New year, new RFR format. Let’s start with a look at how January’s big story (Charlie Hebdo) played out internationally. We’ll then move region by region, spotlighting challenges to religious freedom and freedom of expression across the globe. If you’re all Charlied out, skip on down to the blasphemy or regional sections.
Charlie Hebdo: solidarity and censorship
Cartoonists honored their fallen colleagues, and media groups rallied to keep Charlie alive. Some outlets published the magazine’s most controversial cartoons. Many did not. Free speech advocates and religious leaders sparred over legal and social limits to freedom of expression, civility, respect and tolerance. Everyone had an opinion (everyone but the 24 percent of American cavedwellers who somehow managed to miss the attacks entirely).
My take? Fear, intimidation, even ruthless slaughter must not stop satirists from scrutinizing, criticizing, challenging and mocking whatever they see fit. Religion, just like everything else, is fair game.
The Committee to Protect Journalist’s interactive map tracks some of the rallies, protests and censorship attempts that followed the attacks. Let’s run through the highlights and lowlights that caught my eye and flag other fallout the map missed.
- A hypocrisy of global leaders descended on Paris, showing their “support” for freedom of expression while quashing it at home.
- France declared “Je Suis China,” arresting 54 people for “defending or glorifying terrorism” on social media, including controversial comedian Dieudonné.
- President Hollande announced plans to curb “hate speech” on social media networks by holding companies accountable for racist or anti-Semitic comments.
- Muslims and Jews questioned their safety in secular France, as Prime Minister Manuel Valls described a state of “apartheid” dividing the country.
- Charlie prevailed, printing 7 million copies of its “survivors issue” (more than 100x its usual circulation).
- Arsonists attacked a Hamburg tabloid for reprinting Charlie cartoons.
- PEGIDA, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, jumped on the “Je Suis Charlie” bandwagon to spout their local brand of xenophobia and racism.
- The Paris attacks boosted support for the Nertherlands’ anti-Islamic Freedom Party and its faux-Aryan leader Geert Wilders.
- While some stood strong, other institutions succumbed to that ultimate British fear: causing offence --
- When a former Charlie Hebdo contributor held up a copy of the survivor’s issue during an interview about the survivor’s issue, Sky News cut her feed and apologized for nearly including newsworthy content in its reporting.
- The Victoria & Albert Museum removed from its website a poster depicting the prophet Muhammad, citing theoretical security concerns.
- Oxford University Press advised authors against using “pork-related words” in children’s schoolbooks to avoid offending Muslims and Jews. Bacon, sausage, pig, squeal, oink, bologna. Baloney.
- British Prime Minister David Cameron sensibly stood up for our “right to cause offence.”
- Pope Francis said the opposite of Cameron aboard Air Pope One, begging the world not to provoke, insult, offend or make fun of faith. I say he threw free speech under the popemobile. David Gibson and Mark Silk disagree. I stand by my piece. Read all three.
- Turkey raided a printing press over fears that it might publish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, then banned websites from showing the survivor’s issue cover.
- An estimated 15,000 people marched through the predominantly Muslim region of Chechnya, protesting against caricatures of the prophet Muhammad.
- An anti-Charlie Hebdo rally drew 5,000 people in Lahore as organizers called on Pakistanis to boycott French products.
- Mardom-e Emrooz, a reformist newspaper, was ordered to close for “insulting Islam” by quoting George Clooney saying “I am Charlie.”
- Want to live in a world without terrorism? Move to China, where state-run Xinhua News Agency says limited press freedom will keep you safe. Ignorant, suppressed and voiceless, but safe.
- Protesters burned a Charlie Hebdo poster in Marawi, saying, “freedom of expression does not extend to insulting the noble and the greatest prophet of Allah.”
- A sheikh told thousands of Muslims gathered to celebrate the life of the prophet Muhammad, “blasphemy and vulgarity must stop,” but “we support free speech.” So we’re cherry-picking now.
- At least 48 churches were torched and 13 people killed in opportunistic protests loosely tied to Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons. Less violent protests swept Sudan, Somalia and former French colonies Mali, Senegal, Mauritania and Algeria.
- I suspect the First Amendment might have something to do with a new survey that shows most Americans think freedom of the press should trump respect for religion.
- Mark Zuckerberg might be in the minority. After Zuckerberg declared “Je Suis Charlie” to a sea of eye rolls, Facebook began censoring images of the prophet Muhammad to appease Turkey.
If there’s a silver lining to the Charlie massacre, it’s that activists and politicians are now challenging outdated blasphemy laws with renewed vigor. Here’s an excellent overview of the problem campaigners are trying to reform, both globally and state-by-state.
- Secular organizations in Canada have asked the Department of Justice to abolish Section 296 of the country’s Criminal Code, which makes “blasphemous libel” punishable by up to two years in jail.
- Malta is to reform a law that punishes "Vilification of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion" with up to six months in jail (just three months if it’s another faith).
- Iceland will review prison sentences as punishment for blasphemy following a Pirate Party MP’s request.
- The German Protestant church’s top legal experts say the country should strike blasphemy from its penal code to promote tolerance.
