Sep 302016


Today is celebrated as International Blasphemy Day (IBD). At first I was delighted – one day in the year that I can blaspheme and get away with it!! Great. Of course, I had it all wrong. IBD was set up to encourage individuals and groups to openly express criticism of religion and blasphemy laws. It was founded in 2009 by the Center for Inquiry (CFI). A student contacted the CFI in Amherst, New York to present the idea, which CFI then supported. Ronald Lindsay, president and CEO of the CFI, said, regarding Blasphemy Day, “We think religious beliefs should be subject to examination and criticism just as political beliefs are, but we have a taboo on religion”, in an interview with CNN. I think this is a hopelessly naïve statement. I question religious beliefs all the time and I have been an ordained minister for 22 years. But there is another part to the celebration. Participants want to challenge anti-blasphemy laws. I’m on board with that.

Let me start with this notion that criticizing religion is taboo. Yes, in some quarters it is. September 30 was chosen as the date, because on this date all hell broke loose when a local newspaper in Denmark published 12 satirical drawings of Muhammad resulting in the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. Although the caricatures of Muhammad caused some minor controversy within Denmark, especially among Muslims, it became a widespread furor after Muslim imams in several countries stirred up violent protests in which Danish embassies were firebombed and over 100 people were killed.


This controversy, which began in 2005, was part of a longstanding battle between radical Muslims and Western public figures who challenged Islamic radical orthodoxy. This is where the idea of a taboo comes in. Indeed, there is more than heated debate here. People die. The publication of The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie in September 1988 caused immediate controversy in the Islamic world because of what was seen by some to be an irreverent depiction of Muhammad. The title refers to a disputed Muslim tradition that is related in the book. According to this tradition, Muhammad (Mahound in the book) added verses (Ayah) to the Qur’an accepting three goddesses who used to be worshipped in Mecca as divine beings. According to the legend, Muhammad later revoked the verses, saying the devil tempted him to utter these lines to appease the Meccans (hence the “Satanic” verses). However, the narrator reveals to the reader that these disputed verses were actually from the mouth of the Archangel Gibreel. The book was banned in 13 countries with large Muslim communities. (Iran, India, Bangladesh, Sudan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Thailand, Tanzania, Indonesia, Singapore, Venezuela, and Pakistan).


In response to the protests, on 22 January 1989 Rushdie published a column in The Observer that called Muhammad “one of the great geniuses of world history,” but noted that Islamic doctrine holds Muhammad to be human, and in no way perfect. He held that the novel is not “an anti-religious novel. It is, however, an attempt to write about migration, its stresses and transformations.”

On 14 February 1989, the day of the funeral of his close friend Bruce Chatwin, a fatwā requiring Rushdie’s execution was proclaimed on Radio Tehran by Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran at the time, calling the book “blasphemous against Islam” (chapter IV of the book depicts the character of an Imam in exile who returns to incite revolt from the people of his country with no regard for their safety). A bounty was offered for Rushdie’s death, and he was thus forced to live under police protection for several years. On 7 March 1989, the United Kingdom and Iran broke diplomatic relations over the Rushdie controversy.

On 24 September 1998, as a precondition to the restoration of diplomatic relations with the UK, the Iranian government, then headed by Mohammad Khatami, gave a public commitment that it would “neither support nor hinder assassination operations on Rushdie.” Hardliners in Iran have continued to reaffirm the death sentence. In early 2005, Khomeini’s fatwā was reaffirmed by Iran’s current spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a message to Muslim pilgrims making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Additionally, the Revolutionary Guards declared that the death sentence on him is still valid. Iran rejected requests to withdraw the fatwā on the basis that only the person who issued it may withdraw it, and the person who issued it – Ayatollah Khomeini – has been dead since 1989.

Rushdie has reported that he still receives a “sort of Valentine’s card” from Iran each year on 14 February letting him know the country has not forgotten the vow to kill him. He said, “It’s reached the point where it’s a piece of rhetoric rather than a real threat.” Despite the threats on Rushdie, he publicly said that his family had never been threatened and that his mother (who lived in Pakistan during the later years of her life) even received outpourings of support, although he also notes that he himself has been banned from entering Pakistan


As a humanist and Christian, I am fundamentally opposed to death threats and actual violence in the name of religion. They are antithetical to core beliefs. It’s the height of absurdity to claim to be a practicing Christian who worships a loving God personified in the human form of Jesus the Messiah whose message was love and forgiveness, and yet want to defend that belief with a gun. More than anything, what such statements and actions tell me is that the rhetoric is not about religion at all. Religion is the excuse for bigotry, xenophobia, ethnocentrism and the like that masquerade as religious fervor. We only have to look at the Crusades to see that this kind of behavior is always self interest wrapped in self righteousness.

Events worldwide on the first annual Blasphemy Day in 2009 included an art exhibit in Washington, D.C. and a free speech festival in Los Angeles. According to USA Today‘s interview with Justin Trottier, a Toronto coordinator of Blasphemy Day, “We’re not seeking to offend, but if in the course of dialogue and debate, people become offended, that’s not an issue for us. There is no human right not to be offended.”


