Freedom of speech versus blasphemy

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Tension often exists between political freedom, particularly freedom of speech, and the belief by some that certain examples of art, literature, speech or other acts are sacrilegious or blasphemous and should therefore be restrained. The extent to which this tension has not been resolved is manifested in numerous instances of controversy and conflict around the world which generally result from a failure to tolerate foreign ideals.

Although many laws prohibiting blasphemy have long been repealed, particularly in the West, they remain in place in many countries and jurisdictions (see blasphemy laws). In some cases such laws are still on the books, but are no longer actively enforced.

The issue of freedom of speech versus blasphemy cannot be seen in isolation from the role of religion as a source of political power in some societies. In such a society, the people in control of religious doctrine view blasphemy as a threat not only to their religion, but also to their position of power in the social hierarchy. Therefore, in these nations, the official punishments for (and popular responses to) blasphemy, tend to be more severe and violent.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of modern incidents which have led to public outcries, persecution, calls for murder, abuse, death threats, assault, or other forms of hostile repression.


  • In 1886, American freethinker Robert G. Ingersoll defended Charles B. Reynolds, a Boonton, New Jersey man on blasphemy charges.[1] Reynolds lost the case and was fined $50, which Ingersoll paid himself. Ingersoll's defense of Reynolds cast serious constitutional doubts on blasphemy laws and few states have attempted to prosecute a blasphemy charge since.
  • In 1933, the Norwegian author Arnulf Øverland was tried for blasphemy after giving a lecture named Kristendommen - den tiende landeplage ("Christianity - the tenth plague"), but was acquitted. No one has ever been tried for blasphemy in Norway since.[2]
  • In 1951, Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini's 40-minute film, titled The Miracle, sparked widespread outrage amongst religious conservatives, who favour the preservation of tradition over that of free speech.[3] The film centred around a man, "Saint Joseph", who villainously impregnates "Nanni", a disturbed peasant who believes herself to be the Virgin Mary. Protesters in Paris picketed the film with vitriolic signs carrying messages like "This Picture Is an Insult to Every Decent Woman and Her Mother," "Don't Be a Communist," and "Don't Enter the Cesspool."[4] It was criticized as "vile, harmful and blasphemous." After some pressure by the Catholic Church, the New York Board of Regents revoked the film's license on grounds that it was "sacrilegious." The film's distributor, Joseph Burstyn, subsequently appealed the decision, and in 1952, it was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court as unconstitutional in the case Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson.[5]
  • In 1966, Dutch author Gerard Reve was prosecuted for blasphemy, after a piece of prose he wrote described making love to God, incarnated in a three-year-old donkey. He was acquitted on the grounds that this was an artistic expression protected by freedom of speech.[citation needed]
  • Also in 1966, Finnish author Hannu Salama was prosecuted and convicted for a book (Juhannustanssit) he had written two years earlier. His sentence was suspended, and he was finally pardoned in 1968.
  • A British evangelical organisation, Christian Voice organised street protests against the BBC screening of Jerry Springer – The Opera, in which one actor wears a nappy and later, whilst portraying the character of Jesus, says "I'm a bit gay". Christian Voice published the home addresses and telephone numbers of several BBC executives on their web site. This led to one of these people receiving death threats. Another organisation, the Christian Institute attempted to level blasphemy charges against the BBC. These were rejected by the High Court.[citation needed]
  • The comedy film Dogma (1999) resulted in picketing and charges of blasphemy, and also "2 and a half" death threats made against its director Kevin Smith and producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein.[citation needed]
  • In 2002, the author of the Spanish public domain personal computer game Slaughter Cofrade, known by the initials "J. C. C. S.," was formally accused by the Cristo del Gran Poder of violating section 525 of the penal code, which forbids any sort of "attack" on religious dogma, beliefs, or ceremonies. His game depicted the shooting of characters robed in religious clothing and carrying Christian crosses.[citation needed]
