The Politics of Blasphemy

It is unwise to displease deities – especially when they have human temperaments and superhuman powers.  It doesn’t take much to displease them either.  It’s as easy as hurling an insult their way.

Deities don’t care either for affronts to anyone or anything associated with them – priests or prophets or rituals or systems of belief or law.   Sacred places and artifacts are also not to be messed with; and neither is holy writ, if any.  All this has been known, or believed, from time immemorial.  Blasphemy has always been a grave offense.

One might suppose that the omnipotent, omniscient, patriarchal God worshipped by practitioners of the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – would be more thick-skinned.   He is not.  The Almighty may be a perfect Being, but He is not beyond human foibles.  Those who blaspheme Him are the worst of the worst.

According to the Torah, they should be put to death.  According to as astute a thinker as St. Thomas Aquinas, their sin is worse than murder.   Of all the Abrahamic religions, Islam is the most tolerant of blasphemy, or rather it used to be; its foundational texts don’t make a big a deal of it.  Even before the dawn of the modern era, however, it had caught up with the others.

Now that faith has waned for the majority of Christians and Jews, and revived in Muslim lands, Islam has taken the lead.  It was not always so.  Throughout all but the most recent history, the opposite was the case.

Perhaps the fact that Islam’s monotheism is less adulterated than its rivals’, and its God more unambiguously transcendent, explains why.  Or perhaps Muslims were more clearheaded than Christians and Jews.   If “God is great,” He should be great enough not to care what people say about Him.

But if that was what Mohammed thought, his followers no longer do.  Religions, like God, move in mysterious ways, and not always for the better.

That pagans would revile blasphemers made sense.  This is why it is so ironic that it is practically impossible nowadays to blaspheme pagan gods.  They died off, and nobody  cares.   They are not even worth insulting.

Notwithstanding compelling arguments that ought to have done Him in centuries ago, the Abrahamic God still has life in Him.  He’s hard to kill.

And so, amidst scientific wonders and technological marvels undreamed of in more benighted times, blasphemy survives.  It has even become a factor in world politics.

* * *

Back in the sixties, when political Islam had not yet even been conceived, when Judaism’s God was all but finished outside Alta Kocker circles, and when even Time Magazine deemed the Christian God on His last ropes, nobody would have expected this.

But it is not as odd as may appear.  Blasphemy has always been at least as much about politics as religion.  And we live in a political world.

A hundred years ago, the great social theorist Emile Durkheim showed how the first social groupings were organized around religious cults; how their social character emerged from the distinctive ways they marked off and dealt with sacred (that is, believed to be sacred) things.

And, as Wordsworth famously declared: “The child is father of the man.’

Thus it is that, as civilizations emerged and social groupings and their political structures became more complex, the social and the political remained true to their cultic origins.  This was the case with all the great empires of the ancient world.

They had their own deities and associated cults.  But they were also, for the most part, accepting of the beliefs and practices of the peoples they dominated.  In the ancient world, tolerance was the norm.

The empires of pagan times were therefore more cosmopolitan and humane than their Abrahamic successors.  But the Abrahamic religions were no less political on this account.

There is no way to explain the vicissitudes of Jewish communities in late antiquity, when rabbinical Judaism was born, or the establishment of Christianity as a universal religion distinct from Judaism, without addressing connections between these “faith traditions” and the political forces at play in the ancient world.

Politics is also indispensable for making sense of the rise and consolidation of Islam and its amazingly rapid conquests throughout the Near East and beyond.

No matter who the deity or deities may be, blasphemy is and always has been a political act.  It betokens disloyalty or even rebellion.  Small wonder that the norm has been not just to condemn it theologically but also to punish it politically.

Modernity changed that.  One of the greatest and most far-reaching achievements of its signal philosophical doctrine, liberalism, was to have made “faith” a matter of private conscience only; in other words, to disengage politics from religion.

But this is a comparatively recent phenomenon, and its effects are not felt equally deeply in all parts of the world.

Liberalism arose in part in reaction to the wars of religion that ravaged Europe in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation. To this day, its influence is greatest in parts of the world shaped by those events and their aftermath.

Paradoxically, then, it was Christian intolerance that gave rise, after many centuries of grievous harm, to a form of tolerance more far-reaching than that of Roman antiquity.

