Blasphemy and Double Standards

Scene from the musical ‘The Book of Mormon.’

Since the shooting in Texas targeting artists portraying the Prophet Muhammad, it is worth examining the US treatment of and reaction to blasphemy.

In June 2011, the Broadway show The Book of Mormon received 14 nominations at the annual Tony awards (more than any other production) and won nine of them, including the coveted “Best Musical.”

The script and lyrics are dirty and unfiltered. One song says “F*** you, God.” Throughout the play, the Mormon Church is mocked. Its founder, Joseph Smith, is ridiculed for his beliefs. His followers are insulted. Yet the play becomes a huge hit. Broadway critics and the general public instantly embrace it. Journalists deliver upbeat reviews. Ripples of liberal laughter can be heard across a country where religion is generally taken seriously.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a very clever reaction to the musical. It said: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.” No other comment. And that was that.

Fast forward to 2015.

In January, 12 people die in Paris during an attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo (in addition to four Jews murdered in a related attack). In February, a man is shot in Copenhagen at an event called “Art, Blasphemy, and Freedom of Expression” (in addition to a Jewish victim later that day). And just this week, two men opened fire at an event in Texas where people were set to present cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Against the backdrop of such brutal acts, 145 writers protested PEN American Center’s decision to award Charlie Hebdo for its courage to publish satirical drawings of him.

The protest letter opposing Charlie’s award states that “PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”

So why is blasphemous art offensive to Mormons embraced across the country, while French satire denouncing jihadism creates discomfort? Is blasphemy only accepted when there’s no threat of violent retaliation? The violence in Paris seems to have clouded perceptions of right and wrong…

But are the critic of Islam “punching down”? There are some 1.2 billion Muslims in the world versus 15 million Mormons. So the Mormons are outnumbered by about 100 to 1.

Some of those Muslim countries are fabulously wealthy too. Muslims have invested heavily in expensive businesses and real estate in the West.

The explanation is simple: violence works.