Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Saying No to the Gods-In the World Today

     A a general rule, it is probably not a wise thing to displease gods or goddesses. Most seem to have normal human temperaments but superhuman powers.  More often than not, the deities are even more hot-headed than their human underlings. Probably, and perhaps more importantly, the deities of today (much like those in the past) don’t like insults directed at anyone or anything associated with them, such as priests or prophets or rituals, systems of belief or religious law. Sacred places, relics, holy writings and artifacts are also to be revered and not to be messed with.
Mahatma Gandhi

     In Hinduism, there is not even any word for blasphemy. The religion's concepts of  'utmost freedom of thought and action' attracts many followers and Hinduism does not prohibit anyone to question its fundamental beliefs nor has it ever banished anyone if they wrote a differing scripture or failed to observe a particular ritual. Indeed, Mahatma Gandhi wrote, 'even atheists can call themselves Hindus'.
     Yet despite the general tolerance and pluralism of the Hindu religion, the attitude of some Hindus toward people of Veda-rejecting faiths, such as Jains and Buddhists as well as  practitioners of some Hindu Tantric traditions, is similar to those who condemn blasphemy.
     These faiths, having grown out of Hinduism and fall into a different 'category' from those such as Judaism and Christianity, which never received the Vedas. Those considered heretical or blasphemous are deemed as Nastika.

     In September, 2007, Hinduism apparently 'upgraded' itself to include blasphemy. The Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP (Indian People's Party) which has appointed itself as the official spokesman for all Hindus, accused the government of ‘blasphemy’ for ‘telling the Supreme Court that there was no historical evidence to establish the existence of Lord Rama or the other characters in Ramayana.
     The omnipotent, omniscient,and omnipresent God who is worshipped by practitioners of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), one is led to believe, would be less sensitive than his pagan predecessors but that does not appear to be the case.  The Almighty, the 'perfect Being', according to scripture, seems to suffer from the same weaknesses as humankind, sensitive to insult, prone to jealousy and rage.
Flag of the Bharatiya Janata Party
     In the third book of the Jewish Torah, Leviticus 24:16 states that 'he that blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death'.
     The Talmud laid down the statutory punishment for transgressing any one of the Seven Laws of Noah (among which is the prohibition of blasphemy) as capital punishment by decapitation, considered one of the lightest of the four modes of execution of criminals. Seven, a sacred number in many religions (see post: Seven Sages and Four Horsemen).
     The Seven Laws of Noah form the major part of the Noachide Laws a code of moral imperatives that, according to the Talmud were given by God as a binding set of laws for the children of Noah (all of mankind). The rainbow is the modern symbol of the Noahide Movement recalling the rainbow that appeared after the Great Flood of the Bible. The rainbow is one of many recurring themes in religious symbolism (see post: Rainbows, Gods and Goddesses).
Torah Scroll

     In Islam, the Koran and the hadith (sayings attributed to Mohammed) do not mention blasphemy and, according to some Muslim scholars, nothing in Islam supports blasphemy law.  It has been Muslim jurists who have made the offense part of Sharia law and the penalties for blasphemy may include fines, flogging, incarceration, amputation, hanging, or beheading. Muslim clerics call for the punishment of an alleged blasphemer by issuing a fatwa.
     But no matter by what name the deity or deities may be called, blasphemy has always and remains a political act. Some argue that it is not blasphemy but rather, laws which outlaw blasphemy that are the problem. In certain countries with a 'state religion' (this term, itself, describes a mixture of politics with religion), blasphemy is outlawed under the criminal code. These laws are, at times, used to victimize non-members of as well as dissident members of, the official 'state religion'.
The Rainbow -Symbol of the Noahide Movement

     Laws against blasphemy have existed in most Western countries in the last three centuries and derived from  the much older laws against heresy which were designed to protect the Christian church against any form of dissidence (see post: The Pointed Finger of Heresy). The origins of this law can in turn be traced back to the New Testament.
     The early Christians saw themselves as possessors of the One Truth and they became wary of those who, by teaching false doctrines, or by insulting God or Christ, threatened to defile this truth. Few upheld their own version of the truth more zealously than (Saint) Paul. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he lashed out at those Christians who opposed him, calling them ‘false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ'. In Corinthians 2:13-15, Paul declares that 'Their end will correspond to their deeds'.
(Saint) Paul

