Blasphemy is the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence, to God, religious persons, or something which is considered sacred or inviolable.
According to the book of Mark 3.29, blasphemy is an eternal sin, for which the book of Leviticus 24.13 mandates death by stoning, whether they are a foreigner or a local. Such beliefs are not unique to Christians, although not all are as militant.
For example, the Koran in section 73.10 calls upon its followers to be patient over what is said about them by others and leave them in peace. In the 21st century, some Muslims do not interpret this in a peaceful way, preferring to kill those offending their faith. The two men who turned up with machine guns at a conference in Texas displaying cartoons of Muhammad failed, compared to the two brothers who arrived at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and executed 11 people.
There are 47 countries around the world in which the crime of blasphemy is recognised. Even within New Zealand the offence remains in the Crimes Act.
Kiwi Philip Blackwood is currently serving two and a half years with hard labour in Myanmar for using an image of Buddha wearing headphones. Englishwoman Gillian Gibbons was sentenced to up to 40 lashes for naming her teddy bear Muhammad while living in Sudan. Pussy Riot were jailed for their performance in an orthodox cathedral in Moscow. Katy Perry was subject to tens of thousands of people calling for her work to be censored for portraying a pendant inscribed "Allah" in Arabic script. Pope Francis said that if someone insults the faith of others, they can expect a reaction to the provocation.
Following the most recent attack in Texas, there will be many calls to stop provoking and self-censorship, to stop those who are going to use weapons, not words, from acting. The problem is that provocation and its sidekick satire are central to free speech. Freedom of speech, or the ability to communicate one's opinions and ideas, is the most important of all human rights, as our ability to think and communicate with minimal restraint is the essence of freedom, if not humanity. As a mature civilisation, we recognise that this is not an absolute right. There is no freedom for incitement to violence, libel, types of pornography and copyright.
Aside from such exceptions, we are allowed to say, write or draw what we believe. Satire, as the communication of the vices, follies, abuses and shortcomings that are held up to ridicule, is at the forefront of this freedom. In many instances, the satire is tasteless, rude and needlessly offensive. The ideal is that via social criticism, individuals, groups, governments or society itself will be shamed into improvement. Humour is the weapon. Irony, sarcasm and parody are the ammunition.
Most western countries have learnt to live with satire, due to the realisation that it is impossible to maintain free speech if speech is only allowed up to the point where someone else is offended, as everyone is offended by something.
Tolerance of the opinions of others no matter how offensive is the rule, as a free and tolerant society is strong enough to weather such insults. The difficulty is that the intolerant do not like being ridiculed and do not believe in tolerance.
For 47 countries the option remains to lock up, torture or execute those who cause offence to religion. This type of thinking is consistent with the traditional approach where free speech was governed by the reach of the printing press and the intolerant kept order by collecting and burning the books, or the people, that offended them. In the 21st century this is no longer an option. Free speech, satire and blasphemy are opaque, virtual and ubiquitous.
In this globalised world, the only solution for the intolerant is to demand that not only must their own citizens be quiet, so too must the citizens of other countries. From dictator Kim Jong-un through to caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the pattern is the same. Authors, cartoonists, editors and readers are all on the hit list, no matter where they live.
There is no middle ground in what is not a clash of civilisations between Islam and the West, but a clash between free speech and censorship in a world without borders. Expect more bullets.
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