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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Blasphemy Is Not A Legal Matter

Last year in a Halloween parade in Pennsylvania, Ernest Perce V, the director of the state’s American Atheists chapter, dressed as a zombie prophet Mohammed and was assaulted by a Muslim man who thought it was against the law in America to insult Mohammed; or any religion for that matter, since he admitted he would’ve done the same thing had Jesus been depicted as the undead. Last month, Judge Mark Martin dismissed the case on two grounds. The first was that there was reasonable doubt, which is questionable considering he conveniently denied the use of video evidence Perce brought forth. Perhaps because he had posted it on Youtube it was considered inadmissible; I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer, but it seems like a loophole that shouldn’t exist. The second reason is far more heinous and an unjust abuse of power. The attack was implied to have been provoked because, apparently, Ernest Perce brought it on himself by insulting Talaag Elbayomy’s religion. I wonder if this would’ve gotten such a free pass in terms of unlawful behavior based on ignorance of the law if a Christian did the same thing? That’s highly unlikely, though it’s not outside of possibility for someone to claim a similar insult to a person’s identity even though it’s protected by Supreme Court precedent set in various contexts, including a decision a year or so ago involving Westboro Baptist Church’s right to protest at funerals, however lowbrow and despicable their message may be. Blasphemy should not be regarded as outside of first amendment rights anymore than flag burning should, which, according to Texas v. Johnson, falls under the right to free speech.

Part of the problem is the judge’s apparent favoritism towards a foreigner who, while ignorant of laws regarding blasphemy’s legality under the constitution, is somehow still sympathetic because of the judge’s previous experience of the Muslim people for many years in the Middle East in military service. This is immaterial to whether the man broke a law. The dismissal of video evidence on a technicality doomed the case, since the attacker seemed to have waffled on his initial testimony versus what he claims he did under oath. According to the officer who took both their accounts on the night of the assault, Elbayomy admitted he tried to rip off Perce’s sign and put his hands on him. But then he claimed in court that he did not. The problem of potential perjury and the judge throwing out the officer’s testimony aside, the excuse Talaag gives in the audio Ernest Perce has posted on Youtube under the username eperce, is that he was very emotionally agitated. This is not even close to an acceptable excuse for committing a crime. The culpability may go down in some way, because he may not have been in a state of mind where he could realize he was doing something wrong, even by Muslim standards, from what I understand. Even threatening someone with violence could be said to constitute a morally questionable act if we’re going with the idea Jesus put forth that even calling someone a fool is akin to murder in your heart, let alone even making physical contact that had the intent to harm a person. And trying to say that the person brought it on themselves by offending your religious sensibilities is ridiculous.

The law does not protect you from being offended and it certainly doesn’t protect religion from being criticized, satirized and otherwise poked fun at. To say we can protect the rights of Christian fundamentalists to say gay people, along with any American soldier or person who even remotely agrees with gay rights or the like, is going to hell and also protect the supposed right of a Muslim man to attack someone because they insult any prophet, not only Mohammed, but Jesus as well as others, is unconscionable. Speech is protected to a greater extent because it doesn’t automatically equate to any potential violation of rights. Physical actions tend much more towards violence or other abuses of force by law enforcement officials.  There cannot be a distinction of attacks motivated by secular fervor and those coming from religious devotion of some form or another, especially if one is excused on the grounds that the person attacked provoked the assailant in some sense and thus is more culpable than the attacker. The palpable and troubling comparison to rape victims cannot be avoided. We have started to grow away from blaming the woman or man for being sexually assaulted because they were being suggestive in some sense and actually persecute those who committed the horrific acts against people to satisfy some disturbed sense of pleasure.

But religion still occupies such a protected space in society that criticizing it continues to bring forth cries of oppression from the majority of people in this country. How am I oppressing you when I am not remotely in power even in terms of my vote compared to your groups’? Hundreds of Christians can vote against something I vote for and the democratic system doesn’t automatically protect me because so many people take majority rule at face value and ignore any sort of provisions for the minority to not have their rights violated. You can easily collectively ignore my blasphemy and impiety towards whatever deity you worship. I could ignore your misguided and mistaken ideas about atheists, however common and viral they tend to be, because I value the exchange of ideas in society, even if they’re patently idiotic as ones that many espouse about atheists. That’s what makes America especially unique: we protect people’s right to be offensive as long as they are not directly infringing on the rights of other people. If I poke fun at Jesus, would you really be offended? There are plenty of things I could do that might raise your ire, but none of them would be grounds to attack me in any way or claim that you have been offended at your core, no matter how serious you take Jesus. Perhaps many Christians can take offensive and satirical depictions of Jesus less seriously because it’s been happening for decades in one form or another, at least since the 60s or so, if I had to guess. Muslims have not experienced such offense to their religion and maybe they should start being exposed to it more and more. Of course there are those that call for the deaths of people who do it, but to cower before their threats of violence, like I said in “South Park and Muslim Censorship”, is to give them more power than they deserve. Censorship is not justifiable in virtually any situation except when it becomes demonstrably damaging to children, which isn’t so with telling them about gay people as legislators in Tennessee are suggesting with the “Don’t Say Gay” bill which is still being pushed in spite of the likely delay. And censoring irreligious, nay anti religious speech, creates more issues, especially in terms of exposing people to perspectives that they disagree with, but can nonetheless tolerate to the limits we’ve established already about free speech.

The worst part of this is that the judge is not even Muslim, which might’ve opened up a can of worms itself. Martin claims to be a Lutheran, though the audio from the trial actually suggests the contrary; Martin affirms that he is a Muslim. Though I wonder, if he is a Lutheran, why he would take up a cause of supporting a religion that, if he looked into it even slightly more than superficially, does not regard Christianity or Judaism as equals and claims in the end days that even the trees will betray them to Muslims if they do not submit to their rule (though this particularly seems to be concerned with Jews from what I remember, especially “bad” ones). Jesus is, ironically, one of those who will overthrow the Islamic equivalent of the Antichrist, Dajjal.  The point is, Mark Martin’s partiality to a Muslim based on religious sincerity is irrelevant. He even suggests Muslims take their religion more seriously than Christians. The main reason for this is that Islam has not had any sort of serious reformation as Christianity did with Luther, severing the authority of tradition and legalism, focusing instead on the scriptures as well as affirming belief and the believer as the focus, not a priestly medium between the devout and God.  Just because Muslims take religion more seriously, just as there are fundamentalist Christians of a similar ilk in America, does not grant them any right to flout the law that prevents them from assaulting people because they blaspheme something sacred to them. Even such a thing as burning the Koran, which was done even after Pastor Terry Jones promised he wouldn’t, which I spoke about in “Bible Based Book Burning Backfires”, is not illegal, but offensive to a particular group at best. In a sense, I support Terry Jones’ burning of a holy book, though his justification was equally irrational compared to the beliefs in the text he condemned so strongly. When a Christian judge tries to gain favor with Muslims in protecting them because he somehow “understands” them after being in their country in a military context, the claims that Sharia law is being protected are not completely off. Furthermore, the judge did not have to insult Perce’s intelligence as he did, calling him a “doofus”, which places him at the maturity of a 12 year old instead of a grown adult. Overall, this was a poor decision and a misuse of judicial power by someone who places the limits of first amendment rights far too narrowly and trying to be politically correct in a world that cannot and should not be so. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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