Barbara Kay: Blasphemy by any other name


National Post - Wednesday April 4th, 2012

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Hamza Kashgari of Saudi Arabia

A few months ago, a young Saudi man, Hamza Kashgari, expressed his views on the prophet Mohammed in a Tweet: “I have loved things about you and I have hated things about you and there is a lot I don’t understand about you. I will not pray for you.” A Facebook group of 20,000 soon demanded his execution for apostasy under sharia law. He is imprisoned awaiting trial and possible execution.

Execution for religious blasphemy? How primitive. In Canada, we merely have blasphemers called up before human rights commissions, to be humiliated and occasionally bankrupted.

These commissions, in their speech-suppressive mode, are ugly things. But they seem benign by comparison with what’s going on in the U.K., where the system seems to hover somewhere between Canada and Saudi Arabia in its treatment of blasphemers.

Welsh university student Liam Stacey has been sentenced to 56 days in jail for a crime that, whatever its formal name, essentially amounts to the secular Western equivalent of blasphemy. On March 17, when soccer player Fabrice Muamba collapsed during a playoff game, and seemed to have died (he later recovered, though is still in serious condition), Stacey tweeted: “LOL, F–k Muamba. He’s dead.” A torrent of hostile blowback evoked several more tweets from Stacey containing racist material such as “wog” and “go pick some cotton.”

His racist comments were reported to the police and he was arrested, handcuffs and all. Stacey’s abject apologies cut no ice with the judge. Days later, an appeal court upheld the first decision, agreeing 56 days of incarceration was an appropriate consequence for speech with “racist intent.” (Canadian human rights commissions may be a threat to freedom — but at least, they can’t send you to jail.)

This case is not an isolated example of the Brits’ obsession with protecting minority sensitivities. In 2009, David Booker, an employee at a homeless shelter run by the Church of England’s Society of St. James, confided in a conversation with a colleague that he didn’t hold with vicars marrying their gay partners. The colleague casually passed his opinion on to a superior, who immediately suspended Brooker, announcing that “action has been taken to safeguard both residents and staff.”

Sometimes citizens are successful in reclaiming their rights. Last September, the owner of Salt & Light Coffee House, a Christian café in Lancashire, was told by police he must stop showing DVDs displaying New Testament biblical texts, because of a complaint regarding “insulting” and “homophobic” material. The owner was informed that the display of “insulting” words was a breach of the Public Order Act. A communication spokesman for the Christian Institute, a national charity that defends the religious liberty of Christians, remarked: “We’ve all seen the police stand by while extremist Muslims hold placards calling for infidels to be beheaded, but woe betide a Christian café displaying Bible texts.” The owner of the café has resumed playing his DVDs on the advice of a lawyer.

You might think the Lancashire police would have learned their lesson in 2005, when they had to shell out £10,000 to a Christian couple they interrogated for telling their town council that they didn’t agree with homosexuality. But once the state’s rank and file have been indoctrinated into political correctness, neither reason nor experience can deflect them from their perceived duty of harassing the thought criminals they have been trained to hate.

In sentencing Stacey, the first judge acknowledged that Stacey was drunk during the exchanges, but nevertheless concluded, “I have no choice but to impose an immediate custodial sentence to reflect the public outrage.”

Really — “no choice”? The judge could have ordered a public letter of apology to Muamba’s family. Or community service. Or a course in substance abuse.

Or … nothing. In a free country, why shouldn’t the shame and ridicule of your peers (and, in this case, total strangers) not be sufficient to punish disgusting utterances, racist or otherwise? (Stacey was about to write his final exams leading to a career in forensic biology. That’s over, and his life may be ruined.)

This appalling judgment sets a troubling precedent. One would think that the draconian treatment we see meted out to critics of Islam in undemocratic countries would result here in a deeper appreciation of the treasure we hold in freedom of speech. Strangely, it’s the other way around. They should be emulating us, but we’re emulating them.

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