February 12, 2006


It's not just Muslims who lay down the law on blasphemers (Mark Kermode, February 12, 2006, The Observer)

The outrage which cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad have provoked among Muslims has prompted much self-righteous blather about the sanctity of free speech. Yet Muslims are not the only ones who seem to find blasphemy beyond the pale, and who believe that religion should take precedence over liberty. Here in the UK, Christians retain the protection of the law of 'blasphemous libel', a common law offence which forbids the publication of 'contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God'. Although archaic, this law provides a striking counterpoint to the claim that freedom of expression is an integral part of the British way of life.

Take the case of Visions of Ecstasy, an innocuous (if rather silly) short film depicting 'the ecstatic and erotic visions of St Teresa of Avila' which was banned in the UK in 1989. In the film, which features music by former Siouxsie and the Banshees band member Steve Severin, St Teresa is first seduced by her own sexual psyche (played, conveniently, by a photegenic 'babe'), and then mounts and caresses the crucified body of Christ. Technical shortcomings notwithstanding (hands which seem to move freely despite apparently being nailed down) the film raised a problem for the British Board of Film Classification, which is forbidden from classifying material which may infringe the laws of the land.

Despite support from the likes of Derek Jarman, the BBFC concluded that, if prosecuted, a 'reasonable jury' was likely to convict Visions of Ecstasy as blasphemous. Not to be defeated, director Nigel Wingrove (who has since helmed the cult nuns-on-heat romp Sacred Flesh) took his case to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the very existence of a blasphemy law contravened the freedoms of expression enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights. In a mealy-mouthed ruling, the Court agreed that 'Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society', but with the caveat that 'freedom carries with it duties and responsibilities' including 'a duty to avoid as far as possible an expression that is, in regard to objects of veneration [i.e. religion], gratuitously offensive to others and profanatory'. Which effectively meant that Wingrove was allowed his freedom of expression unless such freedom offended his Christian peers. In which case, he wasn't...

Visions of Ecstasy remains the only film to be banned in the UK solely on grounds of blasphemy.

Presumably that means there other grounds for banning them as well? Certainly more should be banned.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 12, 2006 11:08 PM

When did the Archbishop of Canterbury start issuing fatwahs? I must have missed it. Islamic trial by jury? Missed it.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at February 13, 2006 9:58 AM

Thus the tatty condition of the C of E.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2006 10:14 AM

What about the source of the law and trial by jury? Equivocating Christianity with Islam in order to support your position is a loser. Theocracies are a problem unless you would prefer to be ruled by those who profess to hear the voice of God speaking on such matters. You don't need a jury vote when you know what the prophet wants.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at February 13, 2006 10:28 AM


Of course, Reagan and Bush both claim(ed) to hear the voice of God.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2006 10:35 AM

In the spirit of the goose and the gander, I would note the following:


It includes a clip from "Visions of Ecstacy."

Sure, its tasteless but only a slight shock. The first time I saw a pic of Bernini's sculpture of St. Teresa, http://www.artchive.com/artchive/B/bernini/teresa.jpg.html,
courtesy my Jesuit history professor, it was easy to envision the nature of her ecstasy. Just look at that face.

Compared either to this movie or the sculpture, the cartoons of old Mo' are weak tea indeed.

Posted by: Ed Bush at February 13, 2006 10:40 AM

The Islamic theocrats belong in rubber room. The American habit of acknowleding God, the Creator or Providence and our dependence on Him is a little bit different, don't you think?

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at February 13, 2006 10:56 AM


Sistani is indistinguishable. Ahmedinijad and al Qaeda are nuts.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2006 11:00 AM

But OJ, what about the leading clerics in Mecca? You know, like Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al-Seedes (imam of the Grand Mosque) who said that Mohammed should be venerated around the world, and that the editors, publishers, and cartoonists should be tried and punished.

They represent mainstream Islam, no? Just like the mainstream media is spotlighted by the NYT. Unfortunate, but accurate.

As to the internal power struggles within Islam, it is not final yet whether Sistani is in the stronger position today. A few fiery speeches by some rivals, a lucky car bomb or a hail of RPG fire, and the Mookies will be dancing in the streets.

Here's the comparison for you - Jim Jones was a nut who killed hundreds, but only those who were part of his cult. The radical screamers in Islam want to kill loads and loads all around the world, preferably women and children first. Even in their own house, women get it first.