  • In 2004, Jesus Dress Up fridge magnets, which depicts a cartoon crucified Jesus in underpants and can be dressed in Satan pajamas, sparked national controversy in the U.S. at an Urban Outfitters receiving more than 250,000 complaints after being featured on MSNBC. The retailer canceled all remaining orders with the magnet's creator Normal Bob Smith, then as a result of this attention, a religious activist group called Laptop Lobbyists alerted the artist's web-hosting company and temporarily succeeded in shutting down the Jesus Dress Up web site.[6]
  • In 2005, Marithé and François Girbaud's parodied Leonardo's religious painting The Last Supper in a publicity poster. The Catholic Church initiated a lawsuit against the Girbauds, sparking concerns regarding freedom of expression and blasphemy. The judge labelled the poster as "an insult to Christians." The lawsuit was eventually dismissed.[7][not in citation given]
  • Gerhard Haderer's cartoon book The Life of Jesus was banned in Greece in 2003 under Greek laws of "blasphemy" and "insulting religion". In 2005, its author was given a six-month suspended prison sentence in absentia. Both the ban and the conviction were reversed in appeal after an outcry against the initial decision both in Greece and elsewhere in Europe.[6][7]
  • In 2008, a punk festival in Linköping, Sweden used marketing posters showing Satan defecating on Jesus on the cross, under the slogan "Punx against christ [sic]!" The poster was taken down by the municipality of Linköping.[8] The publication of the poster in the local newspaper Östgöta Correspondenten caused death threats to the editor-in-chief.[9]
  • On 8 September 2011 Advertising Standards Authority, UK's advertising watchdog, banned a Phones4U mobile phone ad featuring an image of Jesus Christ after receiving almost 100 complaints that it "mocked and belittled" the Christian faith.[10] According to the watchdog the cartoon picture of Jesus winking and giving a thumbs-up sign was "disrespectful to the Christian faith" and was "likely to cause serious offence, particularly to Christians."[11]
  • Following the February 21, 2012, "Punk Prayer" incident, conducted by Pussy Riot, the Orthodox Church called on the government to criminalize blasphemy.


  • On August 18, 1925 The Star (a now defunct London evening newspaper) printed a cartoon by David Low in which the Captain of the English Cricket team, Jack Hobbs, was depicted as the towering statue in a 'Gallery of the most important historical celebrities' and the one to whom the others looked up. Among the others was Muhammad. Colin Seymour-Ure and Jim Schoff's book David Low notes "Harmless enough at home, the depiction of Muhammad meant that in India the cartoon 'convulsed many Muslims in speechless rage', as the Calcutta correspondent of the Morning Post put it. Meetings were held and resolutions of protest were passed."[12]
  • On March 9, 1977, 12 African-American gunmen identified as Hanafi Muslims seized three buildings in Washington, D.C., seeking to stop the screening of the movie Mohammad, Messenger of God and also to have certain prisoners released to them. Two people were killed, others injured, and others taken hostage for 39 hours. The film does not actually show Mohammad. See 1977 Hanafi Siege.
  • In 1989, Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie was sentenced to death for blasphemy by Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini for Rushdie's depiction of Muhammad as a businessman in his novel The Satanic Verses. An Iranian businessman offered a $3 million reward to anyone carrying out the sentence against Rushdie. Other Islamic scholars followed suit, providing similar fatwa (legal pronouncement in Islam made by a mufti). In 1989, Khomeini died, making the fatwa permanent to those who follow his teaching. In 1991, Hitoshi Igarashi, the book's Japanese translator, was murdered at the university where he taught in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, 60 kilometres north of Tokyo. The book's Italian translator was beaten and stabbed in Milan. William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher was shot in 1993. Thirty-seven people, who had come to listen to a speech by the translator and publisher (of some parts of the book) Aziz Nesin, a well-known satirist, perished when the hotel where they had gathered was torched in Sivas, Turkey.
