The Egyptian government announced a month-long state of emergency, after the military raided pro-Morsi sit-ins Monday morning. The measures came because of “danger due to deliberate sabotage, and attacks on public and private buildings and the loss of life by extremist groups,” according to the presidential statement.
But Monday’s crackdown resulted in a reported 278 dead, according to Egypt’s Health Ministry; Ashraf Khalil wrote in a dispatch for TIME Magazine that across Cairo, “a much more prolonged and potentially bloody battle is unfolding.” By mid-afternoon, Vice President and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei announced his resignation. “The social fabric has become threatened with rupture, because violence only begets violence,” he said on Twitter. Informed Comment’s Juan Cole noted that military and Interior Ministry leaders have been divided between using force or a gradual, attrition-based approach to quell the protests. “The military had appeared to wish to treat the Brotherhood members as members of a conspiratorial and manipulative covert organization,” he writes. “They may now have a green light to proceed in that way.”
What implications does this crackdown have for Egyptian politics? TIME’s initial commentary sounded almost hopeful: Khalil wrote, “The storming of the sit-in camps could mark the beginning of a new phase of the Egyptian political crisis. By purging the Brotherhood, the interim government might be able to begin organizing a new transitional roadmap—including scheduling fresh parliamentary and presidential elections.”
But the siege has had detrimental repercussions thus far: clashes are spreading throughout the country. Christian news outlet WORLD Magazine reported that Morsi supporters have set fire to churches in regions outside the capitol, the latest attacks in a swath of intensifying religious violence. Ishak Ibrahim, of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told the Wall Street Journal, “We’ve seen attacks like this before, but not of this severity and coordination. These attacks are directly related to the dispersals of sit-ins.” Christians fear the implications of this dispersal — and rightly so: NPR‘s Cairo reporter Leila Fadel commented on the worsening situation Monday:
Violence against Christians in Fayoum very worrying. Many churches burned. Deaths reported. Other clashes across #Egypt
— Leila Fadel (@LeilaFadel) August 14, 2013
John Rossomando called Copts a “favorite target for Muslim Brotherhood supporters and other radical Islamists.” Egyptian Christian Ramez Salama told WORLD, “If you go and hear the speech of hatred they promote against the Christians of Egypt—you can’t imagine,” he said. “It’s all hate speech.” Some commentators fear the crackdowns will merely enflame and bolster protesters’ rage:
Just as Iraq’s violent attack on Sunni Hawija protest empowered violent radicals, I fear #Egypt‘s violent attack on MB sit-ins will do same.
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) August 14, 2013
— Khaled Elgindy (@elgindy_) August 14, 2013
Egypt’s citizenry is wedged between a harsh military state and the threat of militant religious radicalism. Protesters, secularists, and minorities will now “choose sides.” Unfortunately, the military’s brutal crackdown has only served to compromise any moral ground it formerly held. The U.S. has been reluctant to withdraw Egyptian aid up to this point; perhaps it is time, as TAC’s Dan Larison said Wednesday, to “cut Egypt loose.”
You’ve probably seen a clip of it already: Fox News aired a cringe-worthy interview of the author of the latest Jesus tell-all book on Friday, much to the delight of many on the internet. In the now-viral interview, Fox News anchor and religion correspondent Lauren Green shows zero interest in the arguments or content of scholar Reza Aslan’s new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
Instead, she leads off the interview with “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” Aslan’s eyebrows threaten to rise right off of his face, but he comports himself honorably in a painful ten-minute conversation that never moves past this misguided line of questioning: “It still begs the question though, why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?”
But even if Green’s line of questioning weren’t laced with xenophobia, ignorant about the purpose of scholarship, or breathtakingly incurious, it would still be problematic. There is a deeper philosophical problem behind focusing on the fact that Aslan is a Muslim.
Let’s suppose for the sake of argument the following: Reza Aslan brings personal biases and prejudices from his Muslim faith to his study of the historical Jesus; the liberal media is breathlessly excited by Aslan’s book, even though it merely rehashes debates that have been going on in historical Jesus studies for decades, because that media tends to be hostile to traditional Christian faith.
In fact, there may very well be reason to believe those things. But to think that they have anything to do with the merits of Aslan’s arguments about Jesus is to engage in a logical fallacy that C.S. Lewis called Bulverism. He explains:
You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly… Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.
