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Freedom of speech versus blasphemy: Wikis


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Tension often exists between political freedom, particularly freedom of speech, and certain examples of art, literature, speech or other acts considered by some to be sacrilegious or blasphemous. The extent to which this tension has not been resolved is manifested in numerous instances of controversy and conflict around the world.

Although many laws prohibiting blasphemy have long been repealed, particularly in the West, they remain in place in many countries and jurisdictions (see Blasphemy laws).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, to blaspheme is to threaten not only a religion, but also the entire political power order of the society, and hence, the official punishments (and popular responses to blasphemy) tend to be more severe and violent.

A non-exhaustive list of modern incidents which have led to public outcries, persecution, calls for murder, or other forms of repression are set out below.



  • In 1886, American freethinker Robert G. Ingersoll defended Charles B. Reynolds, a Boonton, New Jersey man on blasphemy charges. 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[citation needed] states have attempted to prosecute a blasphemy charge since.
  • In 1951, Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini's 40-minute film, titled The Miracle, sparked widespread moral outrage.[1] 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."[2] 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.[3]
  • 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]
  • Movies subjected to criticism over allegedly blasphemous content include The Last Temptation of Christ and Monty Python's Life of Brian.[citation needed]
  • Artist Andres Serrano's photograph Piss Christ, showing a crucifix immersed in urine, caused similar controversy, as did artist Chris Ofili's painting "Black Madonna," which depicted a black African Mary surrounded by images from blaxploitation movies and close-ups of female genitalia cut from pornographic magazines.[citation needed]
  • A British evangelical organisation, Christian Voice led street protests against the BBC screening of Jerry Springer – The Opera, in which one actor wears a nappy and says "I'm a bit gay" and later portrays the character of Jesus. 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 US 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 an activism group called Laptop Lobbyists alerted the artist's web-hosting company and temporarily succeeded in shutting down the Jesus Dress Up web site.[4]
  • 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 qualified the poster as "an insult to Christians." The lawsuit was eventually dismissed.[5]
  • 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 in Europe.[6][7]
  • In the United States there are some states that still officially have blasphemy laws on the books. Massachusetts, for example, has an anti-blasphemy statute within Chapter 272 (said chapter being titled "Crimes against Chastity, Morality, Decency, and Good Order") of its General Laws:
Section 36. "Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior." This law, however, is neither enforceable (as it is contrary to both the Massachusetts Constitution and that of the United States) nor enforced. Realistically, crimes of simple blasphemy cannot be prosecuted anywhere in the Commonwealth - or indeed in most western nations - unless it is to an extent where it can be considered as inciting racial hatred or racial harassment, of which all western countries have some form of legislation to penalize.
  • 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!" The poster was taken down by the municipality of Linköping.[6] The publication of the poster in the local newspaper Östgöta Correspondenten caused death threats to the editor-in-chief.[7]


  • 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."[8]
  • 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 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 fatwa cannot be reversed, promised only in 1998 to dissociate itself from it. Rushdie stayed in hiding under police protection for several years.[9]
  • In May 1994, a fatwa on Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin came after she was quoted in The Statesman that "…the Koran should be revised thoroughly." This follows attacks and persecution of Taslima for her 1993 book Lajja (Bangla word for 'shame').[citation needed]
  • In 1997 Tatiana Soskin was apprehended in Hebron while attempting to attach to an Arab storefront a drawing she'd made depicting Muhammad as a pig reading the Koran. The incident created considerable tension.[citation needed]
  • 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.[10]
  • 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.[11]
  • 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.[12]
  • 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."[13]
  • 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.[14]
  • 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.[15]
  • 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.[16]
  • In 2004, Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali created the 10-minute movie 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 "Världskulturmuséet" ("Museum of World Culture") in Göteborg, 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.[17]
  • 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.[18]
  • 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 saying, "Behead those who Insult Islam".[21]
  • 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.[25]
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.


  • 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.[30]
  • Fitna (film), 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.[31]
  • Gregorius Nekschot, a Dutch cartoonist collaborator of Theo van Gogh who was arrested in 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.[32]
  • 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,".[33]


See also


  1. ^ Kozlovic, Anton Karl (2003). Religious Film Fears 1: Satanic Infusion, Graven Images and Iconographic Perversion, 5 (2-3).
  2. ^ Black, G. D. (1998). The Catholic crusade against the movies, 1940-1975. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ Irene Peroni, Milan bans 'blasphemous' poster, BBC News, February 4, 2005.
  6. ^ Satan får inte bajsa på Jesus i Linköping
  7. ^ Varför elda på fördomens bål?
  8. ^ Colin Seymour-Ure and Jim Schoff, "David Low", Secker and Warburg 1985, p. 63
  9. ^ Koenraad Elst. "The Rushdie Rules". work. Retrieved 2006-02-03. 
  10. ^ Annual Report on International Religious Freedom 2004, November 2004, 108-2 Joint Committee Print, S. Prt. 108-59. Published 2005, page 666.
  11. ^ Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 1980, Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O. Page 2508.
  12. ^ "Time Magazine undskyldte Muhammed-tegning i 2001". Politiken. 2006-02-03. 
  13. ^ Annual Report, International Religious Freedom, 2000, U.S. G.P.O., Supt. of Docs. Page 502.
  14. ^ "Italy frees Fresco Suspects". New York Times. 2002-08-22. 
  15. ^ "Nigeria violence rages on". BBC News. 2002-11-23. Retrieved 2010-01-04. 
  16. ^ Moore, Art (2002-12-28). "What would Muhammad drive?". WorldNetDaily. 
  17. ^ [2] (News article in Swedish)
  18. ^ [3][4] (News articles in Swedish)
  19. ^ "Tate 'misunderstood' banned work". BBC News. 2005-09-26. Retrieved 2010-01-04. 
  20. ^ "Tate press release". Retrieved 2006-02-03. 
  21. ^ Five arrested over London cartoons protest - Britain - Times Online
  22. ^ Scherlund, Erik (2007-08-31). "Lars Vilks hotad till livet" (in Swedish). TV4Nyheterna. Retrieved 2007-09-12. 
  23. ^ "Vilks to get police protection". Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå/The Local. 2007-09-16. Retrieved 2007-09-16. 
  24. ^ "Bounty set over Prophet cartoon". BBC News. 2007-09-15. Retrieved 2007-09-15. 
  25. ^ [5]
  26. ^ "'Muhammad' teddy teacher arrested". BBC. 2007-11-26. Retrieved 2007-11-28. 
  27. ^ 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. 
  28. ^ Teddy row teacher to be released
  29. ^ "Le Prophète Mahomet". L'art du livre arabe. Retrieved 03-02-2007. 
  30. ^ Wikipedia Islam Entry is Criticized, NY Times February 5, 2008
  31. ^ Muslim nations condemn Dutch Koran film, Rueters, March 28, 2008
  32. ^ 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").
  33. ^ Jihad Jitters at Met - Mohammed art gone
  34. ^ "bbc". BBC News. 2004-12-19. Retrieved 2010-01-04. 

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