Austin Dacey – The Future of Blasphemy

September 29, 2014

Josh Zepps is off, and since this week is the 5th International Blasphemy Rights Day, we’re rebroadcasting this interview by Chris Mooney with Austin Dacey, CFI’s former UN representative and an expert on the subject of blasphemy laws.


This week, our guest is a return one: Austin Dacey. He’s a philosopher, a writer, a human rights activist, and the creator of the Impossible Music Sessions, which we featured in a past show.

Austin’s books include The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life and, just out, The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights.

This show focused on Austin’s new book on blasphemy. But he helped enhance the discussion with a few pieces of music that have been called blasphemous—which is why we wanted to distribute them as widely as possible.

Today’s show is brought to you by Audible. Please visit Audible podcast dot com slash point to get a free audio book download. This is Point of Inquiry from Monday, April 16th, 2012. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. At the outset of our show, I want to let you know that this episode of Point of Inquiry is sponsored by Audible. Audible is the Web’s leading provider of spoken audio, entertainment, information and educational programing. The site offers thousands of books for download to your computer, your iPod or a C.D.. And today it’s willing to give you one for free to participate. All you have to do is go to this Web site, audible podcasts, dot com slash PT.. Once again, that’s audible podcasts, dot com slash point. And since we recently had Lawrence Krauss on the show, he’s been one of our most popular guests. Let me recommend his latest book, which is available on Audible. I checked it. Is there a universe from nothing? Why? There is something rather than nothing. It’s right there. You can download it now. This week, my guest is a return guest, Austin Dacey. He’s a philosopher, a writer and a human rights activist. And he’s the creator of The Impossible Music Sessions, which we featured in a past show. Austin’s books include The Secular Conscience Why Believe Belongs in Public Life and Just Out the Future of Blasphemy. Speaking of the sacred in an age of human rights, we’re here to talk with Austen about his new book on blasphemy. But since he’s a musician, he’s helped us, started all off with a piece of music that has annoyed people who considered it blasphemy. 

And that’s why we wanted to distribute it as widely as possible. So let’s play it now. 

One Saadi. 

On and on. 

Well, that was some gorgeous stuff to listen to. 

I don’t know if I can actually identify them piece of music properly, but then I have Auston Dacey here with me, who is both a master of music and also a master of blasphemous music. So, Orson, welcome to the show. Welcome back. And tell us about what we just heard. 

You just heard a blast for me, Chris. Oh, no. And thanks for having me. Good to be back. 

Yeah, that was a piece of translated as Oh, my father. I am Yusef or Joseph. It’s by the acclaimed Lebanese singer and CD player Marcel Califf, who in 1999 was put on trial in Beirut for insulting religious values. 

After releasing this song because it contains a portion of a Koranic verse. 

It’s based on a poem by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, which tells the story of Joseph and weaves it into a comment on the mistreatment of Palestinian Arabs by other Arabs. And it uses the chronic words. Father, I saw eleven stars and the sun and the moon. I saw them bowing down before me. And for this, Califf was accused of abusing his freedom of expression in a way that infringed on people’s religious beliefs. It’s now known as the blasphemy trials. 

Well, now these stories you tell. And we had you on before telling telling us about other songs, you know, are still amazing to me. And it’s one reason I wanted to have you back to talk about bless me. And in this case, your new book on Blasphemy, The Future of Blasphemy, which, by the way, is available through our Web site, Point of Inquiry, Dawg. So, so blasphemy. Are you for it or against it? Awesome. 

I’m all for it and against it. And you won’t be surprised to hear it coming. 

Lots of hurt. Yeah. 

I am a card carrying secularist, although and increasingly increasingly backsliding secularists. I came out this project, as you might imagine, expecting to debunk the whole concept. But in fact, the more I thought about it and the more I read into the history of it, the more sympathetic I became to the concept of blasphemy, as you know, the the violation of things held sacred. And so I came out against very strongly against the criminalization of blasphemy, but not because there’s no such thing as blasphemy, but rather because it is a coherent concept. And in fact, it’s important to important indeed to be left to the religious. 

So in other words, they’re right about one thing. It is it is powerful stuff. Take it or leave it. 

You know, that’s right. I come at this by trying to ask, first of all, who who is the blasphemer and who is the victim? We tend to have this this paradigm of the blasphemer. As you know, Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist or builder, the the Dutch politician who released the movie criticizing Islamic treatment of women, or Terry Jones, the Florida pastor burning the Koran basically at a blue eyed man standing outside of a religious tradition and casting aspersions and mud at it, when, in fact, if you look from a global historical perspective, what you see is that the blasphemer is typically someone who stands inside a tradition of religious, spiritual, intellectual dissent within a community who is advocating for her or his own vision of the sacred. 

