Thursday, February 02, 2006

Offensive cartoons and blasphemous libel

A couple of months ago, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a set of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. These were considered grossly offensive by Muslims (both because a few verge on outright religious vilification, and because depicting their prophet is considered idolatry by many Muslims), and the publication resulted in protests, diplomatic complaints (by people who had clearly never heard the phrase "a free press"), and boycotts against Danish firms. Of course, suppressing something simply makes it spread, and overnight seven newspapers in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Spain republished the cartoons. And locally, DPF has got into the act as well - resulting in the usual unseemly display in his comments, of course.

Many of the cartoons are excellent social commentary on violence, Islam, intimidation and censorship. Some are offensive. And as mentioned above, some verge on outright religious vilification (DPF has naturally chosen one of the latter - a crude depiction of Mohammed with a bomb for a turban, which captures the views of his readers so well). But as I've said before on many occasions, there is no right not to be offended. I'm not publishing them here, because frankly I don't want to attract the sort of people who would want to look at them - but I don't for a moment think that people shouldn't be allowed to publish them.

But apart from providing an opportunity to once again restate my opposition to censorship and hate speech laws, DPFs posting also allows me to make another point: that

if he had published an equivalent cartoon about Jesus, he could have gone to jail.

While supposedly a free country, we still have a law against blasphemous libel on the books, imposing a penalty of up to one year's imprisonment for publishing material which speaks of God "irreverently" or "impiously". It is considered by most legal commentators to apply exclusively to the Christian religion. The law has only been used once, in 1922, and the jury refused to convict (see R v Glover, [1922] GLR 185). But several publications and institutions have been threatened with it since, notably the Massey University capping magazine Masskerade in 1970, and Te Papa over the "virgin in a condom" exhibition in the 90's. And the fact that the law has fallen into disuse and is widely considered dead does not mean that it cannot be revived - the prosecution of Tim Selwyn for sedition is proof enough of that.

This law violates freedom of expression. It violates freedom of religion. It violates the separation of church and state and the principle that the government should not promote or protect one faith over another. As such, it has no place on the books of a modern, secular, liberal democracy like New Zealand. Unfortunately, the last attempt to repeal it - as part of the 1989 rewrite of the Crimes Act - died in committee. And so we are still stuck with this archaic law, which could be dredged up at any time to protect one religion over others.

During the election campaign, numerous National MPs voiced their opposition to hate-speech legislation designed to protect gays from vilification, on the grounds that freedom of expression was sacrosanct. But blasphemous libel is nothing more than hate-speech protection for (the Christian version of) god. I am currently seeking an MP to front a private member's bill to repeal this archaic law. It would be nice if one of those MPs showed some consistency and volunteered.

Update (03/02/06): Added link to Glover case.


It often beggars me as to why non western religions are not treated exactly as sceptically by us secular westies as we treat our home grown religious divisions? I'm an atheist, so I think a catholic imaginary friend in the sky is just as silly as a jewish one, an islamic one, etc, or for that matter, as silly as an animist nature spirit, a wiccan pantheon, , a hindu pantheon etc, etc.

But I think for some reason many of us have got things twisted - somehow we're confusing religion with race, and vice versa, so while we're continuing to be skeptical towards the biases of our western religious lobbies, there's a wierd trojan thing going on where our fear of reprisal or of being branded racist in the media stops us pointing out that the non western (often islamic, but occasionally not) religious lobbies should be regarded just as skeptically as, say, Mormons or Jehovah's witnesses at your door (even the moderate ones, although one doesn't usually get anglican doorknockers).

Now, the question here is whether the reason for the incomplete application of skepticism in the west to non western religions is because the currently ascendent one (islam) is very much more likely to react violently to even the mildest critiscism, or is it due to excessive liberal fervor in trying to appear non-racist and judgemental of other cultures?

