What is the real meaning of blasphemy


Christ on the cross with gas mask and riddle cup; both ends of the crossbar of the cross have broken off; the left hand of Christ, thereby freed, holds up a small cross; the whole thing is signed with “shut up and continue to serve”. This small drawing from 1928 earned George Grosz his famous trial for blasphemy. Blasphemy literally means “defamation”. However, what is usually meant is the worst case scenario: When the rituals and beliefs are slandered that are considered to be absolutely inviolable by a community. “Mockery of religion” is therefore the usual translation. But had Grosz really mocked Christianity?

Just leaf through the relevant documents on World War II theology. “Christianity is simply a military service in which the sacrifice of life must not be refused. Christ has come to drive Satan, ‘the prince of this world’, out of his kingdom ”. "Death on the battlefield can [...] partake of all the fame and merit of a martyr". "The brave must endure and persevere." This is how the German Jesuit Christian Pesch interpreted the biblical phrase “He who endures to the end will be saved” in 1915 (Matthew 10, 22) .1 It could just as well have been the words of a Protestant or a French. The war theology of that time was ecumenical and international - unanimous in promoting death on the battlefield and inciting the Christian nations of the West to mutual mass slaughter: in the name of the God whom they invoked together as a protective power.

Grosz ’controversial drawing is a World War I seismogram. TheChrist dressed up with a gas mask and goblets in keeping with the times, Grosz himself merely captured the crime in pictures. How Christ is nailed to the cross, how he himself stretches a small cross into the void with his left hand, as if he wanted to swear to those invisible there to take off his mask: this gives the cross on which it hangs something of its authentic character as an instrument of torture and execution, which it had long since lost as a symbol that stands on the altar or that the clergyman solemnly beats. To proclaim a crucified as divine savior, to think the instrument of torture preferred by the Roman Empire in capital crimes with the God of Israel: That was the real monstrosity of early Christianity, "an annoyance to the Jews, a folly to the Greeks" (First Corinthians 1:23), like Paul says who, as is well known, initially pursued the message of the saving power of a crucified Christ as blasphemy before he became its most important apostle.

Christianity arose under suspicion of blasphemy; it has been persecuted for this and driven into mission; it has conjured up the tortured humanity of Jesus as the picture puzzle of a God who should soon, in the very near future, put an end to all torture - and yet has not come to this until today. Instead of the kingdom of God came the church, which in spite of all persecution spread throughout the Mediterranean and was just ennobled by the Roman Empire to the “state religion” before it fell apart.

In the course of this success story, the cross changed from a symbol of tortured humanity to a sign of triumph. “In this sign you will win”, Constantine is said to have said a voice in a dream - before the battle against his rival for the dignity of the emperor. The scandalous message of the cross was thus revalued in a no less scandalous way. Grosz has found a contemporary visual language for this. The gas mask as a symbol of the world war as well as the device that makes the crucified no longer scream “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27, 46), instead the laconic signature “Shut up and go on Serve ”: That is far more the theology of the cross of the 20th century than blasphemy.

And what if many contemporaries were unable to perceive anything other than the tangible insult to their religious feelings? Then that shows what a dark chapter religious feelings are. They don't just fall from the sky clearly and purely, but take shape in a protracted, complex development. It begins with the horror of nature, which must have permeated the nervous constitution of Paleolithic hominids to such an extent that they developed their own technique to overcome it: the repetition of the terrible. There is no human culture that did not start with the sacrificial cult, and it was not snails or frogs that were sacrificed, but the most precious things: people and large animals. On selected individuals, the collective repeats the traumatizing force of nature that afflicted it in order to gradually take away the horror through its constant repetition.

The sacrificial ritual proceeds according to the logic of traumatic repetition compulsion. And until the first diffuse, reflex-like repetitions became ritually regulated sacrifices, until the higher protective powers to whom they were supposed to be offered assumed the shape of totems, ancestors or gods, and until finally the ideas of such powers became enshrined in the arousal budget of a collective that they felt it to be his one and only, as the absolutely sacred and identity-creating, tens of thousands of years must have passed. In any case, a process of disciplining and sublimation that is almost unimaginably long for a modern sense of time is required so that rituals, cult and belief contents are perceived as natural, as if they were sung to all of humanity in the cradle.

