Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Protests in Pakistan Over Bill to Remove Blasphemy as a Capital Crime

Howard Friedman's Religion Clause Blog has a short post on major protests in Pakistan over a bill that would remove blasphemy from the country's list of capital offenses. See also this recent post.

Danish Police Arrest Five in Plan to Attack Jyllands-Posten

According to Slate, Danish police have arrested five men who planned to attack Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper that originally published the famous "Danish Muhammad Cartoons". According to police, the men had plotted to break into the newspaper's offices and "kill as many of the people present as possible."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas as a Secular Holiday

Monday's USA Today has interesting two articles reporting survey results and interviews on the often-discussed issue of whether Christmas is increasingly becoming a secular holiday because those who celebrate it often downplay or ignore the event's religious significance:

Thursday, December 16, 2010

American Convicted of Blasphemy in Indonesia

According to Howard Friedman's Religion Clause Blog, an American was recently convicted of blasphemy in Indonesia and sentenced to 5 months in jail. The American, Gregory Luke, became upset with a local mosque's broadcasts of the call to prayer during Ramadan. Although Luke denied it, the court found that he pulled the plug on the mosque's loudspeakers and therefore committed blasphemy and related crimes.

Secularism on the Rise With Youth in Canada

Yesterday's Globe and Mail has an interesting article on the rise of secularism among young people in Canada. According to the article, statistics indicate that "[m]ore than half of Canadians in the 15-to-29 age cohort either have no religion or never attend a service of worship" and the percentage that say religion is "very important" to them has declined significantly in the past decade and now sits at just 22 per cent. The article includes several interviews with non-religious young persons and is part of a "Future of Faith" series.

New South Wales' Blasphemy Statute

Below is the text of the blasphemy statute for the Australian State of New South Wales. I've often seen this referred to as a statute that abolishes the crime of blasphemy in the jurisdiction, but if you read it closely it actually only limits prosecutions to occasions where there is "scoffing or reviling", "violating public decency", or "manner tending to a breach of the peace". Since these criteria can often be found in traditional common law blasphemy prosecutions, the statute may not accomplish very much in the way of safeguarding freedom of speech.

Source: Crimes Act 1900 No. 40 s. 574 (valid as of July 9, 2010)
574. Prosecutions for blasphemy

No person shall be liable to prosecution in respect of any publication by him or her orally, or otherwise, of words or matter charged as blasphemous, where the same is by way of argument, or statement, and not for the purpose of scoffing or reviling, nor of violating public decency, nor in any matter tending to a breach of the peace.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tasmania's Blasphemy Statute

Here is the text of the Australian State of Tasmania's statute on blasphemy, which is still in force. It contains several elements that are familiar: no definition of what "blasphemous libel" is, an exception for speech made "in good faith and in decent language", and a provision that requires the consent of the Attorney-General to prosecute.

Source: Criminal Code Act 1924 s. 119
119. Blasphemy

(1) Any person who, by words spoken or intended to be read, wilfully publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of a crime.

(2) The question whether any matter so published is or is not blasphemous is a question of fact.

(3) It is not an offence under this section to express in good faith and in decent language, or to attempt to establish by arguments used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, any opinion whatever upon any religious subject.

(4) No person shall be prosecuted under this section without the consent in writing of the Attorney-General.

Monday, December 13, 2010

"Defaming Muhammad: Dignity, Harm, and Incitement to Religious Hatred"

Peter G. Danchin, Defaming Muhammad: Dignity, Harm, and Incitement to Religious Hatred, 2 Duke Forum L. & Soc. Change 5 (2010). (available on SSRN)

This is an interesting and provocative article that asks whether mainstream liberal legalism has correctly articulated the issues created by the Danish Muhammad cartoons. Danchin argues that "[w]hat has been most striking about the Danish cartoons controversy has been how the deep sense of injury expressed by so many Muslims . . . has literally been incomprehensible within Euro-Atlantic modernity." (p. 10) The article thus follows closely to the arguments expressed by Saba Mahmood in Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech while standing in opposition to Robert Post's article Religion and Freedom of Speech: Portraits of Muhammed which (according to Danchin) portrayed the controversy as a paradigmatic example of the necessity of adhering to strong freedom of speech principles in the face of conservative religious cries of blasphemy. Danchin thus asks us to step away from the exceptionalist U.S. approach to hate speech (which almost always finds such laws unconstitutional) and instead to examine more seriously the approaching international consensus that believers need legal protection against attacks on their faith. Danchin seems sympathetic to Mahmood's argument that Muslims were understandably angered by the cartoons because of their deep and intimate personal attachment to Muhammad. Under this analysis, "the notion of moral injury caused by denigratory or purposively offensive speech no longer falls as neatly into . . . private belief or conscience[,] [but] [r]ather suggests a sense of violation--and violence--that strikes at a Muslim's very being, a sense of wounding against an entire habitus or structure of affect." (pp. 31-32)