And coming up against the powerful opinion makers in that community or tradition in that this is the paradigm of the blasphemer when it comes to the victim. 

Richard Dawkins is famous for quipping that blasphemy is the ultimate victimless crime. But I prefer to say that the victims of blasphemy are rather limitless. They’re everywhere since we all each of us secular and religious alike. Have our own vision of what is sacred. That is what has inviolable and incommensurable and vital value in our lives. And so each of us can be the victim of a violation of that value. 

Let me just. Let me just try to ground this a little bit in an actual events, because you talk about at the beginning of the book, you talk about watching the United Nations Human Rights Council sort of deliberate about what sounded like regulating blasphemy internationally. 

And I guess this push originated from Islamic countries. And I’m sorry, I just reading this. I’m like, you know, how could they possibly manage to do that? I mean, they were reacting to things like the Danish cartoons incident. It was was it ever likely that this was going to really succeed politically? 

Well, as a matter of fact, it it did succeed almost without opposition for a decade. Starting in 1999, the the Organization of the Islamic Conference, now called the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a 57 member intergovernmental coalition of the so-called Islamic states. Among them, some of the worst human rights abusers like Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan. These groups started this push against what they called defamation of religions and took the shape of resolutions passed combating defamation of religions in the Human Rights Council in Geneva and later in the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York as well. And what these revolutions attempted to do was essentially criminalize peaceful religious dissent around the world and through other measures as well, attempted to to to build in the new limits to freedom of expression under international law. Those resolutions, of course, were non-binding. 

Right. Okay. That’s what I. Yeah. 

Although those resolutions were non-binding, there were also attempts to modify existing legally binding international treaties. And what many of your listeners may not realize is that blasphemy was already illegal under international law given the 1966 treaty International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which calls on requires all states to prohibit what it calls advocacy of religious hatred. And across Europe and across the world, this norm prohibiting advocacy of religious hatred is conflated with and collapsed into blasphemy. So blasphemy has a has a new face in international politics, and it has since long before the Islamic states began this push at the United Nations. 

OK. So but, you know, reading the book, did they ever actually get get what they wanted or do they do? Did they pull up short? 

Well, last year, last summer, the OIC Organization of Islamic Cooperation suddenly abandoned this language of combating defamation of religions and in collaboration with the U.S., passed a new resolution which speaks only of criminalizing incitement to imminent violence, which is essentially the line that we in the United States under our constitutional protection of the First Amendment. The line that we draw on speech that becomes criminal. Many observers find it hard to believe that this is a genuine change direction. Instead, it seems to be a kind of sop or a political ploy or strategy stratagem that’s that’s being used in this ongoing tug of war with the Western states. In fact, some high level diplomats at the U.N. have said that they haven’t retired the concept of defamation of religions, but they said it’s morphed into new forms, which in some ways are more virulent and harder to fight because they take advantage of the existing language and the existing norms against advocacy of religious hatred. And in in in that playing field, European states especially are at a severe disadvantage because they all all of them, in one form or another, outlaw what they call religious hatred, religious hate speech or religious insult, or the defamation of the religious as a form of group defamation. And so European states will find it very, very hard to argue against these illiberal states around the world because they themselves criminalize blasphemy. 

Well, there’s a lot of things I might ask you, Bill. One is I guess it makes sense in a way politically that these things skirt through because it’s kind of like you’re in the position of the ACLU here, never popular taking the principled stand. Right. I mean, you know, who stands up for blasphemy in these contexts? It’s kind of kind of hard to be the person doing it. 

It’s made for some strange bedfellows. The Vatican, in fact, was one of the groups at the United Nations that was opposing the the the OIC. 

Oh, go Vatican. 

Well, it turned out that the first and worst victims of of these laws in places like Pakistan or Egypt are, of course, religious minorities, Coptic Christians or members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, a sect numbering in the millions, which is deemed officially apostates by the Pakistani regime and whose members can be punished simply by practicing their faith. Again, calling into question and raising the question, who is the blasphemer? It’s it’s not and not merely the atheists and secularists of Pakistan, but anyone who dissents from the official Sunni orthodoxy and their their blasphemy is not a abuse of freedom of speech, but it’s simply a manifestation of their religious conscience, which leads them to practice in a way that is anathema to those in power. 

