Shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded world: What the blasphemy law debate can mask

REUTERS Clouds are reflected off the Secretariat Building of the U.N .headquarters during the 67th United Nations General Assembly, in … Continued


Clouds are reflected off the Secretariat Building of the U.N .headquarters during the 67th United Nations General Assembly, in New York on Sept. 24, 2012

The age of the Internet has made the world far more “crowded” when it comes to provocative speech and images, especially in regard to religion. Is such speech “religious defamation” and should it be legally regulated? Should “blasphemy” (i.e. insulting a religion) be illegal, or are “blasphemy laws” themselves a human rights violation?

Or is there another dynamic at work that is being masked by such debates?

This week, at the United Nations, deliberation will again be revived over “blasphemy laws,” that is, laws about “religious defamation.”

In my view, this way of framing the discussion threatens to mask the real issues that are instrumental in producing violent protests in the Middle East. Turmoil in Muslim majority countries is fueled by extremes of economic deprivation and continued political repression. “Insult” is translated into religious insult, but the insult actually includes not only a perception of failure of respect for religion, but also a failure to respect human dignity in its economic and political expressions.

This is not to say that respect for religion is unnecessary. It is to say that respect needs to be broadened.

Looking beyond the riots to the causes is critical in order to understand how religion is used and abused to mask the deep problems faced by many in this region.

The issue of “religious defamation” or blasphemy has arisen again at the U.N. following both the deadly riots in many Muslim majority countries protesting an anti-Islamic video, and now cartoons insulting prophet Muhammad in a French publication.

Every year since 1999, the 56-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has sought to include the issue of religious defamation in U.N. Human Rights Council resolutions. Last year, the Obama administration supported a resolution against “religious intolerance” that was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly.

But recent events threaten to revive a push for the stronger concept of “religious defamation” and thus lend support to the concept of “blasphemy laws.”

The problem is, however, that “religious defamation” or blasphemy laws do not increase religious respect and tolerance; the reverse seems to be the case, and these laws are far more political in their application and results, than they are protective of religion.

Even worse, a narrow focus on “religious defamation” or even “religious intolerance” frames the issues in a distorted way.

Blasphemy Laws: Political or Religious?

Pakistan has among the strictest anti-blasphemy laws in Muslim-majority countries. Pakistan’s government declared a holiday last week so that people could rally against the anti-Islamic video, and protests turned violent in several cities, leaving 19 people dead more than 200 wounded.

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan have been used as a form of harassment and suppression of religious minority rights and democratic debate. For example, a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death by hanging on a charge of blasphemy in November of 2010. Punjab Gov. Salman Tayseer visited Bibi in jail and held a press conference with her, indicating that he thought the charges misplaced. Soon after, he was shot to death by his guard, who said he had killed him because Tayseer “recently defended the proposed amendments to the blasphemy law” and for his support of Bibi.

Civil society groups and human rights groups have noted the threat to Pakistan as a democratic state from this kind of mortal intimidation; it has spread from the suppression of religious diversity to suppression of political diversity.

Pakistani commentators note that the violence of this kind of religious extremism is the expression of the people’s powerlessness and frustration with the concentration of great wealth in the hands of a few in the country, as well as anger at the United States.

“Anger against the United States, deep corruption where all wealth has been captured in Pakistan by just a few families, growing frustration has all merged into a fury where the people have turned to the only available alternative ideology: religious extremism… The liberal space has been reduced to virtually a corner and while there are still many brave voices of protest, another high profile assassination will silence many more.”

In sum, the net effect of blasphemy laws is to suppress “liberal space” where robust public debate about the problems of Pakistan can be debated and perhaps addressed.

Religious or Economic Problems?

The “Arab Spring” is blamed or lauded for a lot of changes in the Middle East that have led to instability.

It is important to recognize, however, that the final straw that led to these protests was an escalation in food prices. The main motor of unrest in the Middle East is economic deprivation. “One-fifth of the Middle East lives on less than $2 a day, and massive price hikes [in food] (exacerbated in part by rising temperatures and water shortages) proved to be the tipping point.”

A United Nations Report from 2009 underlines the problem. Half of the population in the Middle East region is under the age of 24, and unemployment rates for this demographic is “is sky high — 30 percent across the region — so there are literally tens of millions of young people on the streets with little to do.”

Their anger and frustration can often be expressed as religious insult, but, as is so often the case, economic deprivation provides the fuel.

Strengthening Religion and Society

The 2011 U.N. resolution that dropped the “defamation” language includes some language that can be very helpful in moving forward despite the conflicts of the last weeks. That text affirms “the positive role that the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the full respect for the freedom to seek, receive and impart information can play in strengthening democracy and combating religious intolerance.”

I would take this even a step further and argue that Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the “Abrahamic religions” most prevalent in the Middle East, contain the very emphases needed to address the most fundamental issue of the region: economic deprivation of the majority of people, and the exclusion of young people in particular.

Certainly, the Abrahamic faiths do not have economic theories in their sacred texts and traditions. But it is also clear that broad support exists within these faiths for economic justice and equality as the 30 scholars and religious leaders who worked on the volume “Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War” argue at length.

