrainians’ have not (note that some or all of these groups will have been subject to persecution at some times, but none have been subject to it so consistently for centuries in the same way that Jews have) is almost certainly because their ‘philosophy’ is so different from that of their Christian neighbours. As I remember someone pointing out, to a Christian, the Jews are not merely ordinary run-of-the-mill heretics; they are heretics who explicitly reject the central hypothesis of Christianity, namely the divinity of Jesus – which surely has quite a lot to do with their shoddy treatment by Christians through the ages.

  11. says

    Eldin @ #7: Yes.

    Very sad for the innocent victims, but one only has to view the TV reports of the outraged mobs of fanatical film critics in the streets of your typical Pakistani city to realise how this competition over who can act the most outraged can get over the top very quickly.

    Whatever their sympathies, governments in Islamic countries are loath to intervene.

  12. Bob-B says

    Blasphemy offends the strongly held religious beliefs of people. But people also have strongly held non-religious beliefs. No one suggests that strongly held non-religious beliefs should enjoy protection, so why should strongly held religious beliefs be protected?

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