Eleanor, remind our listeners that Orson Desai’s new book, The Future of Blasphemy, is available through our Web site. Point of inquiry, dawg. I’m still struggling to figure out how you make a convincing secular argument for these kinds of restrictions to U.N. diplomats who are from Europe or from the United States. That is not a religious case. I mean, how do they how do they pull it off? 

Well, I think the answer to that question takes us back into the history of the European treatment of religiously offensive speech. And in the book, I try to show that in current headlines notwithstanding, these debates don’t begin with the Danish cartoons or Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses or even with the 1966 International Human Rights Convention that banned religious hatred. But neither does it represent the reanimation of a medieval monster. Instead, it’s it’s a distinctively modern by which I mean post 17th century phenomenon. I draw on the work of the British historian David Nash to trace the three distinct models for dealing with with expressive sacrilege in the Western legal tradition and label them spiritual but communal in a personal and spiritual or theological theological model of blasphemy. We’re familiar with from Leviticus 24, this is a direct verbal insult to the divine, abusing the name of God. 

Lord’s name in vain and words. 

In this case, it was using his name at all, which was forbidden among the ancient Israelites. The second model I call the communal. 

And this is not a disrespect of the divine as such, but a disrespect of the authority of the crown or the civil power. This was clearest in the 16 seventy five English case of John Taylor, who who ran into trouble for claiming, some would say, pointing out that Jesus was a bastard. And he threw in that religion was a cheat. For good measure. In this case, Lord Chief Justice Sir Matthew Hale wrote that Christianity is passell of the laws of England and therefore to reproach the Christian religion is to speak in subversion of the law. The idea here is that blast blasphemy is sedition because it undermines the divinely bestowed authority of the civil powers. And finally, there’s a model of what I call personal blasphemy, where the disrespect is neither to the Godhead as such or to the authority of the Crown, but to the believer in this shift in the victim of blasphemy really begins taking place in European societies as early as 16 17, when the English common law took on the job of punishing blasphemy, since it argued it constitutes a disturbance of public peace and tranquility by enraging the sensibilities of others. In the mid 19th century, for example, the jury in the case of Arvi Hetherington was told that religious expression is not blasphemous if it’s couched in sober and temperate and decent style. But if the tone and spirit is that of offense and insult and ridicule, then it becomes blasphemous. In the famous 1883 opinion on the Sacrilegious magazine, the freethinker predecessor of Free Inquiry magazine. Lord Chief Justice Coleridge said that blasphemy has to do with a calculated and intended insult to the feelings and deepest religious convictions of people. 

Well, da kurtas sounds like it. The question is whether that should ever be wrong. 

I mean, so. So this is the modern. This is the modern thread that you’re tracing here. And I guess this is what tugs at the heartstrings of some worldly people today is this idea that, you know, people are being insulted and somehow that’s seen as a threat to equality. So I guess you call this sort of like lib liberal blasphemy regulation rather than conservative blasphemy regulation. 

It is liberal in that it’s it’s motivated ostensibly by the core values of modern, secular, liberal society, namely equal respect and regard for persons. 

And so blasphemy had been transformed from a sin to a crime, from a spiritual wrong into a secular wrong. The wrong of failed. Failing to respect the equal dignity of one’s religious fellow citizens. But of course, this quasi secular blasphemy, while it no longer protected a particular pantheon or a particular God, of course, did nothing to remove the basic inequality of the law, since it carved out a special place of protection for certain people’s feelings, namely those who belong to a traditionally or officially recognized religion, but did nothing to protect the equally equally worthy of respect the feelings of secular persons of conscience. Ironically, this English language was introduced into the Indian penal code during the 19th century British rule in its offenses relating to religion, which criminalized acts and words with the deliberate and most malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of others. And it’s this same language which develops and mutated into the blasphemy laws of Pakistan. So this legal standard of protecting personal blasphemy spread through through colonial governments into many of these same Islamic countries who are now doing rhetorical battle with the West at the U.N. Pakistan’s laws, of course, are grossly unequal because they single out one narrow form of Islam for protection. 

But even the religious hate speech statute of a Western democracy like Denmark, its Article 266 be singled out for protection. Groups of people who, on account of their faith are threatened, insulted or degraded. The international standard under the treaty refers to religious hatred. It doesn’t refer to hatred against any person of conscience on the basis of her vision of the sacred. So so the regime of personal blasphemy is no less unequals, no less failure. It’s the regime of personal blasphemy is no less guilty of a failure of equal treatment under the law. And worse than that, it has a bid to being permanent because it’s embedded it’s it’s nestled in the heart of the Western tradition of equal regard and respect for the citizen. 