Posted by: ratbert at February 13, 2006 11:30 AM


I particularly like his take on 'Issa son of Maryam' and the refusal of the sinful Jews to listen to him. More tolerant of Christians and a patriotic Iraqi but still a screwball.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at February 13, 2006 11:31 AM


oj is still stuck on 'the three great Abrahamic religions' thing. Islam has as much a connection to Abraham as scientology. The Islamic tradition is grounded in theological and historical fantasy. Muslims have as much a right to live in peace as we do. Actions speak louder than words and toleration has it's limits. The Arabs and Persians are pushing those limits.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at February 13, 2006 11:58 AM


Yes, the radicals resemble Jim Jones and have rather few followers. The mainstrean is comfortably democratic.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2006 12:45 PM

If there are only a few followers, then why the "silent majority" (and I grant that it is a majority)?

And if the majority of Islam is 'comfortably' democratic, then why is virtually every government in the Islamic world in such tension (from Malaysia to Indonesia to Pakistan to Afghanistan to Iran to Iraq to Lebanon to Syria to Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Algeria)? Not to mention Kosovo and Chechnya.

Posted by: ratbert at February 13, 2006 3:42 PM

The majority is always silent. That's why democracies are so quiet.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2006 3:54 PM

Imagine that someone produces a film about the Prophet Mohammed. It is done very respectfully in presenting the origins of Islam. Something comparable to the Bible films Hollywood produced in the 1950's. However, it has an actor playing the Prophet Mohammed.

Islam prohibits any depiction of the Prophet. The film would be considered blasphemous no matter how favorable to Islam it is.

I think most non-Muslims would consider such a definition of blasphemy ridiculous. Who defines blasphemy? Should non-Muslims be held to Islamic standards?

Argue for good taste, respect, and good manners. But spare me the intrusion of government force into such matters.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at February 13, 2006 4:13 PM


We made the film and we didn't depict Mohammed:


Respecting other people doesn't impose much burden.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2006 4:22 PM

Except for the screams of terror, Baghdad was very quiet up until March of 2003.

Posted by: ratbert at February 13, 2006 4:31 PM

Very multi-culty of you, oj.Like you, I have nothing but respect and understanding for folks who would like to kill me and my family.

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct at February 13, 2006 4:43 PM


Why? Who did you set out to offend?

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2006 4:46 PM


Yes, totalitarianism likewise holds out the promise of quiet. Security and Liberty are similar as to ends.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2006 4:50 PM

No one. I was as naive about the history of Islam as you until some close friends of mine were killed on 9/11. A religion of peace and all that. When was Islam peaceful? Islam has never been peaceful unless outgunned or isolated.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,ct. at February 13, 2006 5:41 PM

From the early 16th century until 9-11 it hardly bothered us at all.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2006 7:29 PM

Because it was isolated since it had been outgunned on ourskirts of Vienna.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at February 13, 2006 7:46 PM

"Because" is sufficient admission.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2006 8:09 PM

If so, then it seems "until" would also be.

Posted by: joe shropshire at February 13, 2006 8:26 PM

The Germans are similarly only ever quiet until they have an opportunity--seems to be working out okey.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2006 8:35 PM

Death to those who offend me! (and I'm easily offended)

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct at February 13, 2006 8:53 PM

The Ba'hai were quite bothered in the 19th century, no?

The Mufti was a Nazi blood brother, and that was 70 years before 9/11.

The Barbary Pirates were doing their gig 200 years ago.

The Nigerian civil war was 1966-67, and continues in spurts today. Ditto for Sudan.

The Pakistani civil war was in 1971, I believe. And don't forget the Great Partition (1948).

But the crux of the matter is whether these outbursts of Islamic 'assertiveness' (to be polite) are part and parcel of Muslim existence, or are just sparks that fly far afield from the core. And no mention of modern terrorism yet.

Every religion struggles (or has struggled) with violence. The question is, at what point do the adherents leave the faith and become apostate themselves in their pursuit of purity (through coercion)? Or simply become criminals?

And, is there any real comparison between, say Pat Robertson, and Sheikh Yassin, or the blind diabetic from Brooklyn? No. A fairer comparison would be with Meir Kahane, or Timothy McVeigh, neither of whom are really considered 'religious' at all, not now. And yet, they are repudiated by their supposed faiths. Yassin and Rahman are not.