Before Christianity consolidated its position as the official religion of the Roman Empire, it was respect for local communities, and their respective deities, that made tolerance possible.  Now it is respect for persons and their rights as free and equal beings.

But this was a long time in coming.  Monotheism put an end to the tolerance of ancient civilizations, and we are dealing with the consequences to this day.

In a world that was reorganizing itself socially, politically and economically, and in which scientific and philosophical developments put venerable understandings of the relation between temporal and ecclesiastical authority in jeopardy, the movement of faith into the private sphere made civil order possible.  It also saved religion.  No gain without pain!

But the story is still far from over, and I would venture that the liberal turn marks the beginning of the end of humanity’s thralldom to gods and God.  But that is a prospect for a remote future.  In the meanwhile, blasphemy survives.  In the right circumstances, it even thrives.

However, even in that department, the liberal turn has already had important effects.  Not least among them, are its implications for understanding the social and political significance of blasphemy in the world today.

* * *

Though blasphemy was hardly its focus – indeed, it hardly mentions it at all, except as a reminder of the benighted past — John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1869) offers perhaps the clearest account of the liberal view of that once and future transgression.

His account also lays bare a shortcoming of the liberal view; one that does not by any means undo it, but that helps explain the political difference between insulting or making fun of almost anyone or anything associated with Judaism and Christianity and, at the present time, visiting similar treatment upon their Islamic counterparts.

For all liberals, not just Mill, there is everywhere a presumption for liberty.  Barring some compelling reason, individuals’ lives and behaviors should be free of state or societal interference.  The absence of coercive restraint is the default position.

Mill argued that there is only one sort of reason that ought to be regarded as compelling: the prevention of harm to (identifiable) others.  He therefore ruled out reasons others who acknowledge a presumption for liberty might endorse: for instance, preventing individuals from harming themselves or “society” generally, and so-called paternalistic reasons that underwrite interventions aimed at making people better off.

He also ruled out the enforcement of morality, as that notion is commonly understood; and not just because he favored experiments in living.  In his many writings, Mill had much to say about what right action is.  But On Liberty is not about ethics; it is about public policy.

From that purview, Mill’s position was plain.  So long as no one is harmed, laissez-faire is the best policy.  Those who are unhappy for any reason with what happens when individuals are left on their own can, of course, “remonstrate” with them and endeavor to persuade them to change their ways. What they should not deploy are the coercive powers of the state or “the moral coercion of public opinion.”

In a similar spirit, Mill also ruled out interventions aimed at proscribing offensive words and deeds.  And so, state or societal interventions directed against blasphemers fail to meet his standard.

But, of course, this leaves open the question of what counts as harm.  Mill’s view, and the liberal view generally, is austere.  It is also difficult to formulate precisely.

Part of the problem is that for liberalism to work, it is not enough just that liberal principles are in place.  Liberalism must be internalized.  Then, and only then, are intuitions about harm reliable.

Liberal societies require men and women who think, for example, that someone who becomes physically ill when blasphemous words or deeds occur is not really harmed, while someone whose peace and quiet is disturbed by loud and raucous blasphemers is. Explaining why is no easy task, but liberal persons understand the difference.

What they understand is that if you are disturbed by insulting depictions of the prophet Mohammed – or, to take a secular example, by spitting on the American flag – that’s your problem.  Those who give offense in these ways may be uncivil or despicable, but they are acting within their rights.  So long as they are not affecting you in a way that counts as harm – in other words, in a way that people with liberal values regard as harmful — neither the coercive power of the state nor the moral coercion of public opinion should be brought to bear against them.

* * *

I think Mill was right, and that the freedom to blaspheme is an historical achievement of inestimable importance.  I also think that it is salutary to debunk religion; and that, for as long as anybody cares about them, doing so is beneficial.  Whatever hastens the death of God, as Nietzsche conceived it, is all to the good.

But it can also seem a fool’s errand because there is only so much arguments that appeal to rational standards can achieve.

Were reason more in control, the world would long ago have reached the point where the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be as impossible to blaspheme as the pagan gods He supplanted.   But recalcitrance to reason is a human shortcoming, and when reason fails, insults and mockery can sometimes help.