Bulverism a great way to score points while getting no closer to the truth, and it comprises perhaps 95% of writing about religion on the internet.
If you’re actually interested in Zealot, you shouldn’t care about Aslan, or Fox, but about the man from Galilee: what was he like? what did he teach? was he the Christ? If you’re looking for answers to that question, Aslan’s Muslim faith, Fox’s hostility, and any number of dreary facts about America’s cultural grievances are strictly irrelevant.
Textual criticism and and historical methodology can be boring and hard. Questioning motives and feigning outrage is always fun and easy, and serves as a particularly shallow way for people to engage in intellectual triage. That’s why interesting subjects only suffer when they get dragged into the culture wars.
A fascinating New York Times article about doubt in Mormonism suggests that crises of faith are widespread not just among the marginally committed, but also the true believers and leadership. It points to a survey of more than 3,300 Mormon “disbelievers” released last year that found that over 40% of respondents had served in leadership positions.
Possibly more interesting than the survey itself, however, is the man who conducted it: John Dehlin, a graduate student at Utah State University, the founder of the “Mormon Stories” podcast, and himself a traveler in the gray area between faith and doubt in Mormonism.
When Mr. Dehlin went through an acute crisis of faith ten years ago, he felt there were few people he could turn to to help him, due to the stigma of doubt and disbelief.
Now, his mission is to create more acceptance inside Mormonism for people struggling with the historical and doctrinal problems of Mormonism–anguished souls like the respondents to his survey who write pleas like, “Please make sure the Church encourages its believers to avoid ostracizing a fellow member for such member’s disbelief” and “I try to participate so that our family can be together at church, but it is so hard when there is such a negative attitude towards people who have lost belief.”
(Mr. Dehlen’s survey defines “disbelievers”— perhaps problematically—as people who once believed but now deny that the Church is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth,” a key statement of Mormon belief.)
Post-crisis, Mr. Dehlin himself seems to deny that teaching. “I do believe in God,” he writes, “(though I don’t quite know what that means)”
And I believe that while God’s inspiration can often be found within the LDS church, I also see God’s inspiration in most churches, in nature, and wherever love and goodness abound (including amongst scientists, atheists, etc.).
I have no idea how much of “the gospel” is true/literal, and how much of it is symbolic/metaphorical.
However, like 20% of the disbelievers who filled out his survey, Mr. Dehlen also attends church weekly, where his bishop and stake president are aware of his activities and encourage him to remain active.
His current position is a strange mix, then, of skepticism and a desire to help people deal with contradictions in Mormonism. As he enumerates those contradictions in a video on his website, he pauses to assure his viewers, “There are believers who know all this, and who have found ways to have this not disrupt their testimony.”
His approach manages to draw anger from both sides: by believers who see him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and by ex-believers who see him as an accomodationist and coward.
“It seems the purpose of the board is to lovingly coax people out of the church, all while making them feel really great about it,” writes one commenter. “It’s a very misleading site…”
On the other hand, some who have left Mormonism see no good reason for him to still be sticking around.
Dehlin, for his part, wants the Mormon church to thrive—and to him, that means mostly sticking with the same orthodox beliefs he rejects. “I don’t want the church to fill up with members like me,” he says. “I don’t think that’s good for the church.”
“I’ve read enough about Judaism to know that a church can’t thrive with predominately liberal members. Historically speaking, my understanding is a church needs a strong core of orthodox and orthoprax members to stay healthy and vibrant.”
This strange admixture of beliefs—a disavowal of the orthodox teachings of his church paired with fierce loyalty to the institution; a desire to help doubters stay in the church as liberals paired with hope that plenty of orthodox remain left over—is baffling, perhaps incomprehensible for outsiders to Mormonism.
And unfortunately, I could not speak to Mr. Dehlin for as long we would have liked. He had to leave for church.
There’s a blurb on the back of Christopher R. Beha’s debut novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, which says it will “renew [readers'] faith in what literature is capable of achieving.” This is pretty close to the opposite of what the book is doing—and what it does well. Sophie Wilder is smart, painful, and insightful; it’s also a book which is deeply ambivalent about the power of the creative imagination and the desire to transform event into narrative. It’s a book about despair, and about the weakness of imagination rather than its power; in fact, one of its most striking and admirable characteristics is how up-front it is about its own failures of imagination.