In some countries, blasphemy is punishable by death, such as in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. According to an analysis by the International Press Institute, as of 2015, at least fourteen member states of the European Union maintain criminal blasphemy or religious insult laws, which prohibit defamation of religions as such or their beliefs, practices and divinities. These are Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France (Alsace-Moselle region only), Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland only) and Turkey.

In the United Kingdom, the common-law offenses of “blasphemy” and “blasphemous libel” were abolished by section 79 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. The last blasphemous libel conviction in Britain had been against Gay News and its editor in 1977. The publication had published a metaphoric poem involving Jesus and homosexual acts. The editor’s suspended prison sentence was quashed on appeal, but £1,500 in fines were upheld. See blasphemy law in the United Kingdom.

As of 2009, six U.S. states still had anti-blasphemy laws on their books: Massachusetts, Michigan, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming. These laws are unenforceable, however, because the U.S. Supreme Court, in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952), found denying Americans the opportunity to view the short film The Miracle (deemed blasphemous by the censors) to be a denial of the freedom of religion, of speech and of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Hence, any attempts to enforce the few remaining laws will be ruled invalid (one hopes).


There ought to be a balance here. There’s no doubt in my mind that blasphemy laws are ludicrous, but offending people’s religious sensibilities just for the sake of it is juvenile also – at best. Some people like to parody a particular religion, some treat theism in general as ludicrous. I find most of these efforts offensive because they show precious little understanding of the many, many religions of the world nor the incredible depth of perception of some of the greatest religious minds in history. I find stupidity incredibly offensive (and, yes, Richard Dawkins, I’m looking at you). And, by the way, many Sufis joke about their own beliefs.


Monty Python’s Life of Brian was heavily criticized in British media as blasphemous because Brian’s life completely parallels Jesus’ life in parody from going into the desert, talking to multitudes, and so forth, to his eventual trial and crucifixion (with sly digs at his mother too). The Pythons vigorously denied that the movie was a satire of Christ (and Mary), but I find their defense completely disingenuous. However, I also find it funny in spots. Here is a clip directly ridiculing blasphemy laws.

Whilst I am on the lighter side, and edging over into recipes, there is such a thing as culinary blasphemy. This notion pretty much stems from French haute cuisine of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Auguste Escoffier was for decades treated as the demi-god of the professional kitchen and Le Guide Culinaire was his Bible. Even now some chefs are tested when in training by being asked to prepare one of Escoffier’s classics on the spot from memory. This, in turn, leads to the notion of culinary blasphemy exemplified in this site  You can peruse it at leisure. I can’t say I am charmed by it, but it makes the point in various ways. Certain combinations of ingredients or cooking methods are “blasphemous” but they work. For me it just comes down to a simple matter of taste, (in much the same way that I think ridiculing religion for the sake of it is poor taste). If you want to cook chicken livers with blueberries, go for it. You won’t find me doing it. Not all culinary blasphemy is meritorious. I do, however, experiment with combinations of ingredients all the time which break the rules, but are wonderful nonetheless. I am inclined to break the “rules” simply because I have traveled extensively and have seen how “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” repeatedly. I have mentioned before how I contributed an apple crumble to a feast that my Chinese students cooked up in my apartment in Kunming, and they served it up beside rice, lentils, dumplings etc. and proceeded to eat it along with everything else – using chopsticks!! Apple crumble with chopsticks (and pork dumplings) was definitely a first for me but they were ecstatic about it and demanded the recipe so that they could include it in future meals. What have I done?

Dessert is a bit of a Western oddity according to the traditions of the rest of the world. People eat sweet things everywhere but rarely as a special course at the end of a meal – except maybe some fresh fruit. In England cheese is normally the final course of a big meal in England – after dessert – but in Lancashire they eat the cheese and the dessert together. Apple pie and cheese is great (so is quince preserve and stilton). Where does the salad course go? Usually in the US it is the first course, but in Europe it comes after the main course and before dessert. In the mountains of North Carolina once I arrived late at a restaurant and the waitress apologized that all they had left for dessert was vinegar pie. It was delicious.

Vegetables get into sweet things in the West sometimes – carrot cake, bean pie, etc. So I’ve concocted a vegetable dessert just for blasphemy day.  Here is my sweet leek and potato pie recipe in photos. You’ll have to figure out the proportions. I just did it by feel. I’m a big fan of leeks and potatoes, and both have a certain leaning towards sweetness naturally.

Poach potatoes and leeks for about 40 minutes. I keep the skins on when I cook potatoes, and then remove them when they are cooked.


Drain the vegetables, remove the potatoes’ skins, and mash everything together with a fork.


Add heavy cream and sugar.


Blend to a creamy texture. I used an immersion blender but a food processor would work too.


Line a pie dish with pastry. Mine is a bit funky.


Fill with the potato and leek mix and top with maple syrup.


Bake in a medium oven for about 30 minutes until the crust is nicely browned.


Chill in the refrigerator and serve with whipped cream.