Monday, October 1, 2012

Real Blasphemy

Did you remember to celebrate on September 30?  I’ll bet not. Most people aren’t aware what a special day Sunday was.    

Babe Ruth
After all, its real significance can get overwhelmed by more mundane occurrences on that day in history.  For example, Babe Ruth played his last game as a Yankee on that day.  Not into sports?  Okay, it’s also Botswana Independence Day.  The first criminal was executed in the American colonies that day.  The Gutenberg Bible was first published that day in the 1400s; so was Little Women, more than 400 years later.  The Flintstones, those loveable Bedrock residents, debuted that day in 1960; so did Cheers in a later year. 

Actually, we should have marked Blasphemy Day, which, the website promoting it says, is dedicated to opening up “all religious beliefs to the same level of free inquiry, discussion and criticism to which all other areas of academic interest are subjected."

Icon of the Prophet
September 30 was chosen because that was the day in 2006 when a Danish newspaper published a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb for a turban.  Many members of the Islamic faith went ballistic over the image.  Sound familiar?

This year, Blasphemy Day is now associated with a 13-minute film titled “Innocence of Muslims” that insults Mohammed.  Recently, the crude, otherwise meaningless movie made in the United States drew worldwide attention.

“Freedom of speech is one thing, but usage of your freedom should not be to offend others or advocate hate speech or provoke people to violence," Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, said this weekend.  He also called for a ban on insults against the Islamic prophet. "If the Western world fails to understand the sensitivity of the Muslim world, then we are in trouble," he told the AP. He said provocative insults are "a threat to international peace and security and the sanctity of life."


Last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyop Erdogan mentioned the film in his speech to the United Nations and called for making negative comments about the founder of Islam a crime.

“I am the prime minister of a nation, of which most are Muslims, that has declared anti-Semitism a crime against humanity. But the West hasn’t recognized Islamophobia as a crime against humanity. It has encouraged it,” he said.

That’s hogwash.  Anti-Semitism involves hatred of a group of people because of their religious beliefs.  The film doesn’t do anything like that.  It depicts Muslims attacking Egyptian Christians and then includes – apparently dubbed in later – an actor playing the Prophet Mohammad and being insulted.

That’s not an assault on religion in any manner; it’s a nasty jab at a religious figure.

It’s not nice; it’s certainly going to rile up members of the Islamic faith.  That doesn’t mean that negative comments about Mohammad should be censored.  Or negative comments about Jesus, Abraham, Buddha, Lao Tse or any other religious figure or religion should be censored.

Where does anyone stop?  Who decides what’s acceptable and what’s not?

After all, in the West, the term “Jesus Christ” is used as an expletive as well as in religious connections.  Should everyone who says Jesus Christ in anger or exasperation face a criminal trial?

How about satires involving God? For example, Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson produced a drawing that was titled “Oops” and depicted humans escaping from a bottle in some kind of heavenly laboratory.  It certainly implied that God made a mistake.  How much more blasphemous does anyone want?  He also showed God creating snakes saying, “Boy, these things are a cinch,” scoring all the points in a Trivia game and producing a half-baked Earth from an oven.

Then there was a 1990s storyline by Bloom County cartoonist Berke Breathed, who hysterically eviscerated television evangelists Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson.  Readers were encouraged to contribute money to fund a race among the four; the winner would be recalled to heaven first. 

Worse, censorship stifles scholarship.  If new information is discovered that contradicts Islamic teachings about Muhammad, is it blasphemy to publish it? Or is it just additional knowledge about an important person?

Frankly, I think everyone needs to lighten up. If a hit squad was sent every time someone poked fun at some institution, religious or otherwise, the cemeteries would quickly overflow.

Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker
Every religion has been targeted by writers over the ages.  But, so have kings, government officials, education, health services and almost anything else in human life.  The “Hebe” was a traditional Jewish character on Broadway; black-faced comedians and singers parodied African-Americans.  Gays have certainly seen plenty of such abuse.  Archie Bunker even made fun of bigots.  To my knowledge, no bigots have threatened violence in response.

Without a doubt, some of these efforts were in questionable taste and continue to be offensive, including Christian passion plays that annually defame Jews and foment anti-Semitism.  In reality, other religions often seem ridiculous to nonbelievers.  How can anyone believe in the sanctity of life so much that he wears cloth over his mouth to avoid inhaling an insect? How about ancestral worship?   Making offerings to my grandmother sounds pretty ridiculous and worthy of some satiric comment.

Ridiculing another’s beliefs is not only protected by free speech, it’s human nature.  Go back at look at ancient Greek plays, where religion was often targeted.  Satirical writing aimed at Christians was commonplace during the early years of the Common Era.  Biblical authors took swipes at other people as well.

I can understand why someone might be offended.  I can understand why someone might prefer not to see or hear unruly commentary directed again faith.  Fine.  Ignore Blasphemy Day or anything else that disturbs sensibilities.  Celebrate September 30 for some other reason.  There are plenty.  

Don’t give the stupid film – or any other inane commentary – a second of your time.  Millions of people who would have never seen such an ignorant film immediately had to see for themselves.  That would have never happened if the leaders in the Islamic world hadn’t orchestrated such a bombastic, and violent, response.

The deaths associated with protests against film are the real blasphemy.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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