Posted by Weekend_Viking : 2/02/2006 05:49:00 PM

I showed my solidarity with the Danes by sipping from a few Tuborg beers tonight. I still struggle to see the bottom of this Islamic well of hypocritical hysteria - that a religion/nations that routinely (often through State organs) publish the vicious anti-semitic propoganda can collectively shit themselves about a few cartoons. If Europe muffles/apologises/capitulates to this ridiculous pressure and intimidation then she is on the verge of losing something fundamental and precious.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/02/2006 05:58:00 PM

I'm disturbed that Middle Eastern governments have applied diplomatic pressure to the Danish government. It shows just how much they fail to get that it's a free press. It makes plain just how deep the cultural divide is. Dangerouly so given the conflicts that aleady exist.

As to our own blasphemous libel, the lack of use of it shows how robust our freedom is. Obviously it's a law that should go.

Posted by Muerk : 2/02/2006 06:08:00 PM

Weekend Viking: Given the demonisation of Muslims by supporters of the "war on terror", I think there's a natural reluctance by liberals to say things which could see them tarred with the same brush. I mean, does anyone really want to be associated with the people over there in the sewer?

Unfortunately, this has in some cases gone to far. One of the foundations of western society is that anything may be criticised and nothing is sacred. And this includes religion.

As I noted, many of the cartoons are excellent social commentary. They're the equivalent of one showing god shaking his head in dismay at George Bush or Destiny Church. Unfortunately, there's that hangup about not depiciting Mohammed - but that's just something Muslims are going to have to deal with. No-one is forcing them to create such depictions themselves, or to look at them.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/02/2006 06:12:00 PM

Muerk: I'm actually half-hoping someone lodges a private prosecution against DPF as a way of highlighting the stupidity of the law. But it would be an expensive publicity stunt, and kindof evil as well.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/02/2006 06:13:00 PM

Living in the belly of the beast, here in America, I fail to see any "demonisation of Muslims", Idiot. NJ has large numbers of Jews and Muslims, living as they do where I am, often house-to-house, and many religions here coexist without the segmentation one sees in Europe. I haven't seen any mass protests against Islam on the streets, any burnings of Islamic flags, or any anti-Islamic propaganda about. Apart from an ugly spike after 9/11, America has a low incidence of religious/anti-Muslim hate crimes, and seemingly few disaffected, angry Islamicists - at least compared to Europe. What are you talking about? I'm interested what precisely you mean...

Posted by Anonymous : 2/02/2006 07:19:00 PM

Adrienne - those Tuborgs tonight appear to've affected your judgement.
There's abundant examples quoted on the blogosphere of middle-eastern residents of the US being intimidated, both by state apparatus (eg. disproportionate screening and interrogation at airports) and on the streets (from verbal abuse through to physical violence). Either you're trawling a tiny radius, or ignoring what is there.

2. Pleeeeeeease learn the difference between anti-semitism and antipathy towards the state of Israel. The anti-semitic card doesn't intimidate people here.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/02/2006 09:17:00 PM

Dear Huskynut,
Oh dear. Even for you, this is a lamentable effort. Maybe a career at the Guardian awaits you.

Firstly, your confusion about what constitutes anti-semitism seems either the product of racism or ignorance. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt here, but if you think you can explain away the mountain of anti-semitic literature (the children's books that 'show' how Jews are descended from pigs and monkeys are particular favorites - a friend even brought me back an original from Egypt...), let alone the well-established roots of Muslim anti-Semitism in the Koran (I assume you're aware that Israel as a state dates from 1947 - or is this a surprise to you?). Here, let's see what good old Wikipedia has to say: The following sermon was delivered at the Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan mosque in Gaza. The speaker was Dr. Ahmad Abu Halabiya, an appointed member of the Palestinian Authority Fatwa Council, and is former acting Rector of the Islamic University in Gaza.

"Have no mercy on the Jews, no matter where they are, fight them, wherever you are. Wherever you meet them, kill them. Wherever you are, kill the Jews, the Americans, who are like them, and those who stand by them. They are all in one trench against the Arabs and the Moslems. ... It is forbidden to befriend Israelis or to aid them. Don't love them or enter into agreement with them, don't help them or sign accords with them. Anyone who does this is one of them. This is the word of Allah, blessed be He. They, they are the terrorists. They should be slaughtered. They should be murdered. Such is the word of Allah."
Note: According to many Muslims, one of the above is supported by the Quran

Do you seriously believe that this and its numerous ilk constitute mere 'antipathy towards the state of Israel'? If you do, please be open about it.

