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Blasphemy's long, sordid history

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The last time parts of the Islamic world were as angry as they are now about the amateur film Innocence of the Muslims, which insults the Prophet Muhammad, was nearly 25 years ago after Salman Rushdie had published his controversial novel The Satanic Verses.

So outraged were Islamic clerics that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa, putting a bounty on the author's head. Rushdie was forced to live under armed protection in Britain for the next decade. The fatwa and threat of assassination was eased in 1998, permitting Rushdie to emerge from seclusion.

In the wake of this recent explosion of fury, an Iranian religious foundation has uppede a reward for killing Rushdie to $3.3 million.

In between Rushdie and the film, there was also the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh for his involvement in the short documentary Submission about the abusive treatment of women in Muslim countries, and the worldwide protests over a series of satirical and provocative political cartoons published in a Danish newspaper.

Innocence of Muslims, which can be found on YouTube, is so awful that a film produced by a class of middle-school students certainly would be of much higher quality. Watching the television news coverage of the massive street crowds protesting the film, two facts seem apparent: First, in all likelihood a majority of the protesters have not even seen it, but have merely accepted the official propaganda about it, an opportune way for local governments to distract the mobs from more immediate and pressing domestic issues; and second, the film is a convenient excuse to vent the continuing hostility against the United States, Israel and so-called immoral western values.

In the most recent developments, a government minister in Pakistan has offered a $100,000 reward for the death of the American producer of the film, and Egypt's prosecutor general has issued arrest warrants for those connected to it.

As blasphemous as the video is, we are witnessing a grandly disproportional response.

True, Hindus and Muslims have battled each other and attacked Christians in India on several occasions in the past 20 years. Still, it is difficult to imagine the type of rioting and protests currently taking place on such a colossal scale (or the arising death threats) among Christians and Jews and other religions as a direct response to a similarly offensive film or novel about these groups' particular deity or beliefs.

In the West, it took centuries of war and bloodshed to achieve liberal democracy and the attainment of such freedoms as expression, press, religion, and association. In 1765, 25 years before the French Revolution toppled the French monarchy and its organizers wrote the inspirational Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Franßois-Jean Lefebvre de La Barre, a young French nobleman, was tortured, beheaded and burned together with a copy of Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary. His crime: He allegedly had not removed his hat during a religious procession. Closer to home, in 1832, three Lower-Canadian (Quebec) journalists were sent to prison for a month for writing what the courts considered to be defamatory editorials critical of the government.

Since then, citizen action has fought for, sometimes violently, a more liberal interpretation of these rights and freedoms. It has been the role of governments and the courts to reflect such demands, but it has been a gradual process.

During the 20th century, U.S. and Canadian governments held far more conservative, even authoritarian, notions of their citizens' rights. Police abuse was all too common in both countries, the law was not applied with equality, especially for African-Americans living in the southern states during the segregation era, and the history of trade unionism -- including the violent repression of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 -- is a chronicle of capitalistic exploitation and management's efforts at almost any cost (with lots of government support) to maintain its position of power over labour.

Not only did Canadian federal and provincial governments dictate (until very recently) what their citizens could and could not do on the Lord's Day, they also monitored what Canadians could and could not say and write about religion.

In 1927 in Toronto, Ernest Sterry, the editor of the Christian Enquirer, a journal with a small following, was arrested by the city's morality inspector, on a charge of blasphemous libel for writing allegedly critical comments about Jesus and describing incidents from the Old and New Testaments "in an irreverent and facetious manner." Before sentencing him to 60 days at a jail farm, Judge Emerson Coatsworth, reflecting the majority values of the day, lectured Sterry that there is "probably nothing more sacred to us than our religion. ... We regard taking God's name in vain as a sin." Most Torontonians (the editors of the Toronto Star were an exception) hailed the verdict.

The second case occurred eight years later in Quebec. In 1935, Rev. Victor Rahard, the French-speaking pastor of an Anglican church in Montreal, was also charged with blasphemous libel for putting up a poster on the side of his church with words condemning the "papist religion" and the arrogance of the "Roman clergy."

During his trial, crowds of young men stood outside Rahard's church shouting "long live the Pope!" and "down with Rahard." But no one was assaulted and Catholic officials did not place a bounty on Rahard's head. Outside of Quebec, English-Canadian commentators, with far less tolerance for Catholicism, accused prosecutors of persecuting the Anglican priest. Rahard was found guilty and fined $100.

As strange as it may seem, blasphemous libel, Sec. 296 of the Criminal Code, remains in force. Yet, as a society, we have moved forward, accepting religious commentary, disparaging or not, as long as it is not perpetuating hate, must be treated as the right to freedom of speech. The Islamic world has a much different and equally legitimate interpretation.

Whatever the Arab Spring might turn out to be, it does not appear that embracing liberal democracy and its attendant freedoms is going to happen any time soon. Partly this is the consequence of orthodox religious principles and partly it is because in many countries, such as Iran, dictatorial regimes remain firmly in power. "Liberal democracy," said Kambiz Sheikh-Hassani, Iran's former diplomat in Ottawa last year, "is not compatible with our way of life." As such, heated clashes over Western actions and values, such as this one about a laughably abysmal film that should have been ignored and dismissed, will continue to break out.


Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2012 A12

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