Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Who Bans Books? Islamic Groups

Yesterday, I wrote about the history of book censorship in the Catholic Church, but it certainly isn't the only religious group to try to keep certain texts out of its adherents' hands. Different Islamic groups and authorities have also condemned books — and even called for the murder of their authors — that were seen as antithetical to or blasphemous toward Muslim doctrine.

Much of the furor has to do with depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. We know from fairly recent events — like the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the uproar surrounding "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" — that creating images of Muhammad is forbidden by Sharia law. Literary depictions of Muhammad, however, are more acceptable. (Imagine trying to write about Christianity without being able to depict Jesus.) But writers can stumble onto dangerous ground if their depictions of Muhammad don't fall into line with Islamic teachings.

And because Islam doesn't have the same type of centralized ecclesiastical authority that the Catholic Church has, writers must placate numerous powerful men, each with his own interpretation of the Qu'ran.

One can't talk about Muslim censorship without bring up the name Salman Rushdie. His Satanic Verses is based in part on the life of Muhammad, and it deals in part with an alleged occasion when the Prophet Muhammad mistook satanic suggestions for divine revelation, an account that most Islamic scholars deny.

For fairly obvious reasons, this novel didn't go ever well in Islamic communities — especially with fundamentalists. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then the supreme leader of Iran, not only denounced the novel but called for Rushdie's death in 1989. Rushdie went into hiding. (I still remember how big a deal it was when he came out of hiding to appear onstage at a U2 concert.)

We in the West have perhaps become too conditioned to associate this type of behavior with Muslim extremism. Although the violence in response to books like Satanic Verses and the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo is likely the work of extremist groups, Muslim censorship isn't a fringe cause. In 2012, after the Internet release of the low-budget film Innocence of Muslims, which depicted Muhammad as a madman, philanderer, and pedophile, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) stepped up its lobbying of the UN to ban worldwide anything the OIC perceived as anti-Islamic blasphemy.

The OIC isn't some ragtag group of Islamic extremists. It is the world's second-largest intergovernmental organization, after the UN, consisting of representatives from fifty-seven Islamic states. It is a nonvoting UN observer group.

A cartoon representation of Muhammad
may or may not be inside that bear suit.
Their lobbying for a worldwide ban on works that were critical of Islam failed, of course.

Thankfully, calls for censorship from Islamic groups carry no legal weight in the United States or in most non-Muslim states. They can, however, have practical censorial effects, such as when Comedy Central censored an episode of South Park that included Jesus, Moses, Buddha, and the Prophet Muhammed. The network wouldn't let them depict Muhammad directly, and so when the show aired, Muhammad appeared in a bear suit. And you know what? South Park's creators still received lightly veiled death threats from a radical Muslim group in New York City.

The same sorts of threats to violence have effects worldwide, too. For example, in response to the hubbub about Satanic Verses, the government of India, whose constitution protects freedom of speech, nonetheless succumbed to international pressure and, in the interest of domestic tranquility, banned it from being printed in or imported to India.

We might like to simply ignore the calls for censorship that come from various Islamic groups around the world, finding comfort knowing that the US Constitution protects our legal rights from such censorship. But to those outside the United States, our Constitution is just a piece of paper that can be ignored when they feel someone has blasphemed against Islam or Muhammad. Or anything, really.

We like to think of freedom of expression as a basic human right, but that outlook isn't universally accepted. Which means we must defend it tooth and nail.