Islam's Inquisitors: A Review of 'Silenced'
Religious freedom is in global crisis. According to two comprehensive studies by the nonpartisan Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 70 percent of the world's population lives in nations where this precious freedom is subject to severe restriction. Many people suffer "mere discrimination" (some serious form of civil, economic, or political disability) because of their religious beliefs or those of their tormentors. Others—tens of millions, in fact—are victims of violent persecution, such as torture, rape, "disappearance" (kidnapping and murder), unjust imprisonment, and execution.
You can be forgiven if you haven't heard much about this crisis from the mainstream press, whether left or right. Neither The New York Times and CNN, nor The Wall Street Journal and Fox News, have much time for religious persecution, beyond spectacular episodes of mass murder. Even then, the coverage is usually brief, thin, and void of analysis. How often, to cite one egregious area of neglect, has the secular press examined the effects of antiblasphemy laws in the Middle East?
In Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide (Oxford University Press), Paul Marshall and Nina Shea go bravely where the media fear to tread. Based on an extensive examination of Muslim-majority countries, they contend that laws and policies punishing blasphemy and apostasy are not only a major source of religious persecution, but also an obstacle to stable democracy and the defeat of Islamist terrorism.
Having collaborated for several years, first at Freedom House and currently at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, the pair brings to the subject a remarkable background in research and advocacy. Marshall is in many respects the intellectual godfather of the fight for international religious freedom. His 2007 Religious Freedom in the World was the first attempt to provide a comparative index of religious liberty that measured the performances of key countries. And Shea has pioneered activism on behalf of the victims of persecution, while maintaining a steady stream of trenchant writings on the subject. Of late, she has directed much of her fire at the failures of Saudi Arabia to remove toxic Wahhabist principles from its textbooks.
Blasphemy has been understood classically as manifesting contempt for God or, worse, assuming the attributes of God. In medieval Europe, it was considered a crime warranting severe penalties from the state, usually supported by the Catholic Church. But today—despite the continued presence of antiblasphemy laws on the books of a few Western states—most Christian denominations believe religious error must be addressed by better preaching and teaching, not by coercion from the state or private actors. One of the key demands of the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Liberty (1965) is that all religious communities have the right to make their truth claims freely and publicly, and to win converts where those claims are persuasive.