Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Thomas Pooley, Hamza Kashgari, and the right to blaspheme

In 1857 Thomas Pooley, a well-digger in the small English village of Duloe, was ordered to appear before the local magistrate after having been formally charged with multiple counts of the crime of blasphemy. The charges against Pooley were based on sworn statements claiming that he had been seen writing blasphemous statements on fences and walls around the village (twitter not having yet been invented). Pooley not only answered the summons voluntarily, but told the magistrate forthrightly that he was of the opinion that "the blackguard Jesus Christ ... was the forerunner of all thievery and whoredom."

Pooley was tried on July 30, 1857, and convicted on four counts of blasphemy for which he was sentenced to 21 months imprisonment. The trial and conviction transformed Pooley from just another village eccentric (who had been listed in the 1851 census as a pauper) into a nationwide cause célèbre. Freethinkers, atheists, secularists, and others mounted a sustained public campaign on Pooley's behalf. Eventually several members of Parliament personally intervened in the case, and Pooley was freed after serving 5 of the 21 months.

The movement to free Pooley was spearheaded by George Holyoake, who also raised funds for Pooley and his family. Holyoake was a Chartist, an Owenite, a Co-operatist, a Malthusian, a Comte-ist, a feminist, a socialist, an atheist, and an all-around trouble-maker and egalitarian rabble-rouser. He is credited with being the first to popularize the use of the term "secularism" in it's modern anti-religious sense (this attribution is vouched for by both the Catholics and the atheists). For more on Pooley's case look at this old post of mine: Blasphemy, and also at this paper by Iain Rowe: The Case of Thomas Pooley: A Reinvestigation.

Can anyone point to anything faintly resembling the vigorous "free-thought" movements that thrived in the West over 150 years ago (or, for that matter, to the Enlightenment which was already in its heyday 250 years ago)? With the life of Hamza Kashgari now in the balance, where are the voices of outrage from "moderates" and "reformers" in the Muslim world? And where are the bravely freethinking George Holyoakes of Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, etc.?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the case of Hamza Kashgari presents a golden opportunity to those who claim to be (and are claimed by others to be) "moderate" Muslims: now they have the chance to prove themselves. How easy it would be for them to go on Al Jazeera, CNN, etc, and to simply and clearly articulate their principled opposition to the very idea of criminal prosecution based on the free expression of religious ideas and to call, in no uncertain terms, for the immediate unconditional release of Hamza Kashagari and the dropping of all charges against him! Think of the sensation that this would cause.

But where are the "moderates" when we (and especially Hamza Kashgari!) need them? Where are the American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Council of American Islamic Relations ? Where are Daisy Khan and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf? Where is congressman Keith Ellison? Where is everyone's favorite smooth-talking Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan? And where are all the "progressive" Islamophobia-mongers and interfaith-dialogue peddlers?

Let's hear no more about "moderate" Muslims, unless and until we hear from them that they will stand up to the Wahhabists and others who call for the blood of apostates, blasphemers, and infidels. Muslims will never be free until they have the freedom to express their own thoughts about their own religion. Such freedom must go far beyond being allowed to politely disagree when and if that is considered acceptable by the "authorities". Muslims must be free to question, criticize, reject, renounce, and even ridicule every aspect of their own religion. And most importantly of all, genuine religious freedom for Muslims must include the right to leave Islam and then to embrace some other religion, or no religion at all. Until such freedom exists in the Muslim world, Muslims will continue to lag centuries behind even the hide-bound puritanical society of mid-nineteenth-century Victorian England (a time and place when women had fewer rights than they do today in the Islamic Republic of Iran)! And until that time Muslims who live in the West will continue to enjoy far greater freedom to practice their own religion, as they themselves freely choose to do so (and only if they choose to do so!), than any Muslim who lives in a Muslim-majority country, no matter how "moderate" or "modern" that country might claim to be.

more blasphemy at
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