There seems to be some sort of broad, and broadly inaccurate, belief that somehow the obsessions with blasphemy throughout the Islamic world are the product of Islamism. Hence, the theory seemed to run, once Morsi was removed in Egypt via coup, there would be a new birth of religious freedom.
In fact, as the cases of Amr Abdullah and Karam Saber demonstrate, prosecutions for failing to be sufficiently orthodox in one’s belief are alive and well in Egypt even as the Brotherhood is hunted down and systematically killed. (529 of them sentenced to death in a day? Are you kidding me?) Abdullah was arrested and sentenced to five years in a prison labor camp for being a Shi’ite–the crime is actually called “insulting the Companions” –and Karam Saber wrote a series of short stories, entitling his collection “Where is God?” I read them, didn’t find them at all blasphemous, though decidedly secular. However, the Azhar and the Beni Suef Diocese found them quite blasphemous, and declared them insulting and artistically meritless, which of course must mean not only do I not have any artistic taste (for who am I relative to the wise censors of the Coptic Church authorities and the Azharites)but their author deserves five years in prison. Then there’s the leading role the Azhar is currently playing in seeking to ban the movie Noah. Which actually bothers me less, mainly because I figure Russell Crowe can take care of himself much better than poor, besieged Amr Abdullah and Karam Saber can.
Turn to Malaysia, another state that makes a practice of sentencing Islamists to death on dubious charges, and the issue remains whether or not Christians can refer to God as “Allah”. Currently there is a ban on that. This is really helpful to those of us in the American Muslim community who keep insisting that the term “Allah” just means “God”, and in fact was the word Christians and Jews used for “God” before the Qur’an. All some crackpot Tennessee legislator has to do is pull up a newspaper and start quoting the Malaysians insisting Allah isn’t God and there goes my rather robust intellectual position.
So the point is, blasphemy is alive and well in the Islamic world, and quite often, practiced not only by Islamists (though they practice it too) but even more remarkably and forcefully in many instances by their supposed enemies. If someone can discern any sort of movement in the Egyptian courts away from blasphemy prosecutions in the post Morsi era, they are seeing things I can’t. It’s not “Brotherhood lite” any more than Obama’s drone policy is “Bush lite.” It’s just “Brotherhood.” I’d say the same for Malaysia, though of course the UMNO never lost power there, and I don’t read the language well, so I cannot judge the progress of the court system with any level of sophistication or nuance.
I’ve always found First Amendment absolutism a little extreme in the United States–it always struck me as perhaps an American luxury that could not be afforded elsewhere. Why risk the social stability of an entire state on the fact that some loon wants to burn a Qur’an (or a Bible) or post an image of the Prophet depicted as a pig (or Jesus or Buddha). Is the right to be an ass that important? Does a man have to hear about or see a sign about how God loves dead US soldiers because of American support for gay rights while he seeks to bear his boy in peace? Really?
But of course the problem is that all too often on the other side you end up as Egypt is–pure and unadulterated thought control where any idea that lies beyond the narrow confines of long accepted orthodoxy is blasphemous, and religious discourse is thereby rendered sclerotic and positively tiresome to anyone seeking even mild intellectual engagement. And there is no real choice as between those two alternatives.
As for the destabilizing loonies? Probably easiest to ostracize and harass them out of existence. It works okay for the Westboros, who seem to be in trouble, and for Terry Jones who can say he was arrested for wanting to burn Qur’ans, but I’m sorry it seems to me a better world when folks are free to think what they want but are absolutely not allowed to be driving around armed and carrying literally 3000 books of any kind soaked in kerosene in a pickup truck on their way to a public park to start a fire. and of course in the Islamic world this isn’t our problem in any event when it comes to prosecutions of provocateurs because people this extreme wouldn’t get to court. There isn’t someone dumb enough to burn a Qur’an in public, and even if there was, he’d be dead, and the police would never “find” the perpetrators. If that happens for honor killers, it will certainly happen for Qur’an burners. So we might as well get our legal and judicial system at least a little more accustomed to a little more openness in our religious discourse, if we are to have any hope of advancing it.