    The post-Khomeini Iranian government, while maintaining that the fatwa cannot be reversed, promised only in 1998 to dissociate itself from it. Rushdie stayed in hiding under police protection for several years.[13]
  • In 1997 Tatyana Suskin (also spelled Tatiana Soskin) was apprehended in Hebron while attempting to attach to an Arab storefront a drawing she had made depicting Muhammad as a pig reading the Koran. The incident created considerable tension, and she received a two-year sentence.[14][15]
  • In 1998 Ghulam Akbar, a Shi'a Muslim, was convicted, in a Rahim Yar Khan court, of uttering derogatory remarks against Muhammad in 1995 and sentenced to death. He was the first to receive such a sentence under Section 295(c) of the Pakistani penal code.[16]
  • In August 2000 a Lahore court sentenced Abdul Hasnain Muhammad Yusuf Ali to death and 35 years' imprisonment for "defiling the name of Muhammad" under Section 295(a), 295(c), and 298.[17]
  • In 2001, prior to 9/11, American magazine Time printed an illustration of Muhammad along with the Archangel Gabriel waiting for a message from God. The magazine apologized for printing the illustration after widespread protests in Kashmir.[18]
  • In June 2002 Iranian academic Hashem Aghajari gave a speech that challenged Muslims to refrain from blindly following their clergy. His speech provoked international outcry, and, in November 2002, he was sentenced to death for "blasphemy against Muhammad. In 2004, after domestic Iranian and international outcry, his sentence was reduced to five years in prison."[19]
  • In August 2002, Italian police reported that they had disrupted a terrorist plot to destroy a church in Bologna, Italy, which contains a 15th-century fresco depicting an image of Muhammad.[20]
  • In November 2002 an article in the Nigerian ThisDay newspaper prior to the upcoming Miss World pageant, suggesting Muhammad would have chosen one of the contestants as his bride, sparked riots that eventually claimed over 200 lives.[21]
  • In December 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Marlette published a drawing that showed Muhammad driving a Ryder truck, with a nuclear rocket attached. He received more than 4,500 e-mails from angry Muslims, some with threats of death and mutilation.[citation needed]
  • In 2004, Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali created the 10-minute film Submission. The film is about violence against women in Islamic societies. It shows four abused women, wearing see-through dresses. Qur'anic verses allegedly unfavourable to women in Arabic are painted on their bodies. After the movie was released, both van Gogh and Hirsi Ali received death threats. Van Gogh was stabbed and shot dead on November 2, 2004, in Amsterdam by Mohammed Bouyeri. A note he left impaled on Van Gogh's chest threatened Western governments, Jews and Hirsi Ali (who went into hiding).[citation needed]
  • In February 2005 the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden decided to remove the painting "Scène d’Amour" by Louzla Darabi. The painting was part of a temporary exhibition about HIV/AIDS, and depicted a man and a woman having sexual intercourse. The artist and the curator had received numerous death threats from Muslims enraged over the Koran quotations which were featured in a corner of the painting. Some threats were telling the artist to "learn from the Netherlands", referring to the murder of van Gogh and threats against Hirsi Ali.[22]
  • On April 19, 2005 the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet broke the news that celebrity preacher Runar Søgaard in a causerie had called Muhammad "a confused paedophile," alluding to Muhammed's marriage with Aisha. Søgaard had at the same time also told jokes about Jesus and Buddha. Søgaard received numerous death threats from Muslims and went on national television to apologise for his jokes. His apologies did not help, and Muslim extremists in Sweden contacted imams around the world in order to have a fatwa issued against Søgaard. Among the contacted ones were Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. A fatwah with a death sentence against Søgaard was eventually issued by an African imam.[23]
  • In September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed twelve cartoons of Mohammed which, four months later and fueled by interested parties, eventually led to massive unrest in the Muslim world (including more than 100 deaths), burnt embassies and international tension. In London, protestors carried signs reading, "Behead those who Insult Islam".[26]
  • In September 2007, a Bangladeshi newspaper published a comic that referred to Muhammad. Copies of the newspaper were torched and the cartoonist has been arrested.[33]
15th-century illustration in a copy of a manuscript by Al-Bīrūnī, depicting Muhammad preaching the Qur'ān in Mecca which drew controversy when some editors wanted it removed from Wikipedia.[40]
  • A protest demanding Wikipedia remove images of Muhammed from all articles was started in February 2008. The main image in question is a painting of Muhammed in Mecca. Wikipedia refused to remove the images.[41]
  • Fitna, a film by Dutch politician Geert Wilders which claims the Koran incites violence was met with calls to block and censor the film's showing. "The correct Sharia (Islamic law) response is to cut (off) his head and let him follow his predecessor, van Gogh, to hell," a member of Al-Ekhlaas wrote.[42]
  • Gregorius Nekschot, a Dutch cartoonist collaborator of Theo van Gogh who was arrested on May 13, 2008. His house was searched by ten policemen and his computer and sketch books were confiscated. He was held in jail for interrogation and was made to remove eight cartoons from his website at the request of the public prosecutor for being discriminatory for Muslims. The Netherlands police in a "project hatecrimes" ready to file complaints about cartoons.[43]
  • In 2010, the New York City Metropolitan Museum of Art quietly withdrew all images of Mohammed from display out of fear of some Muslims who say the images are blasphemous. Kishwar Rizvi, an Islamic art expert at Yale University, said "Museums shouldn't shy away from showing this in a historical context".[44]
  • In September 2012, riots broke out across the Islamic world in protest for a YouTube video posing as the trailer for Innocence of Muslims film.[45]


  • In 2002, the release of the video game Hitman 2: Silent Assassin sparked controversy due to a level featuring the killing of Sikhs within a depiction of their most holy site, the Harmandir Sahib.[46] An altered version of Silent Assassin was eventually released with the related material removed from the game.