The spine of the story is the relationship between demi-successful writer Charlie Blakeman and more-successful writer Sophie. At first both of them seem kind of insufferable, especially Charlie, who whines about how he got published and was reviewed in all the right places but nobody read his book. Beha is unsparing in his depiction of Charlie’s flaws. His internal monologue is very “written”; check out the lingering, self-indulgent phrase hanging off the end of the description of Charlie’s mother: “after my father’s death her mute suffering filled the atmosphere of that apartment, of her life.”
And he relies on Sophie to create him. She’s repeatedly paralleled with God: Sophie begins his real life, Sophie has a plan for him.
Sophie herself was “created” intellectually by a previous mentor, and one of the strengths of the book is the way it never tells you that making another human being your creator is cruel and unsustainable—it places far too much responsibility on the other person—but just shows you what that unsustainable mindset looks like.
Or maybe the spine of the story is a different creator-creation relationship: Sophie’s relationship with God. She’s a restless spirit who stumbles across Catholicism, first in books and then in church.
Beha has some really believable depictions of those first experiences of God’s presence; Sophie feels herself “occupied,” taken over by an overwhelming presence much bigger and more real than anything she’s felt or known before. And then she has to live with the consequences.
She marries a Catholic, she retires from the bright-young-things writing scene, she disappears from Charlie’s life. When she returns she has separated from her husband, and Charlie, who has always been aware that he doesn’t understand her faith or her choices, tries to figure out the mystery in the title.
There’s a lot going on here. There’s Sophie’s quest for identity (she has three different surnames throughout the novel), a quest she seems to be trying to escape—she wants to surrender to an identity, sink into it, rather than having to go out and conquer and defend it. She doesn’t want her conversion and subsequent changed life to be about her search for self, but about her encounter with God.
With his signature bow-tie and aristocratic manner, it’s easy to picture George Will warbling hymns every Sunday in the pew of some old marble church in Georgetown.
The long-time conservative columnist majored in religion as an undergraduate, and follows religious debates with interest. Will has defended the unborn, and opposed the death penalty; he regularly excoriates the pro-choice movement, and gets worked up over the contraception controversy with Catholic institutions.
So you could be forgiven for pegging Will for a Catholic—or at least, Episcopalian or Anglican.
But you would be wrong. Here’s Will, in a new piece for National Affairs, entitled “Religion and the American Republic”:
I approach the question of religion and American life from the vantage point of an expanding minority. I am a member of a cohort that the Pew public-opinion surveys call the “nones.” Today, when Americans are asked their religious affiliation, 20%—a large and growing portion—say “none.”
In an era when American conservatism is often confused with religiosity, a top conservative pundit’s confession of unbelief is startling. (Granted, Will has declared his unbelief before, though somewhat reluctantly and upon questioning, on The Colbert Report in 2008.)
Will’s recent admissions recall his 2005 column called “The Christian Complex” in which he urged Bible-thumping Republicans “not seem to require, de facto, what the Constitution forbids, de jure: ‘No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust.’”
Will’s latest essay continues this defense of unbelievers in American politics: He argues that an individual’s faith is not a requisite for good citizenship; that democratic flourishing does not require a religious citizenry; that natural rights do not require grounding in God. He colors his arguments with tidbits about our heterodox founders: Washington would not kneel to pray or take communion; Adams was a Unitarian; Jefferson cared not whether his nephew’s studies “end[ed] in a belief that there is no God.”
Par for the course, so far, for a public nonbeliever; you can find similar arguments at your local Center for Inquiry. But from there, Will travels ground seldom tread by today’s avowed unbelievers: he warmly praises American religions both for the democratic impulses they impart and for the intermediary role they play between citizen and state. And if natural rights don’t require religion, they are “especially firmly grounded when they are grounded in religious doctrine.”
The nones of America should “wish continued vigor for the rich array of religious institutions that have leavened American life,” he concludes.
Here Will differs sharply from today’s professional nonbelievers, who regard religious belief with something akin to revulsion, and who channel the old progressive view that religion must be eclipsed for humankind to secure a long and prosperous future. The George Will model combines unbelief with a fondness for religion, not a fear of it.
Will’s increasing openness about his doubt mirrors an increasing acknowledgement of unbelief in American public life, also reflected in recent presidential remarks reassuring America’s churchless that “If you choose not to worship, you’re equally as patriotic as somebody who does worship.”
The president offering this olive branch to the heathens among us? Not Barack Obama, but rather the man who prompted so many dark prophecies of theocracy: George W. Bush.
