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On Blasphemy Day, Freedom of Speech Is in the Eye of the Beholder

The artist whose cartoon shook the world says his fight for freedom of speech is not about bashing religion, but about preventing violence and the criminalization of ideas.

“I have no problem with religion,” says Danish artist Kurt Westergaard, who was in the U.S. this week to inaugurate the first International Freedom of Speech Day, Sept. 30, which just happened to coincide with a more irreverent celebration called International Blasphemy Day.

Westergaard had very little to say about the latter event, which was marked by anti-religious antics and was sponsored by the Center for Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism.

“For me,” Westergaard says, “It’s not about blasphemy. It has to do with terrorism, threats, killings, other terrible things.”

The two events shared a common goal but differed widely in approaches. Both endorsed the right to express ideas without fear of criminalization. And both chose the anniversary of the deadly protests over Westergaard's cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad as the day to honor that fight.

The Center for Inquiry said its focus was “the right of individuals to express their viewpoints … about all subjects, including religion.” Events included a “Blasphemy challenge,” a contest in which participants were invited to submit videos containing phrases, poems or statements that would be considered blasphemous and were required to include the phrase "I deny the Holy Spirit."

The day featured De-Baptisms, where former believers denounced the Christian sacrament, and an artist’s exhibit with an irreverent depiction of the crucifixion of Christ, entititled, “Jesus gets his nails done.”

It was blasphemous, as intended.

“It strikes me as completely cracked,” said Diana West of the International Free Press Society, which sponsored Westergaard’s trip to the U.S. “The probable threat to freedom of expression is not coming out of Christianity.”

The Free Press Society, on the other hand, is squarely focused on Islam, which West says “is not a religion structured like Christianity or Judaism. It is not simply a divinity and faith. There’s no separation of Mosque and State.”

West says International Freedom of Speech Day offered an opportunity for “the media to do some soul-searching.” The concern, she said, is that journalists will tacitly abide by Shariah law under fear that their speech, illustrations or writings will bring death threats.

She said that was the impetus behind the Danish newspaper Jylland-Posten creating the forum for the series of "Muhammad" cartoons it published in 2005. A publisher of a children’s book could find no artist to depict the prophet Muhammad, because Islamic law forbids any visual representation of its Prophet, and the artists feared retribution.

Westergaard said all he did was depict “some people from the Muslim society who has [sic] a variant of Islam which inspires killing and terror.”

“Afterwards,” he said, “it turns out that I was right.”

Blasphemy Day organizers said they weren't out just to bash Christianity, as some critics claimed. Nathan Bupp, vice president of communications at CFI, pointed out that it was their magazine, “Free Inquiry,” which first published the Muhammad cartoons in the United States.

“I’m critical of all fanaticism and dogmatism,” Bupp said.

But Dr. John Rankin, president of the Theological Education Institute, says it’s simply easier to attack Christianity than Islam. He noted that apostasy laws (converting from Islam to another religion) carry a death sentence in some Muslim countries.

“You can’t be a former Muslim without persecution," he said. "But you can be a former Christian and safely bash Christianity.”

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