The Politics of Blasphemy: Offending Others as Free Speech


Blasphemy is in the air, it seems. The last day of September will mark the second annual “International Blasphemy Day,” so designated by the Center For Inquiry, a think tank that promotes science and secularism. Meanwhile, you don’t have to wait till then to find numerous YouTube videos featuring desecration of the Blessed Sacrament. In Spain, as Pat Archbold blogged yesterday, a priest struck a young man for desecrating the Eucharist. The fisticuff made headlines; otherwise, it would be just another desecration.

September 30 was chosen for International Blasphemy Day to commemorate the 2005 publication of controversial cartoons of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in 2005, and the protests and occasional violence that followed. The same controversy recently inspired an artist to propose May 20 as “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.”

Then there’s this Saturday, September 11, the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and other sites. A fundamentalist pastor with a tiny flock of 50 followers near Gainsville, Florida wishes to dub 9/11 “International Burn a Koran Day,” and plans to burn copies of the Qur’an with members of his church.

You’ve gotta love the information age. Not so long ago, if you were a pastor of a teeny-tiny flock with a name like “Dove World Outreach Center,” you would be doing all right if you landed yourself on page 3 of the local section of the nearest big-city paper on a slow news Sunday. Today, if you play your cards right, you can get figures like General David Petraeus, Robert Gibbs and President Obama discussing the significance and international impact of your actions. That’s because desecrating a Qur’an can lead to threats of retaliatory violence on a considerably larger scale than a blow from a priest, and aimed at innocents, not just the desecrators.

In a twisted way, the whole Qur’an burning controversy might almost seem as if everybody wins. Terry Jones wins because his laughably named “International Burn a Koran Day” suddenly is international news, in a way vindicating his methods by giving him the platform he desires. The mainstream media wins because they get a hot, controversial story spotlighting a poster boy for Christian intolerance. The Taliban and al-Qaeda win because they get a new propaganda talking point for bringing recruits to the cause. And whatever violence and atrocities might follow gives Jones more fodder to defend his attack on Islam, so he wins again.

There will be losers, though. Moderate Muslims pained by the desecration of the Qur’an, along with whatever acts of violence could follow it. Mainstream Christians grieved to see the name of Jesus dragged through the mud yet again. Then there are those whose lives could be lost in despicable retaliation to this shameful act. Finally, those whose souls could be lost to anger, hatred and violence. Of course ultimate responsibility for any such casualties, moral or physical, lies with those who give in to hate and anger and turn to violence. But Jones will not be without some level of culpability, nor perhaps will the media be that lavished on him attention and controversy instead of leaving him to the obscurity he richly deserves.

What exactly is at stake on September 11? What are the larger issues in this rising social advocacy of desecrating the sacred symbols of others? More tomorrow.