Last week cartoonist Garry Trudeau received the George Polk award for journalism. It’s an award named in memory of a journalist murdered while covering a war. Trudeau used the opportunity to say that while murdering journalists is sub-optimal, journalists need to rethink offending people:
What free speech absolutists have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must. Or that that group gives up the right to be outraged. They’re allowed to feel pain. Freedom should always be discussed within the context of responsibility. At some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism.
Running satirical pictures of Muhammad like Charlie Hebdo or the Dutch cartoonists, said Trudeau, is punching down — “attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons.”
Trudeau’s complaint received sighs of rapture from Lydia Polgreen, a bureau chief at the New York Times, an institution generally associated — justifiably or not — with free expression:
Trudeau views the controversy over “blasphemy” as a conflict between privileged Western journalists and oppressed Muslim minorities. Hence the “punching down.” But this is an uninformed, parochial, and privileged view of how blasphemy norms actually operate in the world.
I’ve surveyed two years of “blasphemy” incidents and prosecutions1 that contradict Trudeau’s comfortable perspective. The threats and intimidation aimed at Dutch tourists, the massacre in Paris: these things are horrific, but they aren’t the day-to-day story of blasphemy norms. Most blasphemy incidents don’t involve a struggle between the West and the East, between “colonizers” and “colonized.” Most blasphemy incidents involve the majority — the strong — oppressing the minority — the weak.
Attacks on Western journalists are the exception. More typically, blasphemy norms involve things like author Zainub Priya Dala being beaten by a mob in South Africa because she spoke approvingly about Salman Rushdie at a writer’s conference. It’s about Farkhunda, a mentally ill woman beaten to death by a mob of Afghan men upon a rumor that she had burned a Koran. It’s about Aasiya Noreen, a member of Pakistan’s Christian minority sentenced to death for blasphemy on the word of her fellow field hands after a dispute. It’s about 68 lawyers charged with blasphemy for protesting police abuse, on the grounds that they had criticized a police inspector by name and that name was shared by one of Muhammad’s companions. It’s about a mother and father, members of a Christian minority, burned to death before their family by a mob made up of the Muslim majority. It’s about Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger and rights activistsentenced to flogging and still facing potential beheading. It’s about Washiqur Rahman, a secular activist and blogger hacked to death with machetes in Bangladesh.
The issue is not just that it’s ridiculous to call the world’s second-largest religion an oppressed minority. It’s not just that Trudeau and his ilk treat murdering people based on cartoons as something that is the moral responsibility of the cartoonist. The issue is that anti-blasphemy social and legal norms are a tool of oppression of people who are powerless, even by the finicky standards of Trudeau and the New York Times. The concept of blasphemy is used to persecutereligious minorities, ethnic minorities, rights activists, and anyone else disfavored by the mullahs and the mob. It is used to protect power — the existing power structure of the mostly conservative, mostly traditional, mostly male-and-religious-dominated societies where the concept holds sway.
Garry Trudeau and Lydia Polgreen are the useful idiots of the brutal and the powerful. By obligingly framing the “blasphemy debate” as an issue of West v. East and journalistic power vs. Islamic powerlessness, they support and advance the blasphemy norms used to murder and oppress the genuinely powerless. They are punching down.
By contrast, journalists who confront and defy blasphemy norms are helping to make the point that religious offense is no excuse for murder. If that’s punching down, let’s punch harder.