Prosecutions of blasphemy — often referred to as “hurting religious sentiments” to mask the true nature of the laws — occur nigh on every day both within and without the Islamic world. The inaugural weeks of 2023 were no exception.
Nowhere do these cases seem to be as heavily concentrated as they are in the Indian subcontinent. The dynamics there are complex but may be said to boil down largely to tensions between religious groups — majority-Hindu repression in India, particularly directed against Muslims, and majority-Muslim repression in Bangladesh and Pakistan.
The language of “hurting religious sentiments” provides justification for unwarranted punishments based on exercises of free expression. This has happened again in Bangladesh with the recent jailing of a former leader of a Hindu group — seven years for “insulting Islam” in a Facebook post.
Meanwhile in India, we can all breathe a sigh of relief: an advertisement for condoms which came under fire for allegedly “hurting religious sentiments” has been found, in fact, not to be blasphemous.
Don’t insult the Turkish president—or else
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has long combined two characteristics to make for an especially unpleasant rule: routinely playing footsie with Islamists and inching his country closer to autocracy.
Both of these odious tendencies came together as one in a recent conviction. Halil Arda, a mayor of the opposition in Turkey, was found guilty of the most heinous of crimes — insulting the Turkish president and “publicly insulting religious values” (shorter: “blasphemy”). Arda claims he did not write the Facebook post over which he was being charged and that the account was not his — not that this should matter.
Regardless, he was handed a one-year suspended sentence, meaning he will go to prison for one year if he is found guilty of the same crimes within the next five years. Plain intimidation from an authoritarian and religiously conservative regime.
The Hamline controversy
The publicizing of this incident goes back more than a month, but new details have emerged in recent weeks which underscore just how remarkable Hamline University’s mishandling was. Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor of art history, showed—as part of a discussion of Islamic art—a painting that depicted the Prophet Muhammad, widely considered a masterpiece of medieval Persian art. Controversy ensued shortly thereafter, culminating in López Prater’s teaching contract not being renewed.
Despite López Prater having given warning both in the course syllabus and before showing the painting, some Muslim students were reportedly blindsided by its showing — enough to complain to administrators. It clearly worked, since López Prater lost her job shortly thereafter — but the university took it a step further and decided to host a discussion on Islamophobia with CAIR of Minnesota, going so far as to proclaim what happened in the classroom — a very clear-cut example of an instructor professionally and respectfully sparking conversation on a sensitive topic — obviously “Islamophobic.”
You can read all about Hamline’s defense of its clear betrayal of academic freedom, as well as how a spokesperson for CAIR of Minnesota likened showing this painting to saying Hitler is good, in this article from the New York Times.