How could Christianity have come to the point where the believers could not help but bend their knees in front of the altar, to strike the cross to name the Holy Trinity or the Mother of God and to receive the host with goosebumps of awe? Just by persuading? Or not at least as much by the fact that the most terrible examples were sometimes made on those for whom such modes of reaction did not really become part of the flesh and blood? Today, many believers no longer consider the Inquisition to be true Christianity. Your contribution to the internalization of that faith, which may no longer remember you, is nevertheless invaluable. The object instruction of smoking heretic pyre is part of the education of Christendom in adoration and devotion as well as the edifying sermon and Caritas.

The so-called sacred, as Rudolf Otto has shown, is by no means what is good or moral, but what comes across as monstrous and overpowering. Horror and shudder are its attributes. They form the dregs of religious sentiment. Awe and respect are already his highly cultural forms, the speechless ecstasy is his outermost layer of varnish. Religious feelings encompass an entire register: from the darkest sacrificial shudder to the tender heights of mysticism. And, strictly speaking, they are a misunderstanding. As such, feelings can be embarrassing or pleasant, dull or stabbing, uplifting or depressing, strong or weak, but not religious or profane. There are only feelings that are felt by those affected to be so pervasive, shattering, uplifting or exhilarating, so out of the scope of their usual arousal budget that they concluded: Something so special cannot be a mere profane experience, there must be God, the sacred that unconditionally even touched me. With this, however, what is actually felt has already been interpreted as religious. So-called religious feelings are always highly interpreted feelings in which the interpretation has been forgotten again.

Precisely because there are no religious feelings per se is what is believed to be so vulnerable. Psychological and military warfare has always included desecrating the sanctuaries of the vanquished and mocking their rituals. Seen in this way, blasphemy is ancient; it belongs to the magic of warfare. In modern times, only one aspect has been added: to mock other religions, that of religion as such. Apparently just a little extra nuance. In fact, however, a change in meaning.

Reviling religion as such: This could not have happened triumphantly from without, but only subversively from within. It starts in the 17th century. One font About the three cheaters, namely Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, is making the rounds in Europe, of course only secretly and anonymously. Woe to the writer or the readers if they had revealed themselves. At the beginning of the 18th century, a French country clergyman named Jean Meslier, who dutifully read Mass in his village, left a will in which he mercilessly applied the Cartesian method of testing the truth to the Bible, literally tearing it apart and declaring it absurd To venerate such contradicting writings as the epitome of all truth. The Bible, he concluded, is no better than Greek mythology. All higher beings are lying.

Since then, blasphemy has had the reputation of a nihilistic ghost. A blasphemic can only be someone to whom nothing is sacred. That is of course a mistake. One only has to open the book of Job once. “The arrows of the Almighty are in me, my spirit has drunk their poison, God's horrors are against me,” it says there. Job curses the day of his birth, much like the Islamic mystic Faridoddin Attar in his Book of Sorrows: “Yes, take it back, this life that you gave me, I don't want it.” 2 Or, particularly delicate, Heine, who wanted to leave heaven to “the angels and the sparrows”, but in the pain of its deadly ones Thinking differently about illness. In a letter to Heinrich Laube dated February 2, 1850, he wrote: “Thank God that I now have a God again, because I can allow myself some cursing blasphemies in the excess of pain; such refreshment is not granted to the atheist. "

Undoubtedly, these are tangible insults from God, but in the same way as one insults a lost lover from whom one desires nothing more than to get her back. And something of the tone of the disappointed lover can still be found even in the sarcasm of the radical enlighteners, who measure Christian doctrine against its own claim to truth and then reject it. The fact that absolutely nothing is sacred to the blasphemer does not even apply to the Marquis de Sade, who knew how to link the Trinity of God in the most virtuoso manner with all imaginable obscenities. He preaches the cult of rigorous pleasure maximization, to which every religion, class etiquette, custom, even every scruple, is to be sacrificed as superstition. For the sake of the pleasure cult, everything may be mercilessly mocked, only he himself does not tolerate any mockery. Sade's orgies of violence and sex look rather like clinging to a last hold. “O my friends, let's just have the orgasm together, that's the only happiness in life,” exclaims in the Philosophy in the boudoirone of the protagonists in a sexual intoxication and chats with it that the compulsory pleasure is already no more. Sade, their priest, is not so dissimilar to his Christian adversaries. His longing for unscrupulous enjoyment is the negative of the Christian longing for bliss without any remorse. And as cynical as Sade is, he accurately exposes the cynicism of a religion which, in the name of eternal pleasure and bliss after death, delights in frontbranded death as the enemy of bliss. Sade is a radical antihumanist - to the brink of radically enlightened humanity. The extremes meet in his blasphemy.

