Blasphemy in Pennsylvania

The always excellent Cathy Young on the “Zombie Mohammed” case in Pennsylvania:

It all started with a Halloween parade in which Ernest Perce V, head of the state chapter of American Atheists, marched as “Zombie Mohammed” with turban, fake beard, and chants of “I am the prophet Mohammed, zombie from the dead.” (A fellow atheist activist was “Zombie Pope.”) An offended Muslim immigrant, Talaag Elbayomy, approached Perce and threatened to call the police, apparently believing that such blasphemy was against the law; Perce claims Elbayomy spun him around and grabbed his neck while trying to pull off his beard and his “Mohammed of Islam” sign. Elbayomy was charged with harassment.

On December 6, Judge Martin dismissed the case for lack of evidence. He also gave Perce a lengthy tongue-lashing, chastising him for everything from ignorance of Islam to failure to understand the importance of religion to Muslims to an “ugly American” disregard for other cultures. Noting that Perce’s actions would have been punishable by death in many Muslim countries, he continued, “Here in our society, we have a constitution that gives us many rights, specifically First Amendment rights. It’s unfortunate that some people use the First Amendment to deliberately provoke others.” He told Perce that while he had the right to be offensive, “you’re way outside your bounds on First Amendment rights.”

[…]

With such conflicting testimony, Judge Martin’s decision to dismiss the case is entirely reasonable. The way in which he used his position as a bully pulpit is another story.

It is not unusual for judges to admonish the parties in a case, sometimes harshly, about their conduct. In this instance, though, the lecture was startlingly one-sided. Judge Martin lambasted Perce for his disrespect for other people’s culture and faith while not one critical word was spoken to Elbayomy.

There is nothing wrong with telling someone that just because he has a constitutional right to say something doesn’t mean he should say it (which Judge Martin told me was his point). Yet there is something inherently disturbing about a public official chastising a citizen for engaging in constitutionally protected expression, however obnoxious. It is especially troubling when it’s a matter of criticizing or even lampooning religion, an area in which free speech has so often been trampled.

Meanwhile, Judge Martin had before him a defendant who, by his own and his lawyer’s admission, was grossly ignorant of the protections for free speech in America. Surely, a lecture on civics would not have been amiss.

When I posed this question to the judge, he replied that his remarks about First Amendment rights were addressed to both parties: “It was a dual message … that the victim was within his constitutional rights to do what he did.” But, given that Perce was the one being chided, that message was likely lost on the defendant—particularly since it came with the disclaimer that these rights should not be used to “piss off other people and other cultures” and with the baffling statement that Perce was “outside [his] bounds on First Amendment rights.”

The case has another worrisome aspect. While no religion has a monopoly on fanaticism, it is no secret that, for many complex reasons, religious intolerance is at present far more entrenched, more common, and more extreme in Islam than in other major religions. Some argue that violent suppression of dissent is in the nature of Islam, and insinuate that every Muslim in the West is a potential agent of sharia tyranny.

Judge Martin did not, of course, invoke sharia law as a basis for his ruling; nor did he suggest that Elbayomy would have been justified in assaulting Perce because his religion commanded it. But he did seem to suggest that insults to the Muslim faith are especially bad because of how impermissible blasphemy is in many Muslim countries and because of the role religion plays in Muslims’ lives. Indeed, he specifically drew a distinction between “how Americans practice Christianity” and how Muslims practice Islam: “Islam is not just a religion, it’s their culture … it’s their very essence, their very being.”

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