- Blasphemous libel carries a maximum one-year prison sentence in New Zealand. Secular groups say it’s time to kill the law, which hasn’t been used since 1922.
- A 2009 law punishes “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion" with up to $30,000 in fines. Consensus is growing that the law should be ditched via referendum.
Not all blasphemy news was good news in January.
- A Pakistani man accused of blasphemy after claiming prophethood was released due to his “mental condition” only to be murdered by a group of vigilantes.
- Liberal blogger Raif Badawi underwent his first (and hopefully last) round of public flogging for insulting Islam. Locals came out in droves to watch the barbaric display.
- Badawi’s lawyer Waleed Abu Al-Khair had his 15-year prison sentence reinstated in full, essentially for the crime of supporting human rights.
- Badawi’s “co-conspirator” Souad al-Shammari was released after 90 days in prison upon signing a pledge to “reduce her activities.”
- An Egyptian student was sentenced to three years in prison on blasphemy charges for telling Facebook friends that he’s an atheist and therefore “insulting Islam.” Internet-based blasphemy prosecutions are on the rise across the Middle East.
Now for a few regional highlights beyond Charlie and blasphemy.
- Interfaith facepalm. Saudis are learning from Ultra-Orthodox Jews. The Kingdom’s national airline will start seating men and women separately following a string of complaints.
- Snowmen are now haram.
- Saudi is reportedly building a wall to keep ISIS out. Meanwhile, in Saudi.
- Politicians are gross. Following King Abdullah’s death, heads of state, including Obama, fawned over the tyrant. IMF head Christine Lagarde called him a “strong advocate for women.” Women can’t even drive in the Kingdom.
- An Ultra-Orthodox Israeli newspaper photoshopped female world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, out of a Paris Unity March photo. To which I say:
- A transgender Israeli woman says she was denied access to both the men’s and women’s sections of the Western Wall.
- 180 civil society groups called for the government to drop proposed bills aimed at protecting, by discriminating, “nation, race and religion.”
- How to win friends: The “venerable” venom-spewing monk/“Face of Buddhist Terror” Wirathu called the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar a whore. "You can offer your arse to the kalars if you so wish but you are not selling off our Rakhine State," he said. Kalars is a derogatory word for people of South Asian descent. Classy.
- Wirathu’s brand of hate is the kind of dangerous religious extremism President Thein Sein is worried about.
- Popular Muslim cleric: “Selfies are sinful.” Muslim youth: “Bring on the selfie sticks.”
- If Christmas is a plot to woo Muslims, Mariah Carey must be the siren of Christ.
- Those sneaky Christians will stop at nothing. Trying to steal the A word (Allah)? Not on .my watch.
- I’m no Bollywood buff, but religious satirical film PK looks bizarre. It’s now India’s highest-grossing film ever. Delhi’s High Court ruled that it’s not offensive to Hindu culture and religion. The fact that such a ruling was necessary says something about India.
- Once banned from the U.S. for violating religious freedom, India’s new prime minister Narendra Modi welcomed Obama to New Delhi. Obama played nice before delivering a parting shot on religious freedom.
- Reports of Christians being forcibly converted to Hinduism seem to be on the rise.
Jewish leaders and heads of state are calling for pan-European legislation that would outlaw anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is bad. Laws banning it are worse.
- Libby Lane became the Church of England’s first female bishop as conservative Reverend Paul Williamson trolled her consecration.
- Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo is suing Fox News for inventing supposed Muslim 'no-go' zones.
- Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have been killed in recent Boko Haram attacks.
- When a Nigerian archbishop called for a Paris-style unity march, world leaders sort of looked the other way. Even Nigeria’s government dropped the ball.
- Boko Haram is scary, but the real threat facing Nigeria is gay weddings, apparently.
- Tanzania finally banned witchdoctors in an attempt to cripple the market for magical albino body parts. You read that right.
- Fox News had a banner month, declaring war on responsible journalism in one dangerous tirade against Muslims. Murdoch only made matters worse.
- Religious beards are not terrorism, nor are they national security threats, says SCOTUS.
- Mississippi lawmakers want to make the Bible the official state book, presumably because Jesus.
- That Atlanta fire chief wasn’t fired merely for being Christian. Really. Forreal.
- “Erotic liberty” isn’t what it sounds like, but it’s still NSFW.
- Duke went all wishy-washy on it’s plans for a campus Muslim call-to-prayer.
- Mormons enter wishy-washy territory on gay rights for the first time. Retired Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson is not impressed: “The Mormons' ‘new’ stance merely proclaims that they now favor bills which would bar discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, as long as those who discriminate against them are given protection for doing so. Such a twisted and distorted approach stretches both the language and the substance of such legislation into an unrecognizable shape and takes us into the realm of the absurd.”
- We might have another Mormon excommunication on our hands. John Dehlin. Watch this space.
- The Great British Bake Off is entertaining, but have you seen America’s Cake Wars? A dash of homophobia, two cups of religion and a peck of free speech. Now that’s good TV.
So. New format. Good? Bad? Meh? Let me know. I might try something new next month depending on what wonderful (or more likely atrocious) news comes to pass. Sign up below and follow me on Twitter for the latest updates.