     But even in modern times, new laws against blasphemy are being created. In the early 21st century, blasphemy became an issue for the United Nations. Early on in the 21st century, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed several resolutions which called upon the world to take action against the 'defamation of religions'.
     Some argue that it is not blasphemy but rather, laws which outlaw blasphemy that are the problem. In certain countries with a 'state religion' (this term, itself, describes a mixture of politics with religion), blasphemy is outlawed under the criminal code. These laws are, at times, used to victimize non-members of as well as dissident members of, the official 'state religion'.
     Even Richard Dawkins, well-known evolutionary biologist and atheist writer (see post: The Atheist) withdrew some of his critical (blasphemous?) written work, in deference to what appeared to be an American taboo against offending religious opinion. Dawkins said: 'I remain baffled by the fact that liberal arbiters freely allow us to offend against political, economic, musical, artistic and literary opinion, but religious opinion is almost universally regarded as off-limits, even by atheists'.
Richard Dawkins

     There have been several examples of blasphemy in modern society. The reaction to these cases is varied and, at times, seemingly unpredictable.
     The crime of blasphemy appears several times in the Christian Bible and the related the 1979 movie created by the British comedy troupe Monty Python, the Life of Brian.
     In the Bible, some characters are stoned to death for blasphemy, and Jesus is condemned to death for blasphemy by the Sanhedrin. In Life of Brian, a character is stoned to death for telling his wife that a piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah.
     Life of Brian tells the story of Brian Cohen, a young Jewish man who is born on the same day as and next door to Jesus and is subsequently mistaken for the Messiah.
Brian Cohen in Life of Brian
     Because of the religious satire in the film, accusations of blasphemy arose from some religious groups. Thirty-nine local authorities in the UK either imposed an outright ban or imposed an 18 years or older restriction on its viewing. Ireland and Norway banned the showing of Life of Brian altogether.
     Despite these hurdles (or perhaps because of them), the film was a huge box-office success, grossing fourth-highest of any film in the UK in 1979 and highest of any British film in the United States that year. It is the first Monty Python film to receive an R rating (restricted) in the United States.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

     On  February 14, 1989 the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, supreme leader of Iran pronounced his fatwa, in effect a death threat against Salman Rushdie and his publishers for the publication of Rushdie's book, The Satanic Verses. Many Muslims accused Rushdie of blasphemy or unbelief  and numerous killings, attempted killings, and bombings resulted from Muslim anger over the book.
     One of the 'blasphemous' acts involved the title of the book itself. The title, Satanic Verses refers to a legend of the Prophet Mohammed, when a few verses were supposedly spoken by him as part of the Koran and then withdrawn on the grounds that the devil had sent them to deceive him into thinking that they had come from God.
Salman Rushdie

     'Bloody Mary' is the fourteenth episode (aired December 7, 2005)  of the ninth season of the American television cartoon series South Park. In the episode, Randy, driving while intoxicated, loses his driver's license and is forced to go to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, where he learns that his alcoholism is a potentially fatal disease.
     Meanwhile, a statue of the Virgin Mary starts bleeding (out its ass) and Randy believes that he can be cured of his potentially fatal illness if the statue bleeds on him.
     December 7, 2005 was the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a Catholic observance related specifically to the Virgin Mary. The Catholic League demanded an apology and that the episode be permanently retired. When Comedy Central (the parent company of Viacom), producers of South Park re-aired the episodes on December 28, 2005, 'Bloody Mary' was absent from the broadcast.
     In Denmark, the Muhammad cartoons controversy began after 12 editorial cartoons, depicting the Prophet Mohammed were published in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005. The newspaper announced that this publication was an attempt to contribute to the debate regarding self-censorship and criticism of Islam but many Muslim groups in Denmark saw otherwise and the issue eventually led to worldwide protests.
South Park's 'Bloody Mary'

     In a 2008 episode of  the American cartoon series Family Guy, Jesus returns to earth, gets drunk, and is discovered unconscious in the apartment of Mary-Kate Olsen. In another episode, Jesus and God are depicted as bar room hang-outs who try to pick up women.
     The Book of Mormon is a New York Broadway musical written by the South Park 'brain trust' which was first shown in 2011. While murderous riots were taking place in the Middle East, 'inspired' by perceived insults to Islam in other parts of the world, The Book of Mormon, a satirical look at a particular Christian sect (The Mormons, Church of Latter Day Saints) was inciting a 'laugh riot' in America with three full-page ads in the program of the production, taken out by the Mormons themselves.
Jyllands-Posten Cartoon