Certainly, blasphemy is not simply the same as enlightenment. But education is sometimes confusingly similar to blasphemy. When it hits the mark, ridicule penetrates deeper than any other form of criticism. What is often denied to long lines of evidence, sometimes a single joke, a satire, a caricature creates: to expose the vain, inflated, presumptuous of the authorities in force. Mockery is cynical where sad things are ridiculous makes. He is enlightening wherever he is what is ridiculous is, reveals in a flash: if necessary, disfigured it to the point of recognizability. Criticism without ridicule is toothless, does not really take hold, is not meant very seriously. Enlightenment criticism of religion could not help but insult religious authorities and the feelings they cherished from time to time, if it was serious. Sporadic ridicule was part of the swing of their attack.

When Christianity was still great and strong and imposed itself on all members of society as solitary, mockery of religion meant something like opposition to the highest truth. This excluded oneself from Christianity, if not from the basic rules of common understanding. Anyone who was in their right mind could not want that. In bourgeois society, on the other hand, which is based on religious freedom, the offense of blasphemy loses its traditional shape. Religious truth is not regarded as worthy of protection, because it is no longer granted exclusively to any denomination, but rather the religious feeling as such, regardless of its content. Article 166 of our penal code expressly criminalizes “insulting denominations, religious communities and ideological associations” “if it is likely to disturb the public peace”. Even in a society in which everyone leaves their own attitude towards religion, blasphemy is an objectifiable fact; his criterion, however, is whether someone offends himself feels, so purely subjective.

Subjectively, however, means something different here than just private. The so-called religious feeling must have achieved a certain “subjective generality”, as Kant would call it. Not the lady's slipper, which some neurotic treats as a fetish, should be protected, but every piece of material recognized as a relic should be protected; not the ritual meticulousness and devotion with which someone celebrates their private compulsory washing, but the one that prevails during the collective Friday prayer. The law does not examine how a group has acquired religious community or ideological association status. It equally recognizes every religious feeling that has attained subjective universality. It makes no difference between the humiliated and insulted, their dignity, and the insulted liver sausage, whose vanity has been damaged. The pluralistic market society protects any nonsense that succeeds in rallying believers as a worldview and attracting religious feelings, as long as it does not affect their principles. In the realm of equally competing religious feelings, none should be denigrated.

However, should someone find this competitive situation, the “market of possibilities”, on which the religious and denominational communities present themselves as offers and try to polish up their image with multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, as blasphemous, then he will not be heard by any judge. How can one disseminate religious content in a capitalist society other than by promoting it effectively - like all other goods? That there could be gigantic blasphemy, namely a kind of prostitution, in the treatment of the sacred as a commodity - this consideration is not even given. Anyone who would call a church leadership that hires savvy advertising professionals to launch beliefs with the means that are successful with computers and cars, a pimp club of Christianity, would have to answer in court for insult, while the mockery of religion by the he feels offended, is not provided for in the blasphemy law.

The blasphemy law is modern because it conforms to the market; it is archaic, because under the mantle of religious neutrality it nourishes a deep-seated respect for a saint that is not defined further. It is anti-enlightenment in both of these respects. But there is another side to it. It not only protects obscurantism and offended vanity, but also those humiliated and insulted who attract mockery because they have been harmed. In this respect, it can hold up the mirror to the Enlightenment: encourage them to reflect on their humane content.

Enlightenment cannot be serious without scorn and ridicule. But scorn and ridicule were only ever enlightening where they broke out of oppression, where the weak wielded them as a weapon against the powerful, who had less wit but the stronger battalions. Of course, there is scorn and ridicule in order to ultimately win, but where they are not rendered irrelevant by the victory, where they make up the victor's cry of triumph, they are disgusting.When the Nazis mocked Judaism, there was a stupid, racist resentment against a religion whose intellectual achievements critical thinking still draws more from today than it is usually aware. When Europeans make fun of the ancestral cult of Amazon Indians, they brag about how far they have come and celebrate the victory of colonialism once again in a spiritless way. Such victorious poses are no enlightenment even if it is really superstition that they are talking about. It is not even sure how enlightening it would be to show the poor swallowers in the favelas of São Paulo, Mexico or Recife the nonsense of those Pentecostal religions, about which they despair because they otherwise have almost nothing but hunger and children cling on. In any case, there are situations where the dignity of the poor is rather respected when one falls silent, because every further education gets the bad taste of know-it-all of the privileged.