The first atheist monument on government property in America was unveiled earlier this week in front of a courthouse in rural Florida, and a creationist preacher would be glad to see more like it pop up.
As a small group of protesters blasted Christian country music and waved “Honk for Jesus” signs, the atheists celebrated what they believe is the first atheist monument allowed on government property in the United States. …
About 200 people attended the unveiling. Most were supportive, though there were protesters, including a group from Florida League of the South that had signs that said “Yankees Go Home.”
How the monument—a bench attached to a granite pillar inscribed with quotes from Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists—came to be there, echoes other cases where non-believers have used an “us too!” tactic when challenging religious displays.
The Ten Commandments statue was installed in 2005 by a local Christian group called Community Men’s Fellowship. A local named Daniel Cooney enlisted the help of American Atheists, a ” friend with a big stick,” as he put it, to challenge it. According to a settlement agreement between Florida’s Bradford County and American Atheists, the area is a free speech zone, so any group may post a display.
This isn’t the first time a challenge to a religious display has brought not removal but counter-display, opening something of a Pandora’s box.
When a Pennsylvania school district allowed the Ten Commandments to be posted in school libraries, they were soon joined by the Wiccan “Cycle of the Goddess,” a history of gay rights, the Baha’i “Golden Rule,” and a pamphlet on atheism.
This summer, American Atheists questioned the presence of Gideon’s Bibles at a Georgia state park cabin. Gov. Nathan Deal defended their “firm legal footing” thus:
“These Bibles are donated by outside groups, not paid for by the state, and I do not believe that a Bible in a bedside table drawer constitutes a state establishment of religion…In fact, any group is free to donate literature.”
As in the Florida free speech zone, the group took Deal at his word, and is currently collecting atheist materials such as God is Not Great and Why I am Not a Muslim to donate.
American Atheists admits that if they could, they would have no monuments at the courthouse rather than many, no books in the cabins rather than a whole library. The “me too” tactic is meant merely to push back against a defense of public displays of religion solely on free expression grounds.
Whether this tactic represents a temporary tactic or long-term trend, it’s certainly creating some interesting scenes along the way. And while the Southern League’s antics are more likely to attract national attention, hopefully more people will follow the example of Community Men’s Fellowship, who wrote:
We want you all to remember that this issue was won on the basis of this being a free speech issue, so don’t be alarmed when the American Atheists want to erect their own sign or monument. It’s their right. As for us, we will continue to honor the Lord and that’s what matters.
High school student Sarah Henry came from Kentucky to Washington, DC, to preach blasphemy this past Sunday.
“The improved man will believe only in the religion of this world,” she told an audience of some fifty heathens at James Hoban’s Irish Bar near Dupont Circle:
He will have nothing to do with the miraculous and supernatural. He will find that there is no room in the universe for these things. He will know that happiness is the only good…and that to do the things (and no other) that add to the happiness of man is to practice the highest possible religion. His motto will be: “Sufficient unto each world is the evil thereof.”
It was Henry’s first time competing in the Robert G. Ingersoll Oratory Contest, in which contestants deliver the speeches of nineteenth-century America’s “Great Agnostic.”
Ingersoll was a Civil War veteran, Republican power broker, and vocal critic of organized religion. You probably haven’t heard of him, but the purpose of the contest is to fix that. Steve Lowe, who started the annual contest in 2009, says he and other DC-area secularists want to revive the legacy of a great American “freethinker” who has been unjustly forgotten by history.
A superstar on the lecture circuit, Ingersoll was quite probably the most-heard speaker of the Gilded Age, surpassing even Mark Twain and presidents. His “Plumed Knight” endorsement speech for James Blaine in 1876 became the gold standard for nominations. He packed lecture halls with angry clergy, curious Congressmen, and common folk alike.
As eleven contestants took to the podium on such subjects as “The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child” and “Is the Old Testament Inspired?” it became clear why Ingersoll was so popular: his speeches are high-minded without being overwrought, and shot through with a humanist humor and joie de vivre that are scarce in the New Atheist polemics, now that Christopher Hitchens is gone.
In the voice of contestant Mike Schmidtmann, Ingersoll took an editor’s pen to the 10 Commandments: “If Jehovah had been civilized he would have left out the commandment about keeping the Sabbath, and in its place would have said: ‘Thou shalt not enslave thy fellow-men.’”