  • In the 1990s, a campaign was launched against the renowned Indian painter M.F. Hussain, known as "The Indian Picasso",[48] by Hindu nationalist organizations including Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishva Hindu Parishad and Shiv Sena.[49] The campaign was motivated by works Hussain produced in the 1970s[48] which depicted Hindu deities in the nude, as well as for Bharat mata, his painting of a nude woman with the names of Indian states drawn on her body.[50] In 1998, at the behest of Shiv Sena, Hussain’s home was attacked and his artworks vandalised,[51] eventually "driving him into self-imposed exile".[48]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ingersoll, Robert G. (2009). The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Vol. XI. Cosimo. pp. 55–117. ISBN 1605208965. Retrieved 24 September 2012. 
  2. ^ Hvor går grensen?
  3. ^ Kozlovic, Anton Karl (2003). Religious Film Fears 1: Satanic Infusion, Graven Images and Iconographic Perversion, 5 (2-3).
  4. ^ Black, G. D. (1998). The Catholic crusade against the movies, 1940-1975. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. ^ Jowett, G. (1996). "A significant medium for the communication of ideas": The Miracle decision and the decline of motion picture censorship, 1952-1968. Movie censorship and American culture, 258-276. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ Irene Peroni, Milan bans 'blasphemous' poster, BBC News, February 4, 2005.
  8. ^ Satan får inte bajsa på Jesus i Linköping
  9. ^ Varför elda på fördomens bål?
  10. ^ Sweney, Mark (2011-09-07). "'Jesus' mobile phone ad banned". The Guardian (London). 
  11. ^
  12. ^ Colin Seymour-Ure and Jim Schoff, "David Low", Secker and Warburg 1985, p. 63
  13. ^ Koenraad Elst. "The Rushdie Rules". work. Retrieved 2006-02-03. 
  14. ^ Joel Greenberg, "Israeli Jew From Outlawed Group Is Convicted of Insulting Islam", The New York Times, December 31, 1997.
  15. ^ Moshe Gorali, "Make fun of God, but leave his believers alone", Ha'aretz, August 27, 2003.
  16. ^ Annual Report on International Religious Freedom 2004, November 2004, 108-2 Joint Committee Print, S. Prt. 108-59. Published 2005, page 666.
  17. ^ Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 1980, Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O. Page 2508.
  18. ^ "Time Magazine undskyldte Muhammed-tegning i 2001". Politiken. 2006-02-03. 
  19. ^ Annual Report, International Religious Freedom, 2000, U.S. G.P.O., Supt. of Docs. Page 502.
  20. ^ "Italy frees Fresco Suspects". New York Times. 2002-08-22. 
  21. ^ "Nigeria violence rages on". BBC News. 2002-11-23. Retrieved 2010-01-04. 
  22. ^ [2] (Swedish)
  23. ^ [3][4] (News articles in Swedish)
  24. ^ "Tate 'misunderstood' banned work". BBC News. 2005-09-26. Retrieved 2010-01-04. 
  25. ^ "Tate press release". Retrieved 2006-02-03. 
  26. ^ Hamilton, Fiona (2006-03-15). "Five arrested over London cartoons protest". The Times (London). Retrieved 2010-05-02. 
