Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Drop blasphemy charges against Sanal Edamaruku

Earlier this month Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, a high-ranking figure in the Roman Catholic Church, called for the world-wide repeal of laws against blasphemy. As I noted in a recent post (Pope Pius IX's "Syllabus of Errors" in retrospect), this was a significant event, but not as astonishing as it might once have been.  Part of the context for Scola's condemnation of blasphemy laws is the fact that in many parts of the world today, especially in some Muslim-dominated societies, blasphemy laws are frequently used to target and persecute Christians, including Catholics.  But Scola's statements were also a manifestation of a deeper and more comprehensive evolution in Catholic doctrine over the past century (especially since Vatican II), in which the Church has gradually moved toward a generalized embrace of the principles of freedom of conscience, religious liberty, and even the legitimacy and value of religious pluralism.  That's a momentous shift.

In September 2012, during a visit to the Middle East, Pope Benedict XVI (now Pope Emeritus) defended these principles in sweeping and eloquent terms:
Religious freedom is the pinnacle of all other freedoms. It is a sacred and inalienable right.  [....]  Religious freedom is rooted in the dignity of the person; it safeguards moral freedom and fosters mutual respect.  [....]  A healthy secularity [....]  frees religion from the encumbrance of politics, and allows politics to be enriched by the contribution of religion, while maintaining the necessary distance, clear distinction and indispensable collaboration between the two spheres.  [....]
=>  Do those ringing declarations include an acceptance of freedom of conscience and freedom of expression for non-religious people?  If the Church is really serious about having principled objections to blasphemy laws, one way to demonstrate this would be for the Vatican to use its influence to get Catholic organizations in India to call off the blasphemy prosecution against Sanal Edamaruku, head of the Indian Rationalist Association and an outspoken public intellectual.

Edamaruku was charged with blasphemy a year ago, fled when he discovered that police had turned up at his apartment to arrest him, and has been forced to live abroad ever since.  His application for bail was denied, so if he went home he would be imprisoned while waiting for his case to drag its way through the courts.

What did Edamaruku do?  In March 2012 water began to drip from the feet of a statue of the crucified Christ in a Catholic church in Mumbai.  Thousands of people flocked to the site to observe this miracle and to collect the holy water dripping from the statue, in some cases drinking it.  The church was promoted as a site for pilgrimage.  Edamaruku investigated the phenomenon, and demonstrated that the dripping water was caused by a blocked drainage system behind the base of the statue.  (For an explanatory video, see here.)

The fact that he had debunked this apparent miracle was sufficiently upsetting to some Mumbai Catholics that they used the blasphemy laws to charge him with "deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of any class or community”—a crime under the Indian penal code.

It's hard to imagine a better example to illustrate the point that blasphemy laws are a generally bad idea.  And in this case the ones using the blasphemy laws to intimidate freedom of speech and open discussion are Catholics.  Well, what does the Vatican have to say about this?

=>  India has a problem with blasphemy laws and the mind-set behind them.  Those laws are mostly residues of colonial-era legislation, but they are definitely not fading away.  (India also has other problems involving religious bigotries and antagonisms, including occasional outbursts of large-scale inter-sectarian violence manipulated by political demagogues, but we can leave those for another discussion.)  Unlike the situation in many Muslim countries, where blasphemy laws are used almost exclusively against non-Muslims or Muslims that other Muslims consider insufficiently orthodox, in India members of many religious groups seem to be eager to take offense and to resort to these laws to launch accusations of blasphemy.  Legal prosecutions are often supplemented with other expressions of displeasure, including mob violence, death threats, and the like.

Sometimes accusations of blasphemy are used  to suppress or censor important literary and artistic works.  For example, n 1988 Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses was banned in India even before the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie to be murdered, and it is still banned in India today. (In 2012, four authors attending a literary conference who read excerpts from The Satanic Verses aloud were threatened with arrest and left town.)  In 2006 one of India's most renowned modern artists, Maqbool Fida Husain, felt it prudent to flee the country after a sustained campaign of lawsuits, vilification, and intimidation directed against him, including death threats, attacks on galleries that displayed his work, and an attack on his home.  Hindu-fundamentalist extremists objected, among other things, to the fact that some of his paintings depicted Hindu deities in the nude (not unlike some classical Hindu religious art, by the way).  He died in exile in London in 2011.  And so on.

But sometimes blasphemy prosecutions are simply used to render superstitions immune from criticism.  I know the word "superstition" is a loaded one, but it's hard to describe the case against Edamaruku any other terms.  If some people want to get upset with him for debunking this bogus miracle, fine.  That's understandable.  But they shouldn't be able to use the law to threaten him with jail time for it.

Edamaruku, who was granted asylum in Finland, has been trying to rally public support in Europe to urge the Indian government to drop the prosecution against him.  As he said in an interview with the Guardian:
"There is a huge contradiction [between] the content of the Indian constitution which guarantees freedom of speech and the blasphemy law from 1860 under then colonial rule"  [....]  "It is an absurd law but also extremely dangerous because it gives fanatics, whether they are Hindus, Catholics or Muslims, a [license] to be offended. It also allows people who are in dispute with you to make up false accusations of blasphemy."
To be fair, the prosecution of Edamaraku was not initiated by the Indian Catholic Church per se, but by Mumbai-based Catholic organizations.  However, a public indication by the Indian Church that it opposed this prosecution could have a major impact, if only by giving political cover to the government for dropping the case.  And there have been international calls for the Indian Church to take this position, or to use more informal influences to get the instigators of this prosecution to drop their complaints, but so far it hasn't done anything.

Perhaps a friendly word from the Vatican would be helpful?  It would be the right thing to do ... and it might also be an indication that the Church's new-found opposition to blasphemy laws is genuinely principled and not purely self-interested.

=>  Meanwhile, anyone who is interested, Catholic or otherwise, can sign a petition asking the Indian government to Drop blasphemy charges against Sanal Edamaruku.

Yours for freedom of expression and elementary sanity,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  By the way, there are still blasphemy laws on the books in some European countries, as well as efforts in some other countries to smuggle them back in under the guise of treating speech, writing, or other forms of expression that offend religious sentiments as "hate speech".  In practice, most of those blasphemy laws are vestigial and unenforced, but it wouldn't be a bad idea to clean up the legal codes by getting rid of them, as well as affirming the principle of freedom of expression more generally.  The Netherlands and Ireland have been moving in that direction, and others should follow.