As for your ridiculous whine about Muslims in airports, what do you expect? Given that 3000 people were killed by 19 Muslim hijackers, and given that OBL has promised that more planes will 'fall from the sky', it would be criminally irresponsible to pretend nothing had happened. As a frequent traveller, I would expect airport security to rigorously profile any threats to my safety, be they Muslims, angry vegetarians, or doomsday Christian sects. For your comfort, I've also been searched at US airports.

You also seem to betray a curiously closed mind about what's going on in a country you don't live in. There are surely anti-Muslim episodes here, as there is racism against African Americans and Hispanics. However, Muslims in America are in general a happy bunch (take my Bangladeshi neighbour), and feel far more part of America than Muslims in Europe do. If the worst that you can come up with regarding 'oppression' here is profiling in airports, then I think America's doing pretty well.

I'll close with another snippet from wikipedia: Many Arab newspapers, such as Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah, the Palestinian Authority's official newspaper, often write that "the Jews" control all the world's governments, and that "the Jews" plan genocide on all the Arabs in the West Bank. Others write less sensational stories, and states that Jews have too much of an influence in the US government. Often the leaders of other nations are said to be controlled by Jews.

Articles in many official Arab government newspapers (notably those of the Palestinian Authority, Libya, and Saudi Arabia) claim that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous anti-Semitic forgery, reflects actual facts, and thus points to an international Jewish conspiracy to take over the world.

Now stop reading Robert Fisk and take your first, uncertain steps into a larger world... I should also add that I am gentile, not Jew.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/02/2006 11:20:00 PM

I should add that you can date Israel's birth to 1947 or 48 depending on whether you count the UN resolution as inaugural...

Posted by Anonymous : 2/02/2006 11:23:00 PM


Once more, I'm going to be expelled from the VRWC for saying this, but this chruch-going, politically conservative easily offended Catholic couldn't agree with you more on the subject of "blasphemous libel".

First, and not entirely facetiously, I happen to believe that God doesn't require the assistance of the New Zealand judiciary if He feels that offended by the impiety of man.

I might raise the issue with the three National MP's whose electorates I can see looking out the window. :)

Second, you have a fair point about so called 'hate speech' laws. If I don't believe I require - or deserve - special protection from speech I find offensive as a gay man, then there's no logical reason why I'd want the same protection as a Catholic.

Posted by Craig Ranapia : 2/02/2006 11:25:00 PM

Indeed Craig, He/She/It disavows any requirement for blasphemy laws in Galations, if the guys that wrote it can be believed: "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." In other words, if God exists and has a problem with you, you'll find out all about it after your death - no govt intervention required. The twats that brought in anti-blasphemy legislation did it for their own comfort, not God's.

I guess the intellectual giants running the country didn't see any conflict between bringing in a Bill of Rights and leaving this turkey on the books?

Posted by Psycho Milt : 2/03/2006 01:54:00 AM

Psycho: As mentioned above, the people who gave us the BORA also planned to repeal blasphemous libel (and sedition, for that matter). But the Crimes Bill didn't make it through committee, and so the law is still with us.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/03/2006 02:07:00 AM

If you're curious about the cartoons, Wiki has a very good entry on it, with a copy of them (hope you don't mind me pointing that out Idiot).

This is a really complex issue, and it started off as a symptom of the problems that Denmark is having dealing with its muslim immigrant population, although its has since grown a long way out of hand. Jyllands posten, the paper that published them, along with many others in Danish society have taken a very "passive-aggressive" approach to the whole thing - "we have the right to publish these, and we don't care what you think". Which they do. And which of course, has just fucked a whole lot of people off.

