News analysis: Experts say blasphemy laws are undercurrent of unrest in Middle East

Protections needed to stop an 'theocratic iron curtain' from falling say experts

Published: Thursday, Sept. 27 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

Pakistani police commandos stand guard at outside a court, where Muslim cleric Khalid Chishti, unseen, appeared in Islamabad, Pakistan on Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012. In the latest twist in a religiously charged case that has focused attention on the country's harsh blasphemy laws, Pakistani police arrested Chishti who they say planted evidence in the case of a Christian girl accused of blasphemy.

Anjum Naveed, Associated Press

After President Barack Obama gave the United Nation's General Assembly a primer this week on upholding the right of free speech, he asked them to examine what's really behind the violent and deadly reaction to a YouTube video that mocked Islam's founding Prophet Muhammad.

"More broadly, the events of the last two weeks speak to the need for all of us to address honestly the tensions between the West and an Arab world moving to democracy," he said.

Political scientists, human rights advocates and diplomats agree a primary cause of those tensions is the abuse of blasphemy laws in many Muslim-majority countries. The statutes, which are theoretically designed to protect sacred religious symbols and beliefs, are vague and often used to silence political dissent, solidify power and discriminate against minorities.

These experts say the protests in Muslim nations over the past two weeks that have claimed several lives, including that of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, follow a pattern of extremists crying blasphemy to rile up a mob as a show of political strength and influence.

"We need to have our eyes opened to this," says Nina Shea, a human rights lawyer and co-author of "Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide." "On the surface it’s not what it seems. It's not simply about a blasphemous film. It’s not simply about religion. It’s about politics and power struggles within the Islamic world and between the Islamic world and the United States."

Shea is not alone in her view that without a strong defense of free speech and religion by the U.S. against renewed calls at the U.N. for an international blasphemy treaty, a "theocratic iron curtain will fall" on the Middle East and the opportunity will be lost for those freedoms to take root in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the region.

"We won't see a genuine democracy or genuine liberal engagement because what we are seeing now is the mob of the street (mobilized by Muslim extremists) becoming more dominant and an Arab spring turned into an Arab winter," said Hakan Yavuz, a political science professor at the University of Utah's Middle East Center.

Misplaced aggression

Experts point to where the recent protests have taken place — in countries where governments have been newly elected or where existing regimes are facing pressure for change — and where they have not taken place — such as Saudi Arabia, where severe blasphemy laws are enforced but there is no cry for democratic reform — as evidence that recent accusations of blasphemy are being used not to defend sacred religious symbols, but to rally a base of support, crack down on dissent and distract citizens from dire economic conditions.

A similar tactic was used by Iran's religious rulers in 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini declared a death bounty for author Salman Rushdie, whose book "Satanic Verses" infuriated devout Muslims. "The real and deeply felt offence caused by the book to many ordinary Muslims was actually seized upon by Khomeini to help shore up his own shaky political regime" after losing a war to neighboring Iraq, wrote the late Richard Webster in his "Brief History of Blasphemy: Liberalism, Censorship and the 'Satanic Verses.’ ”

In Egypt, where the new president, Mohammad Morsi, was a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political party that had been unrecognized by previously secular regimes since the early 1950s, religious extremists see an opportunity to have a strong voice in government.

But the vast majority of Egyptians are more liberal in their practice of Islam and many embrace Western culture, explained Asiya Daud, a professor at American University who recently returned from a two-year National Security fellowship in Egypt.

"You go into the clubs at night and they love American music, clothes and pop culture," Daud said.

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