jan 5, 2021

Across Civilizations, Conservative Authoritarians Meet

In the wake of a spate of blasphemy prosecutions and convictions in the Islamic world—part of an ongoing and endless stream—Vladimir Putin expresses his approval for the laws responsible, and theocrats thank him.

A Flurry of Blasphemy Cases

Prosecutions for alleged blasphemy and apostasy have been rolling apace in the Islamic world over the last several months (ad, truthfully, the last many years). In this sector, business is booming in Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

In addition to an arrest two weeks ago, another death sentence has been bequeathed to a blasphemy “offender” in Pakistan. The accused, Bashir Mastan, had allegedly claimed prophethood in a video posted to the internet. A typically commensurate response from the Pakistani government.

Not to be outdone, Saudi Arabia is meting out perverse justice of its own, this time for posts originating from anonymous Twitter accounts. According to Human Rights Watch, 38-year-old Ali Abu Luhum was arrested and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment on charges of apostasy. The tweets in question, the court said, glorified “apostasy, unbelief, and atheism.”

So much for the new and improved Saudi. Women may drive, but women and men both continue to have their lives destroyed over the free exercise of speech and conscience.

And in Russia, this state-sanctioned brutality, conducted entirely on behalf of the Islamic faith, has a friend in the president.



An Alliance of Right-Wing Authoritarians

As part of an annual press conference, Vladimir Putin offered a full-throated endorsement of the rationale behind blasphemy laws in the Islamic world.

Putin said not only that “insulting” the Prophet Muhammad constituted a “violation of religious freedom,” but also implied that Charlie Hebdo was wrong to publish its caricatures of the religious figure—that doing so “gave rise to extremist reprisals.” They were asking for it, in other words: the caricatures, he said, and other such “insults” do not constitute a legitimate exercise of free expression.

Unsurprisingly, the most repressive theocratic authoritarians of the Islamic world were ecstatic to hear the Russian president take such a brave stand against the human right to free expression. In a country, that just put the aforementioned Bashir Mastan to death, religious scholars thanked Putin for his defense. Prime Minister Imran Khan has likewise offered effusive praise: “I welcome President Putin’s statement which reaffirms my message that insulting our Holy Prophet (PBUH) is not freedom of expression,” he tweeted.

This endorsement serves not only to contribute to religious repression in Islamic theocracies, but also to give oxygen to a climate of fear and intimidation that follows those who even attempt to raise questions about blasphemy laws wherever they go. Even in the liberal countries whose freedoms Putin and Khan seek to undermine (and suppress in their own countries), this ugliness can manifest. It has recently, in the form of death threats leveled at Canada-based Pakistani filmmaker Mohsin Abbas, who had worked on a film exploring Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the victims thereof.

Birds of a feather flock together. It is not surprising that a right-wing authoritarian would make himself an accomplice to the oppression of other right-wing authoritarians, even if each side casts itself as champion of a different religion. But perhaps this affinity is worth keeping in mind when certain opportunists of the far right cast themselves as defenders of free expression: one may find that they really have no problem at all with what is going on in Islamic countries.

The authorities are, after all, only standing up for religious morality.


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