In the last few decades, however, a global line of conflict has arisen, where silence does not help. It first came to light when Ayatollah Khomeini hurled his death sentence against Salman Rushdie for insulting Islam by an apostate. Insult by unbelievers is now up for discussion. A Danish newspaper published cartoons of Mohammed. Others reprinted them. In the Islamic world this has triggered outrage, a thirst for revenge, and attacks on Western institutions, and has made it necessary to re-measure the limits of blasphemy, freedom of the press and freedom of religion. It is best to first take a bird's eye view of the general political weather situation in which this dispute was brewing.

“The West”: This is a code for those countries from which globalization once originated, when it was not even called that. Their first act was the conquest of large parts of America, Africa and Asia with abundant genocide and resource looting. Only the mass imports of gold and silver, cotton and sugar, coffee, rubber and oil from these countries gave “the West” the material basis on which it could become what it is: the founding region of the bourgeois-capitalist social order. Their economy has now triumphed worldwide. Everywhere it went it has dismantled premodern structures and enforced its own imperatives. The world market is not the result of democratic votes, but of military victories and economic constraints. Only on this basis have human rights such as freedom of opinion, the press, religion, the profession and the election of state representatives even got a chance.

This also applies to the Muslim countries. Among all non-Western cultures, the Islamic one has a special position insofar as it is in a precarious proximity to the West - and not just geographically. On the one hand, Islam is the third of the three monotheistic high religions; of course the definitive one, as he himself thinks, but with great respect for the books of the other two, especially the Old Testament, with reverence for Abraham as the progenitor of all three religions and even with a certain respect for Jesus as a forerunner of Muhammad. On the other hand, this is precisely why Islam has been Christianity's fiercest rival for a good millennium. And he is strictly differentiated from Christians and Jews on one point. The latter started out small: the Jews as a subaltern tribe, happily escaped from the Egyptian great power; Christians as a persecuted, powerless minority. Islam, on the other hand, entered the world victorious from the start. Mohammed was a skilled strategist as well as a charismatic visionary. He returned from Medina to his hometown Mecca not only as a proclaimer of a new doctrine, but as a military leader. He knew how to take the city militarily as well as psychologically. This was both his special personal ability and his legacy to his heirs, the caliphs. The victory of Islam was thought of as inseparable from military and political victory. And success seemed to prove him right. Six years after Muhammad's death he conquered Jerusalem, exactly a century after his death his troops were already in the south of France.

It does not follow from this that Islam is essentially warlike, but Christianity is peaceful. For example, the level of tolerance that Jews and Christians were accorded in the medieval caliphates was never raised by Christian dignitaries against Muslims. The inquisition is a Christian invention. Islam did not need a sophisticated, torture-supported system of collective soul surveillance. He tended to be more generous in rule. But it had to be rulership. The Islamic sense of self is so vitally linked to victory that it is much more difficult than others to distinguish political breakdowns from religious insults. And now, of all places, from the West, as a kind of offspring of Christianity, a power has penetrated into the Islamic world that circumvents abstractly like a nihilistic ghost, but with the concrete power to overturn all living conditions. She has not only triumphed outwardly over Allah's armies. It penetrates with intangible force, in a divine-non-divine way, also into the interior of Allah's faithful.

That power is the capitalist world market. Even with the strictest Muslims, his rules have now become part of everyday household management, not just business management, but also mental ones. Hence the abundance of bizarrely ambivalent ways of reacting: Mullahs who are against “the West”, but for the microelectronic means of communication that he has brought and that can be so efficiently turned against him; Youth who are for Coca-Cola and Nike, but against America; women wearing veils at the wheel of sleek cars and in the boardrooms of large companies; and many inconspicuous people who more or less assimilate the western way of life without having decided whether to perceive it as their own or as grafted on.