Well, it’s like this. I mean I mean, you got me soul. This doesn’t make a lot of sense because it is completely unequal. 

When you start to think about the person who might actually be the dissenter, not having the same rights as the person who somehow feels offended. But but let’s let’s pose a harder question. I mean, the secular movement in the United States as recently started, or at least there was one that I recall having a blasphemy day. And this is this is something different. I mean, I fully think you have a right to say what you want up to. Up to, again, that line of Vance, you know, some sort of inciting of violence, which I believe our laws are already pretty much covering. But you think that it’s a good idea to do something like that, to go out and blaspheme. 

So I remember when when some secular humanist in the spur started the International Blasphemy Day, I I called a friend of mine who works with the Ahmadiyya community in New York and is very closely in touch with the on the persecution of his community in in Pakistan and elsewhere. And I asked him if he had ever heard of the International Blasphemy Day that was being hosted by atheists, secular groups in North America. And he said, no, he’d never heard of it. 

I asked him whether he thought it would be helpful. And he said no. Now, it is not just helpful, but essential that that all persons of conscience come together to defend the absolute right of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. Of the often dieser and other dissenters around the world. 

But North American secularists tend to think that all you have to do is throw a, you know, a communion wafer in the trash and you’ve done your your bit for for freedom. And so over the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to convince North American secularists that they need to make common cause with the dissidents in places where blasphemy is still a matter of life and death. 

The awkward thing for them, of course, is that many of these dissidents are not self-identified atheists, but they are, but they’re very devout. 

Muslims and Christians and Buddhists and others. 

Can we. Can we say this as well? I mean, I. I totally feel you on that point. And I think it’s really important that you the point that out. But can we also say, you know, regarding this topic, they clearly mean free speech is a very, very important rights preserve. 

Banning it, infringing upon it is is problematic for all the reasons that you’ve rehearsed. Even under the the banner of blasphemy. But opting to use blasphemy politically is I mean, you should at least be aware that you’re playing. There may be a good time to do it, but you’re playing with a hot potato, because the reason that we have all this attempts to ban it is because you actually are striking people to the emotional core. I mean, this is this is this is who they are. You do it. You’re guaranteed to get a really, really, really virulent reaction. 

And I think you ought to be kind of really pretty cognizant of what you’re dealing with. What about that? 

Well, that’s true. But we often have to we also have to ask again, who is the victim? Who is the victim? 

In many of these cases, well-meaning liberals or others will self censor themselves. We’ll we’ll refrain from doing what they otherwise would do because they have gotten the sense that it would be offensive to some. But they seldom ask. They seldom stop. Ask themselves to whom the the rerelease of Brini know. And David Byrne’s album, My Life in in the Bush of Ghosts didn’t include a track which was on the the original some really original releases. 

And we’ve got that here, actually. But go ahead and introduce it a little better. 

Basically, David Byrne and Brian Eno emitted from their 1981 album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. A a track called Koran, which featured some samples, audio samples of chronic recite recital recitation that had been gathered by some anthropologists. And they did this. David Byrne later explained in the interview. They did this because of a single complaint that they had received from a London based Islamic organization. And apparently they decided that that London based Islamic organization spoke for. 

Islam spoke for everyone who might call themselves Muslim. 

And so, ironically, by trying to defer to the to the feelings of, quote unquote, Muslims, they essentially nominated as a de facto spert spokesperson, the most conservative element in that community, those communities. This is a point that’s been made very forcefully by the London based commentator Kenan Malik, who points out that Western self-censorship is motivated by this desire to to do right and to uplift the most marginalized members of society, including, say, recent Muslim immigrants in Europe. But would it tends to do is to transfer more power to the most conservative elements in those societies, which already have a next power for themselves. And I don’t have to tell your listeners that they they tend to be male, and that’s for sure. 

So the liberal approach is actually having the opposite effect. It’s empowering. 

It’s empowering, powering those who who are contributing to the marginalization of dissident voices and women and youth. 

Classic liberal failing to empower others through tolerance will look. Let’s let’s actually hear this track in defiance of the authoritarians everywhere and even maybe some of the self censoring liberals. 

OK, so these guys then put this on the album Mossen. 

