Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Three Arrests in Plot to Attack "Blasphemous" Newspaper

Several media outlets, including the Winnipeg Free Press, are reporting that police in Norway have arrested three men on suspicion they were planning to attack the offices of Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper responsible for printing the famous Muhammed cartoons.

American Muslim Magazine on Blasphemy and Free Speech

The Volokh Conspiracy has this post about a statement signed by several prominent American and Canadian Muslims about recent blasphemy controversies and the importance of freedom of speech.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Danish Mohammad Cartoons to Be Reprinted in Book

CNN is reporting that the globally controversial Danish Mohammad cartoons will be included in a new book by Flemming Rose, the culture editor of the newspaper (Jyllands-Posten) that originally printed them. The book is to be titled "The Tyranny of Silence" and will published on September 30.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

British Men Arrested for Burning Koran

Several news reports, including this one from the BBC, have reported the arrest in England of six men for burning copies of the Koran and then posting a video of the incident to YouTube. Interesting, the reports all state the men have been charged with inciting racial hatred instead of the country's new offense of inciting religious hatred (a recently created offense designed to replace the now-abolished common law offense of blasphemous libel).

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

International Blasphemy Rights Day and the AAI/HC North American Convention

September 30 is International Blasphemy Rights Day, and a special event is being held (sponsored by the Center for Free Inquiry) in Montreal that evening to kick off the Atheist Alliance International/Humanist Canada North American Convention, Atheists Without Borders. I'll be speaking briefly at that event, and then delivering a workshop the next day (Friday, October 1) on The Curious Persistence of Blasphemy Laws and Their Modern-Day Counterparts.

Friday, September 17, 2010

"The Satanic Verses"

Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988).

The Satanic Verses is probably the most famous "blasphemous" book of the latter-half of the Twentieth Century. The controversy over the novel made its author, Salman Rushdie, famous well beyond the literary world. The novel is very much in the "magical realism" vein, as divine/supernatural phenomena and quirky coincidences occur frequently, sometimes noticed and remarked upon by everyday people and sometimes not. At its core the story is about two men born in India, one who takes on the characteristics of the Archangel Gabriel and the other the characteristics of Satan. Themes include the effects of colonization (specifically, England on India) both in terms of society and in terms of the inner psyche of the colonized.

Although most of the book is set in the modern age, the chapters that created such a furor are set during the lifetime of Muhammed. The founder of Islam is given the name "Mahound" in the book, which is a contemptuous name deriving from Medieval Christian literature. The "Satanic Verses" of the title refers to a real-world historical controversy (one apparently rarely given credibility among theologians today): did Muhammed once proclaim that there were more Gods than Allah in order to derive temporary worldly benefits, and then recant once his power base was more secure? The "Satanic Verses", in other words, are verses from the Koran that can be viewed as having a pagan influence. In Rushdie's story, Mahound recites the verses after a spiritual revelation from a being whom he thinks is Gabriel; but after Mahound changes his mind, he says that the supposed divine revelations were a trick sent by the devil. The implication here and elsewhere, then, is that Mahound is simply stating as "divine revelation" whatever happens to be convenient at the time. In one passage, for example, Mahound's scribe (responsible for writing down Mahound's words in what would become the Koran) changes the words and even writes down the opposite out of spite, and Mahound doesn't even notice. The story can thus be read to call into question the entire validity of the Koran.

I lack the training to comment on the book's literary, historical, or theological merits. Purely as a novel, I found it moderately interesting but not exceptional. If nothing else, The Satanic Verses is a testament to the fact that, even in the age of television and computers, literature can still shake the world.

"Obscenity, Blasphemy, Sedition: 100 Years of Censorship in Australia"

Peter Coleman, Obscenity, Blasphemy, Sedition: 100 Years of Censorship in Australia, (rev. ed.) (Brisbane: Angus & Robertson, 1974).

Coleman's book, though written decades ago, is still one of the best sources for information on the early history of blasphemy in Australia. Chapter Four, "The Blasphemers", discusses a handful of prosecutions starting as early as 1871 and as recently as 1919.

The 1871 case involved the prosecution of a street preacher named Lorando Jones for giving a talk in a public park in which he denied the divinity of Christ and the divine inspiration of the Bible. Although Jones was convicted and spent some weeks in jail, Coleman states that "the case made the idea of prosecuting people for blasphemy so unpopular that it was largely responsible for finally killing the idea of blasphemy as a crime." (p. 65)

After a few pages devoted to the government campaign to suppress a freethinker magazine named Liberator (using laws other blasphemy, such as Sunday laws), the chapter goes on to discuss the Australian Post-Master General's vendetta against an Italian newspaper ("L'Asino") for publishing caricatures of God and a joint prosecution by the Post Office and the police in the State of Victoria against a Communist newspaper ("Ross's Magazine") for publishing a satire of what would happen if Bolsheviks took over Heaven. According to Coleman, this latter prosecution "is the last in which a Government instrumentality has taken action against a publication for its blasphemy." (p. 74)

I can't independently verify that statement, but no other cases have come to my attention either. Given the dearth of research on blasphemy laws in Australian history, Coleman's book is still worth tracking down.

* Note: This post is about the 1974 revised edition of the original 1963 book. I've seen some indications online that another edition was released in 2000 with slightly different subtitle.

Canadian Man Arrested on Charges of Witchcraft

A man in Brampton, Ontario, was arrested on Wednesday for practicing witchcraft and allegedly defrauding people who paid him to solve their problems. The National Post has a short report of the arrest.

I've always found fascinating the existence of prohibitions on witchcraft and fortune-telling in the Criminal Code, as they create some interesting issues around religious freedom, the nature of faith, and fraud. An excellent survey of Canadian caselaw on the subject can be found in Bob Tarantino's Under Arrest: Canadian Laws You Won't Believe and after I finish my dissertation on blasphemy I'd like to address the issue.

French Senate Passes Burqa Ban

The Associated Press is reporting that the French Senate approved the ban on burqas (face-covering veils) recently passed by the National Assembly (the lower level of the legislature). The Senate vote was a startling (to me, at least) 246-1. Before coming into effect, the bill will be referred to a special council to ensure it accords with the constitution.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Recent Blasphemy Controversies

Although the Dove World Outreach Center has discontinued its plans to hold "International Burn a Koran Day," controversies over blasphemy continue.

* Queensland University of Technology in Australia has suspended a lawyer for smoking a cigarette rolled with a combination of pages from the Koran and the Bible. (Religion Clause Blog).

* Justice Breyer of the United States Supreme Court was apparently unsure whether burning the Koran is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (Religion Clause Blog), but then decided it is. (Volokh Conspiracy)

* An advertising standards organization in the U.K. has rejected an ad for being offensive to Catholics. The advertisement showed a pregnant nun eating ice cream with the tag line "Immaculately conceived . . . Ice Cream is Our Religion." (Volokh Conspiracy)

* The New Jersey Transit authority has fired an employee for burning pages from the Koran. (Religion Clause Blog)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

"Beyond Case Reporters: Using Newspapers to Supplement the Legal-Historical Record"

I'm happy to report that my article Beyond Case Reporters: Using Newspapers to Supplement the Legal-Historical Record has been accepted for publication in the Drexel Law Review. The article uses unreported blasphemy prosecutions in Canada as a case study on the advantages of newspaper research.

A draft of the article is available on SSRN, and here is the abstract:

"Judicial opinions selected for inclusion in case law reporters are only a small fraction of the universe of legal materials that may provide insight into the history of how legal concepts work in practice. This article examines a neglected source of information: newspaper archives, many of which are becoming available in full-text electronic databases. This article argues that newspapers are a valuable supplement and corrective to legal research performed through traditional means. It includes a test case of how research on a discrete legal topic (Canada's prohibition on blasphemous libel) turns up very different results in newspaper archives compared to case reporters."

Friday, September 10, 2010

"Canadian Blasphemy Law in Context: Press, Legislative, and Public Reactions"

The Annual Survey of International and Comparative Law has published my article Canadian Blasphemy Law in Context: Press, Legislative, and Public Reactions. A free PDF is available here.

This is the abstract:

"Blasphemy law doesn't operate in a vacuum: journalists, social crusaders, and legislative reformists help shape what "blasphemy" means in any given society. This article attempts to place blasphemy in context by examining newspaper editorials, the works of anti-blasphemy campaigns, and a failed attempt to repeal Canada's blasphemy law in the House of Commons."

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"Blasphemy in Irish Law"

Paul O'Higgins, Blasphemy in Irish Law, 23 Modern L. Rev. 151 (1960)

Last year's passage of a new blasphemy law in Ireland presents a good opportunity to study the history of the offense in that country. O'Higgins' article, published in 1960, discusses several interesting facets of Irish blasphemy law: (1) How the Constitution's exemption of blasphemy laws from the free speech guarantee ties into "the Christian inspiration of the whole" document; (2) How various Irish statutes on blasphemy and related crimes stretch back hundreds of years; (3) How common law prosecutions for blasphemy in the 18th and 19th century indicate that authorities, at that time, had not adopted the matter/manner distinction later created by the House of Lords in Bowman; and (4) How it is difficult, due to a paucity of subsequent cases and disagreement over whether Bowman binds Ireland, to decide what the current common law crime of blasphemy is. Thus, O'Higgins states that "[t]he conclusion is then forced upon us that there is considerable doubt as to the meaning of the term 'blasphemous' as used in the Irish Constitution and in modern Irish legislation." (p. 166)

Controversy Over "International Burn a Koran Day"

This story has been all over the news, but in case you missed it, here's a link (via the Toronto Star) about the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainsville, Florida, a small congregation that has received global attention for their planned "Burn a Koran Day." The idea has received condemnation from religious leaders and even military officers because it will obviously be seen as a blasphemous and hateful act by Muslims all over the world.

The story is an interesting example of the robust constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and religion operative in the United States, as I haven't heard a single suggestion in the American media that law enforcement has the right or obligation to prevent the plan from going through. In other countries, including where I live in Canada, I imagine that blasphemy or religious vilification/hate propaganda laws would be quickly invoked.