All religions, the Abrahamic ones especially, deserve such treatment.  But the political significance of giving them all what they deserve is not the same.  What goes for Judaism and Christianity is more complicated in the case of Islam.

I am not just thinking of the prudential reasons that everyone these days understands.  Muslims today are not inclined to turn the other cheek.  Islamophobes intent on stirring up trouble understand this well.  So do officials intent on maintaining order, and also ordinary people who only want peace.

Free speech advocates who are not just islamophobes in disguise – Charlie Hebdo’s new director, Stéphane Charbonnier, may be an example – ought to understand it too.

But, beyond prudence, there is a more political reason for a double standard.

The past is never really finished; indeed, as William Faulkner said, it isn’t even past.  The return of atavistic religiosity is always a danger.  And it is always deplorable.

But it usually needs something to set it off.  We know what set it off this time: that strange twist in imperialist strategy that took shape some three and a half decades ago, when the threat to Western domination of the oil rich and militarily strategic Near East was thought to come mainly from secular, nationalist movements.

The Iranian Revolution changed that perception.  It showed that large numbers of people in the region were susceptible to the machinations of clerics and theocratic entrepreneurs.

However, that lesson was incompletely assimilated.  The predominant view in Washington and other Western capitals, and in Tel Aviv, was still that the main enemy was secular, and would remain so indefinitely, except perhaps in backward, tribal areas.  But in playing the old imperial game of divide and conquer, theocratic movements could be useful.

Because the stewards of the empire, true to form, didn’t have a clue what they were doing, events soon spun out of control.  By the time Communism imploded, much to the detriment of secular nationalist forces in the region, a politicized version of Islam had already become a significant vehicle for anti-imperialist resistance.  With Communist and other left secular alternatives out of the picture, its influence has only grown.

To be sure, this is the anti-imperialism of fools.  Even so, by now, it has become the main form of resistance to imperialist domination in the historically Muslim world.

Insurgent forces have always been derided, and subaltern populations are regularly caricatured, libeled, and treated with disrespect.  But religion generally gets a pass.

This is hardly surprising because in modern times religion doesn’t matter much outside the private sphere.  Apart from a few anomalous situations – Northern Ireland, for example – it is not even a political factor; and, when it is – again, Northern Ireland is an example — it is usually only in a highly attenuated sense.

The American situation is anomalous too, but it would be a mistake to think of our fundamentalists as the functional equivalents of islamicist insurgents.  In the United States social ressentiments often take on religious colorations, and the Republican Party panders to true believers to such an extent that it has arguably been taken over by them.

But to mock the American religious right, as they deserve to be mocked, is at most only to offend them.  It is, or ought to be, settled business that this is not only legitimate but also politically justifiable.  If peoples’ feelings are hurt in the process, let them deal with it.

But it is different in the historically Muslim world.  This is a consequence of political Islam and the factors, the external ones especially, that nurture it.  These are the same factors, ironically, that lead islamophobes to vilify Islam most vociferously.

Insults to Islam – in our time and place — are insults to the victims of imperialist domination and to the indigenous forces struggling against it.  Regrettably but unavoidably, this consideration trumps efforts to debunk beliefs and practices that ought to have long ago gone the way of pagan cults.

The situation is rare, perhaps even unprecedented, in the modern era, but the implications are clear.  When the “good guys” are being vilified through the vilification of the God with whom they identify, common decency requires even those of us who think faith’s demise long overdue to come to their defense.

* * *

This is not to say that state power ought to be used to put an end to blasphemy – even in those anomalous cases where it is detrimental to peace and politically retrograde.   Mill was right about that: the state should stay hands off.

This is a case for remonstrance and persuasion, not coercion; notwithstanding the reprehensibility of contemporary Islamophobia or the dangers attendant upon its encouragement.

The need to maintain free expression is paramount.  And it is always well, in general, to expose the Abrahamic religions for the menaces they are.  But when through a sad concatenation of circumstances hostility towards Western blasphemers becomes a means of self-assertion for anti-imperialist insurgents in the Muslim world, it is also necessary, indeed urgent, to come to their defense.  If there was ever a time when remonstrations and efforts at persuasion are called for, it is now.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).