  27. ^ "Super Best Friends". South Park. Season 5. Episode 68. 2001-07-04.
  28. ^ Ryan J. Budke. "South Park's been showing Muhammad all season!"; April 15, 2006
  29. ^ "Suspended prison for German who insulted Koran". 2008-02-23. Retrieved 2010-06-04. 
  30. ^ Scherlund, Erik (2007-08-31). "Lars Vilks hotad till livet" (in Swedish). TV4Nyheterna. Retrieved 2007-09-12. 
  31. ^ "Vilks to get police protection". Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå/The Local. 2007-09-16. Retrieved 2007-09-16. 
  32. ^ "Bounty set over Prophet cartoon". BBC News. 2007-09-15. Retrieved 2007-09-15. 
  33. ^ [5]
  34. ^ "'Muhammad' teddy teacher arrested". BBC. 2007-11-26. Retrieved 2007-11-28. 
  35. ^ Rob Crilly in Khartoum and Lucy Bannerman (2007-11-27). "Sudan police throw teacher in jail for teddy bear named Muhammad". London: The Times. Retrieved 2007-11-28. 
  36. ^ Teddy row teacher to be released
  37. ^ "Author sentenced to jail for blasphemy". UPI. January 8, 2008. Retrieved 22 April 2012. 
    *"Forfatter bosatt i Norge dømt for blasfemi". Aftenposten. January 8, 2008. Retrieved 22 April 2012. 
    *"Dømt forfatter får støtte". Bt.No. January 25, 2008. Retrieved 22 April 2012. 
    *"Norskiraner dømt for blasfemi i Irak". Human Rights Service. January 8, 2008. Retrieved 22 April 2012. 
  38. ^ "Author sentenced to jail for blasphemy". UPI. January 8, 2008. Retrieved 22 April 2012. 
    *"Forfatter bosatt i Norge dømt for blasfemi". Aftenposten. January 8, 2008. Retrieved 22 April 2012. 
    *"Dømt forfatter får støtte". Bt.No. January 25, 2008. Retrieved 22 April 2012. 
    *"Norskiraner dømt for blasfemi i Irak". Human Rights Service. January 8, 2008. Retrieved 22 April 2012. 
  39. ^ "Author sentenced to jail for blasphemy". UPI. January 8, 2008. Retrieved 22 April 2012. 
    *"Forfatter bosatt i Norge dømt for blasfemi". Aftenposten. January 8, 2008. Retrieved 22 April 2012. 
    *"Dømt forfatter får støtte". Bt.No. January 25, 2008. Retrieved 22 April 2012. 
    *"Norskiraner dømt for blasfemi i Irak". Human Rights Service. January 8, 2008. Retrieved 22 April 2012. 
  40. ^ a b "Le Prophète Mahomet". L'art du livre arabe. Retrieved 2007-03-03. 
  41. ^ Cohen, Noam (February 5, 2008). "Wikipedia Islam Entry is Criticized". NY Times. 
  42. ^ Muslim nations condemn Dutch Koran film, Reuters, March 28, 2008
  43. ^ Dutch cartoonist arrested on suspicion of violating hate speech laws with artwork; Furore over Cartoonist Arrested for Discrimination; Nekschot beledigt geen gelovigen ("Nekschot does not insult believers").
  44. ^ Jihad Jitters at Met - Mohammed art gone
  45. ^ "The Innocence of Muslims Riots". NY Times. September 18, 2012. 
  46. ^ "Young Sikhs force changes to Hitman 2". CBBC. November 21, 2002. Retrieved 2008-01-28. 
  47. ^ "bbc". BBC News. 2004-12-19. Retrieved 2010-01-04. 
  48. ^ a b c "India's Picasso, M.F. Hussain, Dies at 95". Obit. 2011-06-09. 
  49. ^ William Grimes (9 June 2011). "Maqbool Fida Husain, India's Most Famous Painter, Dies at 95". The New York Times. 
  50. ^ "Protest against M.F. Husain's Derogatory Paintings". Hindu Janajagruti Samiti. Retrieved 30 June 2012. 
  51. ^ Padmanabhan, R. (9–22 May 1998). "Assault on art". Frontline.