The article can be frustrating at times--many passages are difficult to decipher and Danchin carefully equivocates on important points. Moreso, he's writing as a political philosopher at a high level of generality, and thus avoids the hard questions that real politicians and lawyers would have to deal with: does the special relationship Muslims are said to have with Muhammad justify special legal protections that members of other faiths are apparently able to function without? Will Muslims grow a "thick skin" as the Islamic world increasingly clashes with modernity and the liberal devotion to free speech and criticism? Is this whole notion of a "special relationship" between Muslims and Muhammad really any different than believers of any religion feel towards their god, saints, prophets, or other religious leaders? (that is, do we have anything more than Saba Mahmood's word for this argument?). My sympathies are obvious more towards Robert Post's position, but Danchin's article is definitely worth reading as it's a sophisticated and thought-provoking reappraisal of the the common approach of treating the cartoons as a simple contest of free speech vs. blasphemy.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Centre for Inquiry Plans New Skeptical Bus Ads

The Toronto Star reports that, on the heels of last year's controversial advertising campaign ("There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.") the Centre for Free Inquiry plans to launch a new campaign in Canada that takes a skeptical approach to several religious and paranormal topics. The new ads will read "Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence: Allah, Bigfoot, UFOs, Homeopathy, Zeus, Psychics, Christ". The ads will roll out first on Toronto transit vehicles before spreading to other Canadian cities.

"Blasphemous" Exhibit at Smithsonian Topic of Discussion

The New York Times is reporting that next week the curators of the Smithsonian exhibition "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" will be discussing the recent decision to abruptly remove an exhibit that had been attacked as blasphemous by conservatives. The artwork, a video by David Wojnarowicz, depicts ants crawling on a crucifix and was apparently intended as commentary on the AIDs epidemic. The show's two curators, Jonathan Katz (who was against removal) and David Ward will discuss the controversy at a special panel hosted by the New York Public Library.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

General Assembly Approves "Defamation of Religions" Resolution

The UN General Assembly has once again passed a resolution condemning the "defamation of religions." This year the vote was 76-64, the slimmest margin to date. According to Howard Friedman's Religion Clause Blog, the resolution includes "Judeophobia" and "Christianophobia" for the first time (in addition to the traditional reference to "Islamophobia").

Pakistani Court Halts Blasphemy Law Reforms

Religion Clause Blog has a post about a temporary injunction issued recently by a Pakistani court that blocked recent reforms of the country's blasphemy legislation under the principle that Parliament lacks authority to amend laws relating to religion.

Friday, December 3, 2010

"Living Together With Disagreement: Pluralism, the Secular, and the Fair Treatment of Beliefs in Canada Today"

Iain T. Benson, Living Together With Disagreement: Pluralism, the Secular, and the Fair Treatment of Beliefs in Canada Today, Presentation to the Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life, University of Alberta (2010). Available on SSRN.

In this paper, Iain Benson reiterates his long-standing belief that the Canadian legal system has done a disservice to the role of religion in the public sphere by creating a regime where "secularism" is akin to official atheism instead of being "properly understood [as] a realm of competing faith/belief claims[.]" (p. 7) Benson illustrates his argument with long discussion of two cases: Chamberlain v. Surrey School District (which involved whether books that portrayed same-sex relationships as normal could be taught in schools over the objections of religious parents) and Trinity Western University v. British Columbia College of Teachers (which involved whether the graduates of a conservative religious teachers' college that opposed homosexuality should be certified to teach in public schools). A major theme running throughout this work is a perceived clash between religious freedom and the rights of GLBT individuals, with Benson coming down on the side of the former in every instance. In the second part of the essay, Benson criticizes liberalism's supposed tendency to become a totalizing force that excludes genuine diversity of thought and belief for a homogenized "tolerance" that (in his view) seems to privilege the values of certain minorities (and their "sexual dogma") over those of mainstream faith communities. Benson has made similar arguments elsewhere, such as in Recognizing Religion in a Secular Society: Essays in Pluralism, Religion, and Public Policy.

I don't find Benson's arguments particularly convincing and he occasionally assumes the position of a heavily-put upon minority and slips into a sarcastic, almost snide tone that is dismissive of GLBT individuals and what I believe are their legitimate demands for equal protection under the law. (see, e.g., p. 21) Benson is nowhere near as strident as many conservative Republicans writing during the U.S. culture wars, but he does seem to imply that GLBT individuals are the biggest threat facing the maintenance of "traditional" values in Canada.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Classroom Bible Distribution Stirs Controversy in Waterloo

The National Post has an interesting story about a school board in the Waterloo region of Ontario voting to allow the Gideons to distribute Bibles to children in the classroom. Students who want to receive the Bibles have to have a permission slip signed by their parents, but the practice has created controversy and may be challenged in court.