I know I'm going to get dumped on for saying this, but:
Just because you have the legal right to offend, doesn't mean you should exercise it. This entire thing has been seized on as an opportunity by both sides to behave like children. The Islamic response has been well publicised, but the english-speaking media has said nothing of the Danish right (Pia Kjærsgaard, Louise Frevert), who have been pathetic - calling for a boycott of Muslim shops in Denmark, wild accusations of trechery and there has even been an anonymous SMS campaign trying to get a protest in front of the townhall burning copies of the Koran - fortunately, most Danes are so relaxed that the only people who turned up in -5 deg C weather were the police and the media.

There has never been a need for this to reach the level that it has. Both sides are using it as an excuse to throw rocks. And unfortunately, it is the rest of us who are getting caught in the crossfire.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/03/2006 02:57:00 AM


Well, you do have a point - but isn't it nice we're having the argument?

Sorry, but I'd turn around and say some of the most vocal critics of speech that "outrages" their religious beliefs aren't quite as willing to extend the same courtesy to the usual suspects - Jews, homosexuals, women who don't conform to their standards of behaviour, even Muslims who have the gall to dissent from their interpretation of the Koran etc.

I note most Western MSM barely bat an eyelid when a newspaper in the "Muslim world' runs viciously anti-semitics cartoons that would not have been out of place in Nazi Germany, or an Iman stands up and declares gays are "lower than pigs and dogs" and should be killed.

Posted by Craig Ranapia : 2/03/2006 08:06:00 AM

"It often beggars me as to why non western religions are not treated exactly as sceptically by us secular westies as we treat our home grown religious divisions?"

For me, it's a matter of proximity. I rally against the religion whose proponents attempt to force their way of life upon me. Muslims are not in this country trying to tell me how I should live (or if they are, they aren't very loud). Primarily, I don't see Islam as a current threat to my freedom (despite what G W tells me) - I see that threat coming from others. First things first.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/03/2006 08:19:00 AM


With all due respect, there are Muslims fundamentalists in this country who would be just as happy as their Christianist counterparts to advocate "forc[ing] their way of life" on me - and act as apologists for anti-gay violence in the name of their God.

Well, the uncomfortable reality is that I'll respect their right to freedom of expression. But they shouldn't be in the least surprised if the response isn't to their liking. The problem is, fundies of all stripes are rather keen on the idea of "free speech for me, but not for thee" and that's just not good enough.

Posted by Craig Ranapia : 2/03/2006 08:26:00 AM

Craig, the MSM has seized on and pretty widely reported Ahmadinejad's comments on Israel of late (despite the fact many commentators see them as meaningless bluster for the domestic market).
I'm with Weizguy - one of the biggest differences is the size of the perceived threat. Islamicists may have carried out an occassional bombing, but they aren't spending billions of dollars annually invading, occupying and asserting control over the west. If they'd invaded Australia we might take the comments and threats a little more seriously.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/03/2006 08:29:00 AM

Jens: I don't mind it at all; I linked to the page above (here, for people who missed it the first time).

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/03/2006 11:17:00 AM

Oddly enough, the Maxim Institute actually agrees with me on the abolition of 'blasphemy' as an offence. If it's not enforced, why is it still on the statute books?

At the same time, though, I do want to draw attention to the measured, civil nature of Muslim protest *here*, against the depictions in question.

Dare one suggest that certain Kiwi
conservative Christian self-
appointed guardians of public morality could learn from this?

And for those who want to make generalisations about generic Muslim hostility to free speech,
or alleged terrorist propensities,
could I remind them of Te Papa,
the Virgin in A Condom controversy
c1998? Or the Andres Serrano
exhibition at the National Gallery
of Victoria c1997? Or US anti-
abortion terrorism throughout the
nineties? Ad nauseum.

Isn't it odd that societies with the greatest such unrest are traditionally those who've pandered
to racist anti-immigrant parties
beforehand, and tolerated organised
racist violence? Ghettoise people,
and you get this. We don't, hence no similar backlash.

Craig Y.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/07/2006 10:53:00 AM

Incidentally, Craig R, while I deplore imams similar to the one you cited, have you read Wikipedia's account of the Kansas
based hatemonger Fred Phelps...?

I repeat, *New Zealand* Muslims have not called for violent reprisals against the newspapers that published the offensive content in question. Good on them for that.

Craig Y.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/07/2006 10:57:00 AM