Libelous Photos and 'Blasphemous' Films

The very use of the word 'blasphemy' is problematic because of its distinct roots in the Christian tradition and its subsequent legal status in European 'secular' jurisprudence.

The British royal family is suing a French magazine for libel for carrying offensive photos of a princess. However, it might not be possible to take legal action against Nakoula, the maker of the film “Innocence of Muslims” under American law in the interest of preserving the right to freedom of speech.

This is astonishing for a country that sees no problem in maintaining prisons that defy all norms of international law and justifies suspending people’s fundamental rights in the name of security.

Meanwhile another French magazine has published cartoons which have provoked more protests. In France, a lawsuit has been filed against the magazine for inciting hate-speech and it remains to be seen if anything will happen. Islamic law, like other secular legal systems, takes a strong position on those who deliberately create fitna or strife and most countries have tough laws to prevent public unrest. It is noteworthy that these laws are often not invoked by conveniently using the label of blasphemy, which has its own set of attendant problems.

Following a spate of offensive material over the last few years, ranging from the Danish cartoons to the antics of a pyromaniac pastor from Florida, certain political groups get much mileage from depicting Muslims as an amorphous, homogenous group that is largely driven by their emotions, passion and anger. There is no attempt to see the very real historical, economic, social, political and most importantly local context of their discontent.

Attempts have been made to offer somewhat less incendiary engagements with Islam. Earlier this year, UK’s Channel 4 aired Tom Holland’s badly researched pop-documentary, “Islam: the untold story,” which had Holland traipsing around the Middle East dressed like a latter-day Indiana Jones questioning the very origins of Islam.

Following the release of the trailer to the film “Innocence of Muslims” it seems that there is a concerted effort, not just by fraudulent loonies but also by mainstream media, to try and create an image of Muslims in the popular imagination that is more in keeping with what people want to see rather than what is the ground reality.

Ayaan Ali Hirsi, infamous for her bogus polemical rants about the Muslim world, offers a vivid example of this in her recent piece in Newsweek. The cover of the magazine has the headline ‘Muslim Rage’ and is followed by a photo of two bearded turbaned men with faces contorted in agony and anger. Below this is Hirsi’s statement ‘How I survived it and how we can end it.’

The article contains the usual platitudes about how Muslim men, of course the angry ones on the cover come to mind, are the biggest danger to the free world and how this threat must be contained at all costs. In an inflammatory sentence, she implicitly links the protests to the tragic murder of the US Ambassador in Libya even though American officials have themselves viewed it as a pre-planned operation. It is through the platform of people like Hirsi that Nakoula has gained a degree of legitimacy. Of course, Hirsi’s comments have been widely condemned in the media but the fact is that as long as people like her have a prominent platform from which to air their plain hate, a dialogue cannot even begin to take place.

Professor Megan Reif of the University of Denver has insightfully pointed out that the coverage of the protestors has often focused on individuals, like those on Newsweek’s cover, engaged in seemingly violent acts but events like the Tahrir Square protests were often covered in a wide-angle format. This leads to her wider point that protests by a small number of frustrated youth, a fraction of a percentage of the global Muslim population, has been hyped by the media in order to create a bogey that would otherwise fizzle out.

Following this whole debacle, in an interview with The Guardian, Salman Rushdie stated that he would be even more blasphemous if he could re-write the “Satanic Verses”. He cites how the writers of the French Enlightenment used blasphemy as a weapon to combat the Church.

This, of course, is the classic mistake that most people make when trying to analyse the trajectories of change within the wider non-European world. The history of Europe is not the history of the world. Therefore, the way in which “the political” has developed in Europe, particularly vis-à-vis the struggle with ecclesiastical authority, cannot be replicated in other parts of the world which have their specific contexts.

Secularism, which is often portrayed as the “modern value” that Muslims do not espouse, is very much a product of more than 700 years of the reform of Church in Europe, although people use it as if it can be completely decoupled from religion.

Similarly, the very use of the word “blasphemy” is problematic because of its distinct roots in the Christian tradition and its subsequent legal status in European “secular” jurisprudence. The etymology of blasphemy can be traced to the Greek blapto and femos which would literally mean ‘to injure reputation’ something akin to libel, though it later developed to have specifically religious connotations. Of course, the use of libel laws seems to be the preserve of royalty.

Arguably, the Quran does not even talk of blasphemy, in the sense that it is understood in the West. Instead in the 108th verse of the chapter “The Cattle”, the Prophet is urged to “revile not those unto whom they pray beside Allah lest they wrongfully revile Allah through ignorance.” Of course, some Muslim scholars, in particular those who have the backing of authoritarian states, have read blasphemy into the Islamic tradition but it is important to emphasise that this reading is essentially reactive and is not organic.

It is no surprise, therefore, that in the hands of a repressive state apparatus, blasphemy laws, much like laws relating to treason, also become an excuse for silencing opposition and minorities. Incidentally, in Pakistan, which is often in the news for such cases, the blasphemy laws find their roots in the British Penal Code of 1860 though of course they were later amended, most notably during the reign of Ziaul Haq who enjoyed the patronage of America in arming the Mujahideen to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Many autocratic Arab countries, which continue to have the overt support of many Western countries, still use this method to stamp out any internal dissent.

Blasphemy as a form of deliberate political dissent, which in essence masks hate-speech, is at best naïve and at worst a conscious effort to create and sustain ruptures in society because it can never lead to any productive conversation. The existence of Nakoula and his breed of myopic, harebrained bigots is not the real problem and nor should much attention be paid to them. What is a more pressing concern is the way in which the mainstream media takes specific incidents, manipulates them and uses them in order to perpetuate misplaced and misguided stereotypes.

The agitations about Nakoula’s film are, in large part, also protests about the many ongoing struggles people have within their societies and with their own governments and foreign powers. By placing so much emphasis on Muslim reactions to Nakoula’s film, the very real grievances of Muslims in various parts of the world are completely glossed over.

Of course, the violence accompanying protests has to be squarely condemned but at the same time violence should not be the only subject of discussion. For instance, it would be wrong to see the appalling suicide bombing in Kabul by a woman just as a reaction to the film. A larger context has to be taken into account, which might, for instance, include the fact that US and NATO forces killed 9 innocent women who were out fetching firewood the day before the suicide bombing. This does not excuse the reprehensible action of the suicide bomber or condone violence in the name of Islam but by taking into account the very real social, political and economic not to mention religious grievances of people like her, it might be possible to try and start solving problems.

Unfortunately, the easier option is to simply view her as a delirious psychopath because this in part ignores the very real role that the policies of certain countries have had in contributing to the conditions that exacerbate anger and resentment. This easier option coupled with a deceptive use of language means that the real causes behind the anger are not identified nor addressed. (

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