Religion itself contains the seeds of the solution to the deep turmoil we see today in the Middle East. What is needed is not “blasphemy laws,” but laws that protect not only freedom of religious expression, but also rights broadly interpreted as civic and economic. These are all deeply religious values and they provide inspiration for all those who seek the dignity of religious respect, economic equality, and just political participation.

Former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
  • Chaotopia

    I have always seen the shouting “Fire” in a crowded theatre as a particularly lousy argument (actually an assumption) made by a thoroughly illiberal judge who obviously didn’t understand what Freedom of Speech actually means.

    What, for example, if the actor on stage or screen was the individual who shouted “fire” in the crowded theatre? Would we necessarily assume that their would be a panic endangering life and limb? Of course not because we know that the actor was playing a part or a character and probably shouting “fire” as part of their performance.

    So there’s the very first fail (there are many more) – the assumption that there will be resulting panic confuses a direct causal relationship with that of a hypothetical scenario. The argument assumes that, as sure as night follows day, that as soon as someone shouts “fire” there will be a panic automatically presuming an unthinking, uncritical response from a passive, unsophisticated audience.

    The argument carelessly confuses the medium with context. The stage or screen is an environment where there is quite clearly absolute free speech – anyone can literally say anything without there being any presumed panic. The theatre, the part of inhabited by the audience, could be argued to be a controlled environment where the audience have volunteered to temporarily and conditionally suspend certain freedoms in the interests of Health and Safety.

    Ah, but what if a member of audience is the one to shout “fire” can we not presume that there will be a dangerous panic then? Is this not an acceptance that there are times and places where we cannot have absolute free speech? No, because as I say, it is an presumption (and that’s all it is) that there would then be a panic. The members of the audience, seeing for themselves that there is no apparent fire or smoke, may just think that the individual in question has lost his mind or playing some kind of joke before ignoring him.

    It is also worth noting Christopher Hitchens’ take on the

  • dfb69

    Isn’t this a direct assult on the charter on the UN?

    Well, let me answer my own question. Right off the UN website;
    Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

  • tianxiang69

    “Religion itself contains the seeds of the solution to the deep turmoil we see today in the Middle East. ” Actually, religion itslef is the seed of the deep turmoil. It is unfortunate that even someone as intelligent as Susan can’t break free from the shackles of a system that she has obviously bought into. Religion is the problem, not the solution. Religion is an obstacle to be overcome, particularly in the Middle East. Islam, in particular, is a an obstacle not just to progress in the region but to world peace in general. Certainly religion is not the only obstacle, but it certainly is a huge one.

  • WmarkW

    Shouting “fire” in a theater is only wrong if the information is false; if there really is a fire, it’s the right thing to do. It is usually wrong, and often a crime, to entice others to act against their interest by making false statements.

    Using that analogy to squelch criticism of Islam, is tantamount to saying that one can only talk about Islam as if its beliefs are true. Then you might as well have laws against blasphemy, witchcraft and having impure thoughts.


    This is what religion wants – legal immunity to criticism and jail for its critics.

  • Rongoklunk

    Blasphemy laws make it impossible for anyone to disagree with or criticize Islam.
    That gives it great security even if it is unjustified by commonsense. The more educated we become – the more absurd ancient superstitions appear to be. One day we should be able to debate the Allah-hypothesis in the light of science and rationality. After all, what is more important than truth? If the truth is that there are no gods – then we should accept it. It would make for a sensible – superstition-free world of knowledge and commonsense, which is what we are seriously in need of before some religious twit blows us all up for some imaginary god or other. It seems inevitable right now.

  • leibowde84

    I for one hope that blasphemy laws are never adopted in the US. Where will it end? And, why the hell shouldn’t we be allowed to criticize every religion (not just Islam)? I find it extremely intriguing, entertaining, and enlightening to question the faiths of everyone I come into contact with. It doesn’t exactly make me a popular guy, but I love pushing peoples buttons in order to really get at what they actually believe and the reasons behind those beliefs. Although the movie was pretty insulting to Muhammad, it was a completely legal investigation of who Muhammad actually was … a historical figure living under very different social norms than today (in some countries at least). I will always fight for people to express themselves freely, no matter how people might not react. And, in no way is this like yelling fire in a crowded room. The childish nature of these extremist/conservative Muslims who are so quick to riot in the streets over mere words used in a short movie trailer are at fault. Insults to Islam will never stop, and reacting in this way will merely encourage more criticisms of the faith. The appropriate reaction to hate speech is more speech. Any other reaction is childish and pathetic.

  • leibowde84

    It’s almost as if these angry people are disturbed at the fact that the freedom of information will actually draw young people away from Islam. If that is the fear it reveals a problem with Islam, not information. Information, when reacted to reasonably, is always good. Problems arise when people make too much of unsubstantiated gossip. And, just because it’s on YouTube and available to everyone to view doesn’t make it anything more than gossip or rumor.

