For years, the Western world has listened aghast to stories out of Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations of citizens being imprisoned or executed for questioning or offending Islam. Even the most seemingly minor infractions elicit draconian punishments. Late last year, two Afghan journalists were sentenced to prison for blasphemy because they translated the Koran into a Farsi dialect that Afghans can read. In Jordan, a poet was arrested for incorporating Koranic verses into his work. And last week, an Egyptian court banned a magazine for running a similar poem.
But now an equally troubling trend is developing in the West. Ever since 2006, when Muslims worldwide rioted over newspaper cartoons picturing the prophet Muhammad, Western countries, too, have been prosecuting more individuals for criticizing religion. The "Free World," it appears, may be losing faith in free speech.
Among the new blasphemers is legendary French actress Brigitte Bardot, who was convicted last June of "inciting religious hatred" for a letter she wrote in 2006 to then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, saying that Muslims were ruining France. It was her fourth criminal citation for expressing intolerant views of Muslims and homosexuals. Other Western countries, including Canada and Britain, are also cracking down on religious critics.
Emblematic of the assault is the effort to pass an international ban on religious defamation supported by United Nations General Assembly President Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann. Brockmann is a suspended Roman Catholic priest who served as Nicaragua's foreign minister in the 1980s under the Sandinista regime, the socialist government that had a penchant for crushing civil liberties before it was tossed out of power in 1990. Since then, Brockmann has literally embraced such free-speech-loving figures as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom he wrapped in a bear hug at the U.N. last year.
The U.N. resolution, which has been introduced for the past couple of years, is backed by countries such as Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive nations when it comes to the free exercise of religion. Blasphemers there are frequently executed. Most recently, the government arrested author Hamoud Bin Saleh simply for writing about his conversion to Christianity.
While it hasn't gone so far as to support the U.N. resolution, the West is prosecuting "religious hatred" cases under anti-discrimination and hate-crime laws. British citizens can be arrested and prosecuted under the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act, which makes it a crime to "abuse" religion. In 2008, a 15-year-old boy was arrested for holding up a sign reading "Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult" outside the organization's London headquarters. Earlier this year, the British police issued a public warning that insulting Scientology would now be treated as a crime.
No question, the subjects of such prosecutions are often anti-religious – especially anti-Muslim – and intolerant. Consider far-right Austrian legislator Susanne Winter. She recently denounced Mohammad as a pedophile for his marriage to 6-year-old Aisha, which was consummated when she was 9. Winter also suggested that Muslim men should commit bestiality rather than have sex with children. Under an Austrian law criminalizing "degradation of religious doctrines," the 51-year-old politician was sentenced in January to a fine of 24,000 Euros ($31,000) and a three-month suspended prison term.
But it is the speech, not the speaker, that's at issue. As insulting and misinformed as views like Winter's may be, free speech is not limited to non-offensive subjects. The purpose of free speech is to be able to challenge widely held views.
Yet there is a stream of cases similar to Winter's coming out of various countries: In May 2008, Dutch prosecutors arrested cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot for insulting Christians and Muslims with a cartoon that caricatured a Christian fundamentalist and a Muslim fundamentalist as zombies who meet at an anti-gay rally and want to marry.
Last September, Italian prosecutors launched an investigation of comedian Sabina Guzzanti for joking about Pope Benedict VXI. "In 20 years, [he] will be dead and will end up in hell, tormented by queer demons, and very active ones," she said at a rally.
In February, Rowan Laxton, an aide to British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, was arrested for "inciting religious hatred" when, watching news reports of Israel's bombardment of Gaza while exercising at his gym, he allegedly shouted obscenities about Israelis and Jews at the television.
Also in February, Britain barred controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders from entry because of his film "Fitna," which describes the Koran as a "fascist" book and Islam as a violent religion. Wilders was declared a "threat to public policy, public security or public health."
And in India, authorities arrested the editor and publisher of the newspaper the Statesman for running an article by British journalist Johann Hari in which he wrote, "I don't respect the idea that we should follow a 'Prophet' who at the age of 53 had sex with a 9-year-old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn't follow him." In India, it is a crime to "outrage religious feelings."
History has shown that once governments begin to police speech, they find ever more of it to combat. Countries such as Canada, England and France have prosecuted speakers and journalists for criticizing homosexuals and other groups. It's the ultimate irony: free speech curtailed for the sake of a pluralistic society.
Even countries that the United States has helped liberate have joined the assault on free speech, rejecting the core values of our First Amendment. Afghan journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh was sentenced to death under Sharia law last year just for downloading Internet material on the role of women in Islamic societies that authorities judged to be blasphemous. The provincial deputy attorney general, Hafizullah Khaliqyar, has been quoted as saying: "Journalists are supporting Kambakhsh. I will arrest any journalist trying to support him after this."
Not only does this trend threaten free speech, freedom of association and a free press, it even undermines free exercise of religion. Challenging the beliefs of other faiths can be part of that exercise. Countries such as Saudi Arabia don't prosecute blasphemers to protect the exercise of all religions but to protect one religion. Religious orthodoxy has always lived in tension with free speech. Yet Western ideals are based on the premise that free speech contains its own protection: Good speech ultimately prevails over bad. There's no blasphemy among free nations, only orthodoxy and those who seek to challenge it.
After years of international scorn, the United States can claim the high ground by supporting the right of all to speak openly about religion. Otherwise, free speech in the West could die with hope of little more than a requiem Mass.