Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Indonesian Atheist Beaten by Mob, Arrested

Last month, The Telegraph (UK) carried a story about a man in Indonesia beaten by a mob and then arrested for blasphemy after stating that God does not exist on his Facebook page. The man, named only Alexander, showed up for work and was attacked by a mob, part of which consisted of his colleagues. He was then taken into protective custody and later arrested and charged with blasphemy which carries a five-year sentence. According to the Telegraph, “Under the Indonesian criminal code blasphemy is defined as publicly expressing feelings or taking some action that spreads hatred, abuse or taints a religion in a way it would cause someone to disbelieve any of the country’s six official religions.”

Thanks to Volokh Conspiracy for bringing this story to my attention.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tunisian Prosecution of "Persepolis" Seen as Crucial Signpost for Country's Future

The New York Times has a fascinating article about how a blasphemy prosecution in Tunisia has become a public battleground and rallying cry for both sides in a struggle between conservative Islamists and secularists for control of a country that only a year ago underwent a dramatic revolution. The prosecution itself involves a man named Nabil Karoui, the director of a television station in Tunisia, who decided to air the movie Persepolis, which is the autobiographical story of a young woman's experiences during the Iranian Revolution. The movie contained a short scene in which God was given anthropomorphic form, and this led to an outcry among the most conservative of Tunisia's Muslims (known as Salafis). Karoui, the station director, had his house attacked and was then charged with libelling religion. The trial has been postponed multiple times, and violence has followed court proceedings as other members of the station have been attacked by angry crowds. According to the article, the outcome of the prosecution is seen in Tunisia as a crucial marker of what direction the country is heading in.

Thanks to Volokh Conspiracy and Religion Clause for bringing this article to my attention.

"Blasphemy Trials in Quebec, 1900-1935"

Marika Tamm, Blasphemy Trials in Quebec, 1900-1935 (unpublished student paper 1992).

This interesting paper examines five prosecutions for blasphemy in Quebec in the early third of the Twentieth Century. Four of the prosecutions discussed—Pelletier, Kinler, St. Martin, and Rahard are reported cases—but the fifth, Pilon, is an unreported case that (apart from a reference to it in Rahard) I had been unable to find any information about. Tamm’s research makes good use of French language secondary sources to add background and insight to her caselaw analysis. Some key points include:

* An argument that the fictional debate over baptism which was the subject of prosecution in Pelletier “can in fact be interpreted as an allegory about the theological schism between Catholics and Protestants” (p. 16), leading to the conclusion that “the inventor of the dialogue . . . was in fact a Protestant, and wrote the piece to stir up theological controversy within the Christian church” (p. 17) as opposed to the trial judge’s finding that the piece was an attack on Christianity altogether.

* Context for the prosecution in St. Martin. Tamm explains that Albert St. Martin was a prominent leader of the Communist Party of Canada and founded a sort of lecture/discussion series called the Université ouvrière, which was “regarded with hostility and suspicion by the Quebec authorities.” St. Martin’s prosecution as caused, at least in part, by anti-Communist sentiment in heavily Catholic Quebec is a valuable insight that one probably wouldn’t gather solely from reading the reported court opinion.

* Discussion of Pilon. Tamm explains that Gaston Pilon was St. Martin’s “right-hand man” and a popular speaker at the Université ouvrière who helped run the series when St. Martin’s health became poor. One of Pilon’s lectures led to his arrest for blasphemous libel in 1934, and Justice Wilson of Montreal’s King’s Bench found him guilty. Compared to the normal fine of around $ 100 leveled in other blasphemy cases, the sentence in Pilon is startling: “Noting that Pilon had a long series of previous criminal convictions for larceny, vagrancy and drunkenness, and possession of drugs, the judge admitted to exercising no leniency in sentencing, and committed Pilon to one year at hard labour.” (p. 29) It is not known if Pilon appealed the verdict. This was the maximum sentence available, and by far the most severe levied for blasphemy in Canada history. Tamm cites the newspaper Le Devoir for information on the Pilon case, and in the future I hope to dig into that newspaper's archives to study the case further.

As a general theme, Tamm notes that “[t]he majority of the cases—in fact all of the five Quebec cases—involved an affront not just to religious belief in general, but were prosecutions against people who spoke out specifically against Roman Catholic institutions and practices . . . [and] [t]here was an overt political dimension to some of the cases: the speakers were not only dissenting from religious orthodoxy but were also expressing viewpoints that presented a challenge to the existing political establishment of the state.” (p. 3)

My thanks to Marika Tamm for permission to cite and quote this paper, and to Susan Lewthwaite and Jim Philips for informing me about this work and helping me obtain a copy.