     There is perhaps, something honorable in a group which can accept criticism and even laugh at itself rather than protest and complain about the opinions of others.
     The Innocence of Muslims, is the Muhammad Movie produced in 2012, by Sam Bacile which, some say, triggered a group of  Muslims to kill United States ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens. The anti Islam video claims Islam is a lie and Mohammed was a pedophile. The short movie is laughable and extremely poorly done but it has inspired angry mobs to take to the streets in many Arab countries.
     But the assault of the US embassy in Libya was more than just a protest against a 'blasphemous' film. Those who attacked the compound and murdered the ambassador were members of  'jihadist' groups, possibly with links to al-Qaeda - a case of politics mixing with religion, once again.
The Book of Mormon

     Terry Jones, the Florida pastor best-known for advocating and carrying out burnings of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, has acted as the film’s promoter. This film certainly appears to mock Islam and that, in itself, rather than just blasphemy, is simply juvenile, unproductive and plain mean-spirited. Criticism may be good but mockery rarely is.
     But in the Muslim world, there exists a 'red line' across which nobody can step. Recently elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi used that exact term when he declared this week that the Prophet 'is a red line nobody can touch'.
Scene From the Innocence of Muslims

     Blasphemy laws survived in Britain, America, and many European countries including Germany throughout the nineteenth century but more recently, these laws have fallen into disuse. Indeed in Germany, the law against blasphemy has been abolished. But in Britain, blasphemy laws remain in force and, in theory at least, they are still the main means whereby Christianity is protected against obscene or extreme abuse. In practice, they have scarcely played any role for many years and in 1949, the British blasphemy law was declared obsolete.
     In 1977,  the offence of blasphemy was revived in Britain. This occurred when the modern purity campaigner, Mary Whitehouse, instituted a private prosecution against the magazine Gay News for publishing an erotic  poem about Jesus. Although this prosecution was successful, one of the effects of Mary Whitehouse’s action was to bring the British blasphemy laws into active disrepute and resulted in a vigorous campaign to abolish the laws.
Mary Whitehouse

     Blasphemers, according to the Torah, should be put to death and according to the Christian St. Thomas Aquinas, their sin is worse than murder.   Of all the Abrahamic religions, Islam is the most tolerant of blasphemy, or at least, it used to be.
     The foundational texts of Islam do not make a big a deal of blasphemy. Perhaps the thinking was that if  'God is great',  He should be great enough not to care what people say about Him. But even before the dawn of the modern era, Islam had caught up with Judaism and Christianity in its revilement of those who expressed disagreement with their particular belief.
     More recently, blasphemy has been taken as an incitement to violence on several occasions in Pakistan. But the history of blasphemy laws in that country relate to both colonial dictat as well as state/political interests.
     In 1927, the British colonial rulers of the Indian sub-continent made it a criminal offence to commit 'deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religious belief'. The law did not, however, discriminate between religions.
     This same law was retained when Pakistan gained independence in 1947 under the rule of the country’s  founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah. It was Pakistan’s late military ruler Mohammed Ziaul Haq (in power 1977 - 1988) who made several additions to its blasphemy laws, including life imprisonment, specifically for those defiling or desecrating the Holy Koran.
Mohammed Ziaul Haq

     This led, in 1984 ,to  followers of the minority Ahmadi sect (who believe that Ahmad was a prophet) being banned from calling themselves Muslims, punishable with three years in jail. In 1986,  the death penalty was instituted for anyone found guilty of defaming Islam.
     Between 1927 and 1985, only 10 blasphemy cases were reportedly heard in court but since then more than 4,000 cases have been handled.
     A Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, was sentenced to death by hanging in Punjab in November, 2010 after being found guilty of insulting the Prophet Mohammed following an argument with Muslim women in her village.
     A proposal to amend the blasphemy laws met with protests and the government declared that it had no intention of changing it.

     Salmaan Taseer was a Pakistani businessman and politician and governor of the province of Punjab, a member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) government. He was one of the few in power who opposed the country's blasphemy law and was killed in a hail of bullets by his bodyguard on January 4, 2011 for vocally seeking to amend the law and appealing for clemency for Bibi.
Aasia Bibi

     Pakistan still maintains on its statutes strict laws against blasphemy of the state religion, Islam. There have, however been no executions for blasphemy, most of those convicted of the offence, having had their sentences overturned or commuted on appeal.

     'Saying no to the gods' - in some countries, it is ignored, in others it is simply laughed at. But in many areas of the world, 'blasphemy' is considered an offence to religion and, more importantly, a threat to the status quo of the state.
Salmaan Taseer

     * The History of Blasphemy: subject of research for the novel  The Tao of the Thirteenth God - Amazon Kindle.

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