“Hate Speech” and Blasphemy

January 13, 2023

Paul Marshall, Director of RFI’s South and Southeast Asia Action Team, authored an article for Providence discussing recent incidents in the United States that reveal a troubling attitude towards “hate speech” that is reminiscent of blasphemy accusations in repressive countries abroad. Marshall contrasts this attitude with a growing international effort to resist punitive restrictions on blasphemy and apostasy. He writes:

New York State is passing a law requiring social-media networks to publish plans to respond to what is vaguely called “hate” speech. An excellent explanation of the full range of the law is given by Eugene Volokh in the Wall Street Journal. Part of these plans is a requirement for the network to report on any speech that might, inter alia, “humiliate… a group” based on “religion.” 

In this very same State, on August 12, 2022, author Salman Rushdie was stabbed by a man who asserted that the novelist had humiliated his religion, Islam, and that his attack was driven by the late Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa declaring Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Versesblasphemous. Khomeini called for Rushdie to be killed “so that no one will henceforth dare insult the sacred beliefs of Muslims.” The man accused of the stabbing, Hadi Matar, stressed that his motivation was that the author “attacked Islam, he attacked their beliefs, the belief systems.”  

Meanwhile, Hamline University, a United Methodist-affiliated school in St. Paul, Minnesota, has dismissed the instructor of a global art history class for showing an image of Islam’s prophet Mohammad. The teacher had given advance notice to the class that she would do so and that students who did not want to participate were free to be absent. Nevertheless, the Dean of Students called her actions “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.”

Much of America still regards such “humiliation” and accusations of blasphemy and insulting beliefs as narrowly religious matters and thus marginal and unimportant. Indeed, most seem oblivious to the connections between such restrictions and multiplying wider general controls on any speech deemed by some to be undesirable. This parochial attitude is becoming increasingly out of step with some major international trends. 

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