Now, our critique of them is what I mean, because in a sense they are exercising their free speech and doing that, too. Right. I mean, isn’t there their self-determined and under our liberal regimes, they have every right to do that. 

Of course they have a right to self censor. But, yeah, I’m going to say two things. First, if they think that they are protecting the religious feelings of Muslims, then we have to ask which Muslims and who gave, you know, and burn the right to elect the spokespersons for, quote, the Muslim community. They tend to be the wrong spokespersons. You can go on YouTube, bootleg clips of this track from My Life in the Bush Goes and you can find Muslims commenting, saying, you know, this is beautiful. Thank you for doing this. Are they any less genuine believers than their more conservative counterparts? But secondly, these musicians, these composers, just like Marcel Califf and others, they in producing this music are, I would argue. Doing their own service, their own active devotion to their own vision of the sacred. Maybe it’s this the sacred sound. Maybe it’s the sacredness of the individual person and individual creative expression. And this is a right not just of freedom of speech, but a right of freedom of conscience. The very same. Right. 

The very same value that is behind these regimes of personal blasphemy. That’s behind the liberal need to defer to the religious feelings of others. That very same value, the value of freedom of conscience. Should be seen as moving these artistic impulses and indeed moving moving any contribution to public life about what has central inviolable and incommensurable value. Again, raising the question who who is the blasphemer and who has been blessed? Themed in the famous blasphemy trials, which we began by talking about how Leif raises the question that that his conservative critics, such as the highest Sunni religious authority in Lebanon at the time, that they were in fact guilty of a kind of idolatry, a kind of blasphemy because they were making of the the words the the the narrow religious context of the words of the Koran making into that kind of idol. Whereas for him and for the poet from who he drew his source. This was a way to honor the beauty of the of the tradition and the sacredness of it. 

He said in court that, quote, I shall not believe that quoting or incorporating a fragment of a Koranic verse in a poem and reciting it with reverence and spiritual sensitivity justifies this lawsuit. It is our hope that Lebanon will not succumb to insulting itself and insulting Arab culture by insulting the song. Oh, my father. I am Yousef. So who is the blasphemer? 

Well, I think that you have like the good philosopher that you are us and you have succeeded in making blasphemy seem complicated, which I’m sure that for the many people who want to ban it. It isn’t. And so that itself is a benefit. 

And I will I guess I’ll give you one last question here. I mean, you know, let’s just look at it from a from international policy standpoint and let’s look at it in the context of the Arab Spring and the fact that the Middle East is is changing. I mean, what what should be the way forward in terms of handling, you know, such a sensitive issue and what what can really be achieved? 

Well, I think there is a lot of work to be done in the international legal sphere. There is already I I detect at least a a realization that the regimes of personal blasphemy, which are are deeply embedded in European human rights tradition, although they are still quite recent, really a recent postwar phenomenon, that these regimes are no longer sustainable, that they have to be reformed in a more civil libertarian direction. 

There is a realization that the that the victims of of blasphemy are religious minorities and dissidents around the world and that that secular friends of freedom have to make common cause with them. But. The good news, I think, is that throughout these societies, which which have the most severe persecution of dissent, you also find the fiercest resistance, the fiercest resistance to the agenda of the so-called Islamic states has come from within those states themselves. 

And the the all the arguments and in all of the heroes and heroines can be found there. And so in my book, I try to bring some of their stories to life and point the way forward. But I think the philosophical principle is that the value of equal respect for persons. 

Which stands behind all these new regimes of personal blasphemy and hate speech. In fact, points in exactly the opposite direction. If we take equal respect for persons seriously, then we see that the criminalization of blasphemy is inherently a failure of equal treatment under the law because it fails to give equal protection to persons of conscience, those who might fall outside the traditional official religions. We need to recognize that no one secular or religious, has any more right to speak on behalf of the sacred than anyone else. 

On that note, and I think it’s a powerful and Austin, I want to thank you for your new book. For being with us and for giving us some good, blasphemous tunes to listen to along the way. Thanks. 

It’s been my pleasure. 

I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry in here. I want to issue a clarification or update the Center for Inquiry. 

Change the name of its International Blasphemy Day to International Blasphemy Rights Day. So we should have noted that during our discussion. I wanted to note it now instead. To join the discussion about today’s show, please visit point of inquiry, dawg. You can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. You can find us on Twitter at point of inquiry and on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. 

The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. 

Of Inquiry is produced by Adam, Isaac and AMR’s New York, and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s intro featured Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney