Book outlines threat of Muslim blasphemy laws to free speech

CNA Paul Marshall Hudson Institute CNA US Catholic News 11 2 11 Paul Marshall

A new book on blasphemy and apostasy laws shows the dangers that intolerant policies pose to freedom of speech in both Muslim countries and the Western world.

“The freedom to discuss religion, the freedom to discuss faith, even to disagree, to argue, to criticize—this is at the heart of a free democratic politics,” Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, told CNA.

Marshall said that free speech is particularly important in countries such as Iran where politics and religion are intertwined.

His new book “Silenced: How Apostasy Laws and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide” (Oxford University Press, $35.00), examines laws punishing blasphemy and apostasy in the Muslim world and how those laws are affecting the Western world, including America.

Marshall co-authored the book with Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom.

In a Nov. 2 talk at the Heritage Foundation, he spoke about the Iranian regime, which he described as “one of the world’s worst religious persecutors.”

He explained that Christians and members of other faiths “cannot enter government service or hold commissions in the armed forces” because a non-Muslim cannot be in a position of authority over a Muslim. If they are ever accused of blasphemy or apostasy, they face death. 

Marshall said that the persecution of religious minorities is “pervasive in the Muslim world,” not only through legal punishments, but also through private violence including vigilante killings to punish apostasy and blasphemy. 

Ultimately, without religious freedom, “you cannot have political freedom,” he underscored, “because political discussions are expressed in religious terms and religious categories.”

In a Nov. 4 interview with CNA, he outlined the consequences that this intolerant mindset has had on the United States.

“In America, we have very strong protections in the First Amendment for free speech,” he said. However, he added, America is also influenced by a strong presence of “private intimidation and fear.”

“People are scared of what might happen to them,” he said. “They’re scared of getting attacked.”

He recalled the threats received by Yale University Press several years ago after deciding to publish a book about Danish cartoons, including some of Muhammad.

In covering the story, many newspapers did not show even a distant photograph of what those cartoons were, he said. Yale University Press ultimately refused to show the cartoons about Muhammad in the book.

Marshall also gave the example of the irreverent show South Park, which “insults anybody and everybody.” He noted that Comedy Central would not allow the show to depict a parody of Muhammad, although it permitted other religious figures to be ridiculed.

Such double standards show that “we’ve become hypersensitive to this,” he said.

He noted that although such censorship is often masked by claims of “being sensitive,” other religions are not treated with the same courtesy.

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Marshall predicted that if such a mindset continues to grow, an increasing number of people “will self-censor out of fear.” Such censorship is threatening to freedom of speech, an element that exists “at the core of democracy.”

He argued that in order to solve the problem, people need to understand what is happening and realize the importance of the freedoms at stake.

Americans must insist upon the idea that in a free society, “you will be insulted, and you need to argue back. That’s how you deal with issues.”

“We need to insist that people learn to do these things,” Marshall said. “We need to push an agenda of the importance of freedom.”

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