In Ms. Henry’s chosen speech, Ingersoll preached Front Porch Republicanism:
The Improved Man will find his greatest joy in the happiness of others and he will know that the home is the real temple. He will believe in the democracy of the fireside, and will reap his greatest reward in being loved by those whose lives he has enriched.
In the spirit of the great socializer Ingersoll, once winners were decided—Ms. Henry, the youngest contestant, snagged 1st place and $250—the group retired to the bar.
Ingersoll’s star is on the rise, with the recent publication of Susan Jacoby’s widely reviewed The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (Alan Jacobs tweaked it here at TAC). As Jacoby notes in the book, one of Ingersoll’s lasting intellectual contributions was to restore the godless Thomas Paine (“that filthy little atheist” to Teddy Roosevelt) to prominence among the founding fathers.
In one of the most ingenious interviews of “The Colbert Report” (at 5:00 below), Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) tells Stephen Colbert about legislation he co-sponsored to have the Ten Commandments displayed in both houses of Congress.
“The Ten Commandments is not a bad thing for people to understand and respect,” Westmoreland explains.
Colbert deadpans: “What are the Ten Commandments?”
“What are all of them?” Westmoreland asks, dread creeping into his eyes. “You want me to name them all?”
It’s so embarrassing it’s hard to watch: Westmoreland ums and ahs through a few before admitting, “I can’t name them all.” (Quick quiz: can you?)
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently had his own Westmoreland moment. Lamenting the neglect of biblical principles in American life, Brooks wrote,
In Corinthians, Jesus tells the crowds, “Not many of you were wise by worldly standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. …”
That this sentence didn’t catch the eye of Brooks or his fact-checkers denotes a basic ignorance of the New Testament, as Jesus did not travel to Greece. (The author of the quote is Paul, who did).
Alan Jacobs and friends had some fun with Brooks’ error this week:
“How surprised his disciples must have been when Moses walked on the Red Sea.” #nytimesbible
— Alan Jacobs (@ayjay) June 24, 2013
— Erik Gregersen (@erikgregersen) June 24, 2013
The last time the Times flubbed a Bible quote, Eric Metaxas went into full-on culture wars mode:
In the world of Manhattan cultural elites, the Bible is mostly thought of as a quaint and useless artifact…Is the secular bias at the Times so pervasive that it has affected not just the writers but the fact-checkers too?
The Times is “out of touch with middle America,” he wrote.
It’s easy to beat up on Brooks, but there is in fact little indication that “middle Americans” crack open the Good Book much more than those “cultural elites” who fact-check the Times.
In recent nationwide survey, nearly a fourth polled believed that “the values and morals of America are declining” due to “a lack of Bible reading,” and 56 percent said the Bible should have a greater role in American society. But how many read the Bible regularly? About a fifth. As Christianity Today put it, Americans revere their Bibles so much that they keep them in pristine, unopened condition.
David Brooks, House Republicans, and everyday Americans alike love to appeal to “Biblical principles” or “Judeo-Christian morality.” Actually reading the Bible, not so much. As the Virgin Mary told the Thessalonians, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
The philosopher Carlos Fraenkel has a beautiful piece in the Jewish Review of Books about his experience teaching an “underground seminar” on philosophy to Hasidic Jews. Although most were active businessmen with large families and heavy religious obligations, Fraenkel’s students sat up nights reading and discussing Spinoza, Maimonides, and Nietzsche. In addition to the demands on their time, these amateur philosophers faced a serious risk of ostracism from the ultra-Orthodox world that circumscribes their lives. ”From the point of view of our community,” one explains, “studying these books is much worse than having an extramarital affair or going to a prostitute. That’s weakness of the flesh, but here our souls are on the line-apikorsus (heresy) means losing our spot in olam ha-ba (the world to come).”
It’s easy to ridicule the limits on intellectual freedom imposed by ultra-Orthodox Judaism. But they may be partly redeemed by their consequence: an overriding sense of the importance of thought, study, and right conduct. For Fraenkel, the emphasis on things of the soul over things of the body that traditional Judaism shares with philosophy is the core of Hasidim’s paradoxical appeal. Asked why he is interested in the ultra-Orthodox community, Fraenkel explains that “while I am not attracted to its content, I am intrigued by its form—a world that revolves around wisdom and God, rather than wealth, sex, power, and entertainment. [The students] are surprised when I say that from Plato to Spinoza most philosophers endorsed this ranking, if not the same accounts of wisdom and God. And they are stunned to learn that I would be very disappointed if my 2-year-old daughter grew up to value lipstick, handbags, and boys in sports cars more than education and ethics.”
