09/17/2012 07:56 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2012

Blasphemy Beyond Borders

Practically all traditional religions have or have had strict rules on blasphemy. The idea behind this is to honor the sanctity of what the tradition regards as sacred. It is appropriate that one demands of the faithful more than a modicum of respect and reverence for the names and symbols of their religion. Given that in all societies and at all times there have always been skeptics and unbelievers who did not care to respect such injunctions it seemed appropriate for the religious establishment in power to impose severe penalties on those who desecrated in one way or another, in public or in secrecy, whatever was regarded as sacred. Lack of respect and over insult to the sacred in a religious framework is what one calls blasphemy.

In ancient times punishment for blasphemy used to be severe, certainly in the framework of the Abrahamic religions. These ranged from excommunication and exile to hanging, decapitation, and burning at the stake. Savage as such treatments might seem to those who have been awakened to enlightened values and modern worldviews, they seemed perfectly normal to those whose love for or devotion to their god was so intense, not to say distorted, that they felt it was their moral and religious responsibility to protect God's honor by severe means, not only to punish the impious but also to teach the rest that they better beware of what they say or write about what is proclaimed as canonically sacred.

But even in olden times only the followers of a religion were held accountable for acts or words of blasphemy. One not belonging to the faith was not meted out the same punishment as a believer who blasphemed. But now things have changed. For the first time in history -- perhaps since the publication of the cartoon in a Danish newspaper -- even outsiders are subject to the same laws of blasphemy. It is important for the world to recognize this ominous turn and its terrible consequences, actual and potential. Furthermore, in the good old times, only the perpetrator of blasphemy was answerable to his or her behavior. Now, as we have been seeing, people who are utterly innocent of the charge, and even those who publicly condemn such behavior, are considered fair targets of the rage of the so-called believers.

I like to think that the vast majority of modern Muslims are appalled by this development which brings only ignominy to their great religion. I am sure many of them are nauseated by the kinds of reactions by the mindless bigotry of some of their co-religionists that one reads and sees in the news. I am well aware that many of them the can do very little about it.

The only hope seems to be this: The leaders in Islamic countries, both lay and religious, imams and ayatollahs, may proclaim to their people that this kind of behavior is contrary to the teachings of their faith. Furthermore, the United Nations should resolve that every member nation repeal medieval blasphemy laws from their books.

In meanwhile, like many Non-Muslims in the United States and all over the world, I too condemn intentional and provocative desecration of the religious symbols of other people. But I also uphold the individual right of every human being in civilized societies to express his or her views on any religion or aspect of any religion as they wish. God forbid that suicide killers spring in the other religions of the world also.

Let us pray and wish for peace and understanding among the peoples of the world.