Sadly, every day brings us its lot of tragic news from the Muslim world.
Raging mobs, suicide bombings, desecration of temples, murders, explosions, religious conflicts, bombing of innocent civilians, forced marriages of little girls to elders, stoning of women, disfigurations with acid, genital mutilations, gender discriminations, honor killings, human rights violations, … the daily flow of heartbreaking news is never ending, and women are alas often on the losing end of these barbaric equations.
The recent news of a young Christian woman, Rimsha Masih, threatened by the death penalty in Pakistan for blasphemy – having allegedly burned a few pages of a religious textbook – is yet again, a dreadful example of the retrograde customs and laws still practiced in many Muslim countries.
As the evidence seems to indicate, she was very likely framed and turned into a scapegoat for being part of a Christian minority.
The circumstances of her arrest are unarguably murky and suspicious:
Was she taken advantage of because of her simple and innocent mind?
Was false evidence planted after her arrest?
Was a Muslim cleric involved?
How would a young Christian girl from an extremely poor family (her parents are street sweepers) find the money to buy an Islamic religious book costing many times a street sweeper’s salary?
Many unanswered questions will likely remain unanswered in a story that makes no sense and evidently appears to be a shameful and appalling fabrication.
To an outraged Western world, the most shocking aspect is less the specificity of the case itself, however unjust it may appear, than the fact that in our enlightened 21st century, young girls can be lynched, burned or stoned to death for alleged blasphemy – in the way Jewish children were murdered in Europe during the Inquisition.
In our societies, where freedom of religion, freedom of thought and freedom of speech are core values and protected as critical individual rights – particularly for minority groups – it is almost impossible to conceive that anyone could face reprisal of any kind, let alone judicial prosecution, for such (hypothetical) actions.
Freedom of speech through the media, art, literature or publications mocking or criticizing political figures, religious leasers or books of any kinds – holy or not – is common practice in Western societies.
Are there limits to freedom of speech? Should there be limits in a truly democratic society?
There certainly should be limits on hate speech – particularly when directed to private individuals with the intent to harm or defame, but such restrictions should be minimal and not interfere broadly with individual freedom of speech.
Ultimately, a free society will always be better off, tolerating a few idiots uttering racist or anti-Semitic propaganda or any kind of offensive discourse, than suffering from restrictive and too far-reaching censorship.
During sometimes heated, debates people often ask how free should speech truly be?
What about calling the President of the United States a Fascist? Is this acceptable?
Anyone paying some attention to the current electoral battle between Republican and Democrats can hear such fallacious accusations being thrown around on regular basis.
What about calling the Pope a Nazi? Surely improper …
What about publishing pictures of a naked prince or semi-naked princess in large-audience newspapers? Utterly shocking, and indecent, isn’t it?
Tasteless gossips and invasion of privacy seems to be the bread and butter of many trashy publications, such as French tabloid Closer. (Note: thankfully, a ban on publication has recently been imposed based on French privacy laws and restitution of the pictures has been ordered. Not for nudity or indecency reasons, but solely for the sacred respect of private life deeply rooted in French society, including for public figures).
What about burning the Koran and making it a public celebration? Clearly offensive and deplorable.
On April 28, 2012, Reverend Terry Jones and some of his followers burned a copy of the Koran in Gainesville, Florida. This provocative event was widely publicized and staged, with the intent of making a strong statement against the risk of Sharia law imposing restrictions on American freedom. This rather disgraceful act and unnecessary provocation was strongly opposed by President Obama and virtually all American Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders. Yet, even the President of the United States of America could not impeach such action, since in the U.S., freedom of speech, even when xenophobic or fanatical, cannot be restricted.
A rather amusing outcome of this burning of the Koran, was that Reverend Terry Jones was subsequently fined $271, not for burning the Koran – which is no more illegal in the U.S. than burning the Torah or the Bible – but for non respect of the Gainsville municipal fire regulations!
What about mocking God himself (or herself)? Surely off limits, isn’t it?
Far from it! It is a national sport in the anticlerical country I come from. And on the other side of the channel, Monty Python, and their infamous, insolent and hilarious “Life of Brian”, produced the ultimate rebellious spoof on the Messiah and acidic mockery of religion and sectarian brainwashing.
These are just a few examples amongst many of the unrestricted right of speech that is fundamental to any democratic and free society. The right to criticize freely the President, the King, the Pope or even God herself. (As Lindy used to say; “When God created man, she was only joking.”)
Many moderate Muslims around the world have voiced their disapproval of the blasphemy law and their condemnation of the unacceptable arrest of Rimsha. Some are calling for reform of the Sharia laws and separation of church (mosque) and state. Many Muslim women are seeking greater independence from patriarchal tyranny. For this moderate minority, these are never mundane or easy choices – since in the past, public figures have been murdered, simply for opposing the death penalty associated with the blasphemy law or trying to modernize Islamic societies.
As difficult as it is, we must keep supporting these moderate voices in an ocean of intolerance and medieval bigotry. Reforms must come from within. Western democracies cannot impose their codes of ethics onto other countries. Hopefully, through education and through exposure to other civilizations and other cultures, the Muslim world will gradually move towards modernity and respect of individual freedom.
Update: November 21, 2012. Great news: Blasphemy charges against Rimsha have been dismissed. Evidence were found to have been fabricated. Burned pages from a copy of the Qur’an were apparently planted by a local cleric (Khalid Chishti) in a bag that Rimsha was taking to the trash. Rimsha has been exonerated of all charges.