The Right to Blaspheme

Dissenting from the tenets of a particular religion is very different than discriminating against a category of persons.

A man holds a U.S. flag across the street from the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas. (LM Otero / AP)
The name of the poor wretch is lost to history, but the year is recorded: It was in 1631 that last German Jew was burned at the stake, falsely accused of desecrating the Host.
Flash forward a few hundred years. In 1989, the AIDS activist group ACT UP disrupted services in St Patrick's Cathedral, New York. One protester grabbed a consecrated communion wafer, broke it, and tossed it to the floor. He and some 100 others were arrested. A few of the protesters were sentenced to community service. None went to prison. Needless to say, none was burned at the stake.
From a Catholic perspective, defiling a consecrated communion wafer does violence to the body of God. It would be hard to imagine a more brutal affront to the most cherished beliefs of faithful Catholics.
Understandably, then, the St. Patrick’s protest was almost universally condemned, by New Yorkers of all faiths—and by many leaders in the gay-rights movement too. In all the criticism, however, there was one thing that went unsaid: nobody suggested that the ACT-UP activists should be punished for an act of blasphemy. Trespass, mischief, disorderly conduct, yes, they were guilty of all that. But insulting God? That, in the state of New York, is simply not a matter for the laws and the police. And if a vigilante mob had tried to lynch the blasphemous protester, the police would actively have protected him from them.
The right to blaspheme is not a right most of us make much use of these days, and for excellent reason. In modern Western free societies, we take it absolutely for granted that nobody can enforce religious dogma on anybody else. And since we take it for granted, few of us feel much need to make a big deal about denying and defying other people's dogmas. It feels stupid and rude precisely because it is pointless. Nobody's compelling you to respect the Host, so you are merely a jerk, not a martyr, if you gratuitously insist on disrespecting something so holy to so many of your neighbors.
The same holds true for each and every one of the other religious doctrines that flourish in a free society. It may seem strange to others that some of us avoid pork, or wear turbans, or begin the day with close study of books written in Greek 2000 years ago—but whether strange or not, we show respect to others as we'd wish respect shown to us.
The basis of this exchange of respect, however, is the shared understanding that it's fully voluntary. It's not policed by the state; it's not enforced by violent vigilantes. When religious authority begins to be backed by compulsion, resistance to religious authority acquires a different character, too. When she defies the threat of violence, the former jerk can become a genuine martyr.
Yet even as Western societies have jettisoned their laws against blasphemy, many democratic societies have experimented with a different kind of speech restriction, intended to protect human beings rather than God. Maybe the classic text is the French law of 1972 that forbids incitement to hatred, discrimination, or violence on the basis of race or religion. (The law was subsequently amended to include gender, sexual orientation, or disability.)
Hate-speech laws remain highly controversial. But whether they are wise or dangerous, their purpose is secular: to protect people by restricting speech intended to abrogate their human rights. God, it is thought, can look after Himself. Thus, under French law, it would be hate speech to shout, "Kill the Jews!" It would not be hate speech to denounce Jewish kosher slaughter as inhumane. It would be hate speech to say, "No Muslim can be a patriotic French citizen." It would not be hate speech to write, "The Koran is not true."
Americans who'd like to inscribe some concept of hate speech into U.S. law don't always understand the distinction that the Europeans draw between affront to people and dissent from doctrine. Yesterday, The New York Times editorial board had this to say about the attempted terror attack in Garland, Texas:

The Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest in Garland, Tex., was not really about free speech. It was an exercise in bigotry and hatred posing as a blow for freedom. ... Pamela Geller, the anti-Islam campaigner behind the Texas event, has a long history of declarations and actions motivated purely by hatred for Muslims.

Whether fighting against a planned mosque near ground zero, posting to her venomous blog Atlas Shrugs or organizing the event in Garland, Ms. Geller revels in assailing Islam in terms reminiscent of virulent racism or anti-Semitism. She achieved her provocative goal in Garland—the event was attacked by two Muslims who were shot to death by a traffic officer before they killed anyone.

Those two men were would-be murderers. But their thwarted attack, or the murderous rampage of the Charlie Hebdo killers, or even the greater threat posed by the barbaric killers of the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, cannot justify blatantly Islamophobic provocations like the Garland event.

Anti-Muslim bigotry is a real and ugly phenomenon. But there's a necessary distinction to be drawn between vilifying people and repudiating their beliefs. Blasphemy isn't bigotry. Applying the single term "Islamophobia" blurs that difference: conflating the denial of a belief with discrimination against the believer.
Five years ago, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution condemning the "defamation of religion" and specifically citing Islam as the religion most defamed. The resolution specifically condemned the "stereotyping" of religions's "sacred persons" and urged all states to use the full power of their law to suppress religious defamation. The U.S. representative on the council, Eileen Donahoe, explained why the U.S. and 16 other democratic states voted "no": "We continue to see the ‘defamation of religions’ concept used to justify censorship, criminalization, and in some cases violent assaults and deaths of political, racial, and religious minorities around the world. ... Contrary to the intentions of most member states, governments are likely to abuse the rights of individuals in the name of this resolution, and in the name of the Human Rights Council."
It's not just governments that are liable to use resolutions against prejudice as the bases for attacks on conscience. We've seen the same principles applied to similar effect in the internal political debates of Western countries.
No question, there are provocateurs who quote and misquote Islamic texts, wrenched out of context and history, to incite hostility to broad communities of people. But these provocateurs mostly succeed only when events like those in Paris, Copenhagen, and Garland appear to confirm their lurid warnings.  
The way to deal with such provocateurs is to refute them from experience, Suppressing blasphemy against a particular religion in the name of human rights risks vindicating the provocateurs, and making their dark predictions seem prescient. It's bigotry to prevent Muslim Americans from building a place of worship in lower Manhattan. It's bigotry to protest when a Muslim American member of Congress takes his oath on his own sacred book.
We owe equality and respect to persons. Ideas and beliefs have to prove their worth. Pamela Geller, the organizer of the Garland, Texas, "Draw Muhammad" contest, attracts criticism because she so often pushes up to and over the line separating criticism of ideas from vilification of groups of people. She's an uncomfortable person to defend. But that's often true of the people who test the rights that define a free society.
In a free society, the rights of believers in any faith do not extend to imposing the tenets of that faith on non-believers. Some of those who resist doctrinal imposition will be free thinkers who resist all dogma. But sometimes the resister will be just a different kind of narrow-minded fanatic. Samuel F.B. Morse, the future inventor of the telegraph, told a story about coming upon a papal procession when he visited Rome as a young man. A fervent Protestant, he refused to raise his hat to the pope and was, he claimed, knocked down by one of the pope's Swiss guards. Maybe it happened, and maybe it didn't. (Morse was always vague about the exact where and when of the incident.) Morse wrote a Geller-like pamphlet denouncing the Catholic church as a "foreign conspiracy against the liberties of the United States" and ran for mayor of New York City in 1836 on a nativist, anti-Catholic platform. Mercifully, he was decisively beaten. Yet if modern Americans can choose for themselves whether and how to greet a minister of religion, they owe some of that liberty to loudmouthed cranks like Morse.
When vigilantes try to enforce the tenets of a faith by violence, then it becomes a civic obligation to stand up to them. And if the people doing the standing up are not in every way nice people—if they express other views that are ugly and prejudiced by any standard—then the more shame on all the rest of us for leaving the job to them.