On Blasphemy

Christ was often accused of blasphemy. Usually, the accusation occurred when He performed a miracle, say, on a Sabbath. Christ never condemned the Jewish laws against blasphemy. What He did rather was, by His works, to show that He was God. He did not mock Yahweh. He did not blaspheme His Father. He and the Father were one.

Christ was executed according to the Roman Law, crucifixion, not Jewish Law, stoning. The effective charge was blasphemy, the claim that He was God. His crucifixion was justified by the blasphemy charges. The Romans, who cared little for Jewish quibbles, decided to overlook the validity of these accusations.

What appears in the news almost daily are presumed violations of Muslim laws against blasphemy. To “insult” or “mock” Allah, Mohammed, or the Qur’an is said to merit death. It does not matter under what civil jurisdiction the presumed blasphemy occurs – in Saudi Arabia, Amsterdam, Syria, Pakistan, Paris, or wherever. Every Muslim is somehow designated to enforce the law. It claims universal jurisdiction.

Western “hate-speech” laws are a secular version of blasphemy laws, only what we cannot talk about is not God, but certain men or issues. Laws about calumny, libel, or slander mean that we are required to speak the truth about God and man. Free speech and free press, however, also belong to blasphemy considerations. Finding the truth of some accusation or claim is not always easy. Some things should be ridiculed. The classic word is “tolerate,” to endure possible errors. The people who most want not to be investigated are sometimes those who should be investigated.

To deny the existence of God or Allah is not blasphemy. Blasphemy laws remain, apparently, even if there is no God or Allah. What causes the problem is not the blasphemy itself, but the dangerous way people react to it. Several writers have mentioned that Charlie Hebdo mocked Christ or the Pope, not just Allah and Mohammed. The difference was that no Christian thought it all right, on that basis, to shoot anyone. Many Muslims evidently do not see it that way. It is the crossing of that line where the problem lies with Islam.

The notion of limits to free speech is ancient. Aristotle said that, if our wit hurt others, it should be moderated. On the other hand, there is also an obligation to the truth. It is one thing to ridicule something that is true, another something false and dangerous. If nothing can be mocked, everything is “true.” Few had problems with mocking Hitler, Stalin, or Khomeini. We can be so sensitive that we cannot say anything about anyone. The whole industry of political cartoons and satire is a noble one. Never to have a cartoon prodding us is a sign of indifference to what we are about.


I think that the current anti-hate laws are very dangerous. In the case of Islam, they prevent an honest discussion of what Islam is about. Such laws allow a government to define what can and cannot be freely and properly discussed. Anti-racism, anti-gay, and anti-feminist laws fall into this category.

On the other hand, we find a general silence about murders of Christians. Our government and media seem to have a policy of seldom mentioning any relationship between “terrorists” and Islam. So they never really acknowledge in any detail that Muslims kill Christians. Few people even know the extent of today’s Christian martyrdom.

In an Interview in Le Figaro, Remí Brague pointed out that, when it comes to abortion, we insist on calling it something else, a “procedure” or “aiding the health of the mother.” The “what is aborted” is never a “human person,” which it is. So we lie. Our laws and speech customs go along with the lies.

In their own minds, the Muslim “terrorists” are not terrorists. They are defenders of Allah. The problem their action against blasphemy brings up is specific. It was pinpointed by Benedict XVI. Is it ever permitted to kill in the name of Allah? If it is, and it seems to be, we are dealing with something well beyond “blasphemy” and its laws.

Briefly, if we have a religion that says its god approves killing for any statement of ridicule of its position, we have to conclude that this god cannot be god. Further, we have to acknowledge that riots that arise to defend this position are outside the pale of civilization.

The principle of respecting all religions has a limit. That limit is: “What does the religion hold?” If it holds it to be all right to kill blasphemers, it cannot be a true religion. This is not to approve unrestricted mockery. It is to point out that, if we remove these blasphemy laws and sanctions from Islam as violating some standard besides the “will” of Allah, it would no longer be historical Islam.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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