Posted by: ratbert at February 13, 2006 10:53 PM

Yes, the scantiness of the examples and their lack of any relation to some Islamic tide of world domination amply disproves the point. Compare that relative lack of bloodshed in the Islamic world to the hundreds of millions killed in internecine warfare in the West during the same period and they come off rather well.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2006 11:05 PM

The world is a lot smaller now. It wasn't until 1941 that the American 'homeland' was threatened from without, and even that was overblown (until the Soviets got the bomb).

Islam may not have felt as provoked in the past (being isolated and all), but it is certain that things were different after 1948. 20 years of simmering led to 1967, and then the Palestinians became permanent victims in 1970, when King Hussein drove them out of Jordan. Since October 1973, and particularly starting in 1979 with Khomeini, the "politics" of Islam have only gotten worse, and maybe your whole point is that George Bush's goals of freedom and democracy are our best weapons in that part of the world. I agree.

But, a question - if Europe does become Islamic (after a few paroxysms), which portion will run the show? The moderates, like the Danish legislator Naser Khader, or the radical lunatics like Hamza or even someone like Khomeini (who, after all, lived in Paris for many years)?

You say the 'moderate' Muslims need confidence. Agreed. Perhaps the purging you allude to (with respect to Islamic sensibilities) needs to occur within their house first. Because from my viewpoint, the radical nutjobs are no different from witches or anarchists or gangsters. And you know how society deals with them.

Posted by: ratbert at February 14, 2006 12:31 AM


Yes, if Europe wants to avoid Islamicization it needs to practice genocide before the natives are the witches.

Posted by: oj at February 14, 2006 7:21 AM

With respect to genocide, I forgot one of the most egregious examples - that performed by the Turks on the Armenians in April 1915.

It wasn't really due to Islamist expansion, but it was on a par with the evils of the century.

But, here in 2006, is your deference to religious totalitarianism (from the vocal minority) a worthy response to a visceral disgust with Europe?

Posted by: ratbert at February 14, 2006 8:50 AM

It was hardly a genocide and not evil, though a tragedy. Armenian nationalist canoodling with the Russians led to their expulsion from one portion of Turkey during wartime. Armenians elsewhere in the state weren't persecuted and the killing wasn't systematic. It's sort of a sloppier, though more justified, version of FDR interning the Japanese-Americans.

Posted by: oj at February 14, 2006 9:28 AM

How can you say that over 300,000 murders in the matter of a few weeks weren't systematic? Especially since the Turks were shoving the entire Armenian population to the East?

And, considering that it was basically what Stalin did to the Caucasus in the 1930s, yes, it was evil. Murder and deportation done to further political "progress".

Posted by: ratbert at February 14, 2006 10:08 AM

What "progress"? The Turks never claimed it had anything to do with any progressive cause. It was simple repression of a putatively restive population supposedly collaborating with an enemy during a war. The NY Times's Stephen Kinzer has written sensibly about it. The whole thing was a senseless tragedy but not an Islamic evil.

Posted by: oj at February 14, 2006 10:16 AM

The 'Young Turks' who overthrew the Sultan wanted progress, so they pushed for it. And the massacres didn't start with the war - the war merely became good cover to finish the job (on a much larger scale). The persecution itself probably began around 1890.

It wasn't an Islamic evil, but it was systematic evil nonetheless.

Posted by: ratbert at February 14, 2006 12:08 PM

It was just civil unrest (http://www.ataa.org/ataa/ref/armenian/oke.html) and that's always settled in ugly ways, ask an Atlantan.

Posted by: oj at February 14, 2006 12:15 PM

Civil unrest is what happened in Los Angeles in 1992, or in the US in general in 1967/8.

Rounding up males from the age of 20 to 65, disarming all soldiers from a particular ethnic group, deporting women and children, murdering those who can't travel (by the thousands), and kicking the whole thing off by hanging hundreds of leading minority citizens is not civil unrest. Or do you also believe in spontaneous generation?

Posted by: ratbert at February 14, 2006 4:22 PM


The closest parallel is to the internment, though the Armenians had a separatist movement (which is why there were hangings) and were collaborating with Russia, while the Japanese Americans were loyal. We rounded up all the Japanese on the West Coast and put them in camps. The Turks ordered the Armenians out of eastern Anatolia. It was certainly bloodier and more chaotic. Had we been losing to Japan or had any genuine evidence come to light of disloyalty we'd have had easy access for systematic genocide.

Posted by: oj at February 14, 2006 5:08 PM