But it often takes an outsider to envy the members of a closed community. Where Fraenkel sees an authentic thirst for wisdom in his rebellious students, they speak first hand of the superstition, prejudice, and conformity against which they struggle day after day. Fraenkel would rather see his daughter follow the Satmar Rebbe than Kim Kardashian. But some of his students have stopped having children to avoid enlarging their sects.
Many academic philosophers bristle when their work is associated with broad claims about the “meaning of life”. Fraenkel and his students provide a vivid reminder that, while philosophy is more than a dorm-room bull session or self-help mantra, its significance is based on reflection on the purposes of human existence rather than feats of technical sophistication or analytic ingenuity. As a college teacher, I wish that I could impart to my bright, hard-working, well-credentialed students even a small portion of the seriousness and maturity that Fraenkel’s black-hatted friends brought to their reading and discussion. Although not scholars, the members of the underground seminar seem to be philosophers in the original and highest sense: lovers of wisdom.
It’s a strange variation on a common theme in post-revolution Egypt: the country’s burdensome laws against blasphemy are being used to punish anti-Christian hate speech.
A hard-line Muslim cleric received an 11-year suspended sentence Sunday for tearing up and burning a Bible, Egypt’s official news agency said.
Cairo’s Nasr City court sentenced Ahmed Abdullah and his son was given a suspended sentence of eight years over the same incident, the Middle East News Agency reported. The two were ordered to pay a fine of 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($700). The ruling can be appealed.
Abdullah ripped up a Bible and burned it during a Sept. 11 rally by ultraconservative Salafi Muslims in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, protesting an anti-Islam film produced in the United States. (AP)
In Egypt’s Islamist tilt, these laws have increasingly been applied against Egypt’s Coptic Christians, a religious minority comprising about ten percent of the country. Earlier this month a Coptic Christian lawyer, Rumany Mourad, was sentenced to one year in prison for “defamation of religion” on the basis of a private conversation he had at a law library with two of his Muslim colleagues. Hearings in the case were reportedly “characterized by a heavy presence of Islamist lawyers and their supporters,” one of whom suggested the death penalty, reports Amnesty International.
Last Tuesday, an elementary school teacher, Dimyana Obeid Abd Al Nour, 24, was fined US$14,000 after her students accused her of praising the Coptic Pope and disparaging Mohammed in the classroom.
A Coptic activist asked at the time of Al Nour’s imprisonment, “Why is defamation of religion a one-way street, only for the benefit of the Muslims, while Christianity is defamed every day?” He pointed out that Ahmed Abdullah’s public Bible defamation had gone unpunished.
His question is a fair question, but not the right question. With Abdullah’s conviction, Egypt’s blasphemy laws have been used, for once, to protect Christians from hate speech instead of censure them, but this is no cause for celebration. Blasphemy laws themselves, and not their application, are the problem.
“This ruling is bad,” says Nina Shea, a Hudson Institute scholar who has written a book about blasphemy laws. “The whole blasphemy regime is bad. Minorities get prosecuted disproportionately, and it’s a way of shutting down debate. You could say, ‘Well, burning Bibles, burning Korans should be off limits.’ It never seems to end there. It’s a slippery slope towards banning ideas about religion and expressing rejection of religion.”
“It’s tempting for religious people to be demanding,” she says, noting that as a religious person she finds Abdullah’s actions abhorrent. “That’s the problem, though—it creates sectarian sense of grievances.”
“They think that they can gain greater social peace if the government regulates speech against other religions,” she explains. “Usually that is not the case—just the opposite, it creates jealousy and grievances.” When one religious group sees a member convicted of blasphemy, she explains, it can use that precedent to call for the prosecution of another group.
Moreover, once the government takes a role in regulating religious expression, it rarely sticks to policing the extremes. “The temptation is always to go further to curtail speech and expression,” explains Shea. “You can’t contain this once you go in that direction.”
As tempting as it may be for Egyptian Christians to feel relief at receiving seeming equal protection under the law, no one should praise this ruling. The equal prosecution of blasphemy is at once far too low, and impossibly difficult, a standard to keep.