  • leibowde84

    By their actions and demands for anti-blasphemy laws, Muslims in these protests are literally asking for more insults to come their way. With their childish response to the film, they are making more and more Americans distrust and disrespect them. Why the hell should we protect a religious group that riots in the streets when their religion is mocked? Why should we give money to people who have no respect for the freedom of expression (which necessitates taking “bad” expression with “good” expression) which we hold so dear? Why should we take seriously anyone who is willing to end lives over something as silly as a book?

  • leibowde84

    How could they be so stupid not to realize that reacting to a movie trailer in this way would cause most Americans to think them insane?!

  • leibowde84

    How could they be so stupid not to realize that reacting to a movie trailer in this way would cause most Americans to think them insane?! Why would we give in to insanity?!


    I propose we have an International Day of Blasphemy.

    Jesus’ mother was so fat she had her own gravitational field.

    The Buddha walks up to a hot dog cart and tells the man, “Make me one with everything.”

    How many wiccans does it take to screw in a light bulb? Wiccans don’t screw in lightbulbs, they screw in the woods.

    Mohammed walks up to a hot dog cart and tells the man, “Aiyee! Meat of the pig! Die infidel dog!”

  • Secular1

    “The problem is, however, that “religious defamation” or blasphemy laws do not increase religious respect and tolerance; the reverse seems to be the case, and these laws are far more political in their application and results, than they are protective of religion.”

    Does the author think that religions must be respected or tolerated, for no other reason than they are religions? There is no other idea of human thought claims fo itself such audacious privilege than religion. Off all the human ideas religion has the least credibility in its truth claims. I feel no compunctions at all in direspecting teh very m
    otion of religion, any religion. Not just the current religions but any that pee-existed..

    “I would take this even a step further and argue that Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the “Abrahamic religions” most prevalent in the Middle East, contain the very emphases needed to address the most fundamental issue of the region: economic deprivation of the majority of people, and the exclusion of young people in particular.”

    Are you kidding me that these religions have economic panaceas for what ails the region economically? Two of them have no clue of the concept of time value of money. One of them thinks foreign exchange trade is morally decrypt and the other thinks selling spoiled goods to strangers, without full disclosure, is a good business model.

    “Religion itself contains the seeds of the solution to the deep turmoil we see today in the Middle East.”


    Because religion has done such a bang-up job in the thousands of years they’ve controlled the planet.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    So, if the United Nations were to pass some kind of “blasphemy law.” Would that law overrule or supersede the First Amendment of the US Constitution? I realize that the subject of the First Amendment was strangely absent from this article from a Washington DC based news publisher, but I still see freedom of the press and freedom of speech as relevant to the conversation.

  • jade_alpha

    Tolerence of religion, and more specifically its practices, when it is not a tool of suppression, when it does not support violence, when it does not try and take away basic human rights from others is a given. Frankly I don’t care which mythos you choose to beleve so long as you aren’t hurting anyone.

    However, no religious doctrine, no belief, no sacred cow, and no person is inherantly deserving of respect nor is any belief beyond reproach. To ask for such a thing is to ask others to put aside their basic human right of free speech just so others won’t be offended is frankly just about the most disgusting thing I have ever heard.

  • edbyronadams

    I couldn’t disagree with Ms. Thistlethwaite more. Certainly there is economic deprivation in much of the Islamic world but trying to separate that deprivation from the culture supported by the tenets of the religion is an exercise in willful blindness. That culture oppresses women and when women are oppressed they have more children than they can economically support. That creates general poverty in the community.

    That simple analysis is just one of many that can be applied to Islam and the way it self sabotages the societies in which it is the majority religion. Honest debate about this could be characterized as blasphemy or cultural insensitivity or , the worst epithet in the West, racism, but without honest debate about these issues, there is no hope for reform.

    It is no accident that the Islamic nation with a vibrant economy, not based on mineral extraction, is the modern state formed by the reforms of Ataturk, who put religion in its place. It’s heartbreaking to see it teeter toward recidivism.

  • edbyronadams

    In fact, we are giving way to the insanity. The remarkable thing about the trashy movie trailers is that they depicted Muhammad at all. Try to find a slick Hollywood production with his image. It doesn’t exist because the insanity works.

  • CMWilliamsJr

    as the year is 2012, i suppose the appointed ‘powers that be’ as opposed to that ambitious lot of prospects that live with that die-hard belief in the promise of being ‘the future’ have either finally come to grips with or have acknowledged the power that lives in……


    when the human finally sheds its pragmatic skin there will still exist two ‘sides’, both sides being that which does not ‘believe’ the ‘other’; i’m still amazed at the human colossus that shall stand, ‘in the end’, as two? still biologically divided, even.

    got trust?


  • CMWilliamsJr

    i’m impressed at the typical buzz words you’ve decided to use in order to incite an urgency that can simultaneously denote my response without exposing your lack of acquired ‘perspective’ i will say, without..intelligence ['_']

    i’d say your counter would be effective, albeit generic, if i were lacking in self-esteem. you’re probably one of those people who insist on calling your retort ‘high schoolish’?

    good try. now try again. smarter, this time.

  • edbyronadams

    The purpose of language is communication. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

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