The Islamic world is anything but a homogeneous bloc; and so there have been very different reactions to the Mohammed cartoons. There were no public protests in Morocco or Libya. They were relatively moderate in the Gulf States. On the other hand, there was a lot going on in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, Somalia, Kashmir, Indonesia and Afghanistan. Wherever political or religious leaders called on the population not to put up with insulting the Prophet, there were collective outbursts of anger, buildings devastated, and dead and injured. Of course, the indignation was turned on: mass hysterics in the precise sense of the word. Freud has shown that hysteria is a vicarious disease. The hysterical disgust does not apply at all to the food that seems to trigger it; the hysterical paralysis does not come from pinched nerves. The symptom of suffering is advanced. Nonetheless, the suffering is experienced in real life, indeed it is tormenting precisely because its true cause must not be revealed.

This is also the case in our case. It is questionable whether the majority of those who furiously swore vengeance for insulting the Prophet and wished Denmark, Europe and America to die, have ever seen the Mohammed cartoons or have any idea where Denmark is. And even if they do: their anger is completely disproportionate. It doesn't have its real reason in the cartoons. She just raves about it. It is now easy to see why people's anger was deliberately incited in some countries. The rulers have a great interest in diverting the displeasure caused by their authoritarian government, their lack of interest in the well-being of their peoples, to the outside world: for example on foreign cartoonists and the governments that let them have their way. However, it would be premature to conclude that the caricatures are actually just religious lightning rods for local political tensions. That is Western thought. In the Muslim self-image, religion and politics cannot be separated in this way.

Besides, there are two sides to hysteria. The pretended symptom of suffering is different from the true cause; but it must also have a certain resemblance to her, otherwise it would not be able to take on the role of a representative. Feeling offended in your identity as a Muslim by Mohammed cartoons is not a code for suffering from a policy that withholds human rights, jobs and food. Conversely, as a Muslim you really feel offended - by something much more serious than caricatures, namely the victory of the great Western export hit: the capitalist market and its democratic framework. And the less one can admit to this victory, the more one participates in the western export hit, the more one practices the western way of life and ignores what endurance test it means for the Koran, Sharia and Islamic denial of victory. The Mohammed cartoons brought all this to light with a jolt. Taken on their own, they are a trifle, and Arab countries, in which the most hateful caricatures against Jews, such as their depiction in Nazi uniforms, are part of everyday newspaper life, have little right to be artificially upset about them.

The delicate thing about the Mohammed cartoons is that something that Muslims, no matter how distant they would otherwise be to their prophet, simply would not do, Westerners have done. With a few strokes of the pen, they made the entire victory of the West shine again in a flash. It is this victory mockery that offends so deeply - by the way, also many liberals among the Muslims who found the mass hysterical reactions to it indisputable. Meanwhile, with the less liberals, when they chant “Death to the West” in large choirs, the subtext always resonates: “Death to the Western impulses in our own souls”. The Mohammed cartoons have also upset the guilty conscience that we are nowhere near as immune to the West as it should be. The hatred of him is to a large extent outward self-hatred.

The Mohammed cartoons are mockery of victory: more imperial than subversive. You shouldn't have stayed. But they are not a criminal offense either. Because in almost all European countries there are approaches to Muslim parallel societies that build up militant Islamist cells in the protection of religious freedom and, above all, jealously ensure that the young girls and women do not leave their strict patriarchal association. Women who have succeeded are currently the most resolute supporters of a critique of Islam that should not forego the means of caricature and satire, and indeed accept death threats for it, like Shabana Rehman, a Norwegian cabaret artist of Pakistani origin. It is difficult to count those who utter such threats among the humiliated, who must be protected from any further insult. Conversely, with some generosity, the Danish Mohammed cartoons can also be read as somewhat unsuccessful addresses of solidarity to those who receive the death threats mentioned.

Nevertheless, it makes a decisive difference who caricatures the prophet: whether Muslims or non-Muslim Westerners. This is not a double standard measurement. Criticism that has been shown to be correct against the unproven and rigidity of Christian beliefs does not become wrong when directed against Islamic ones. But enlightenment, which wants more than just being right, has to learn to assess where its ridicule begins to take on the triumphant tone that offends the humiliated rather than unmasked - and where it reveals itself if it takes such subtleties into consideration. New legal regulations do not help. In any case, no law on freedom of the press will ever be able to define what is decisive in a legally impeccable manner: the point at which mocking subversion turns into triumphant mockery.

Only context-related sharpening of judgment helps here. Blasphemy in itself means little. What matters are the specific circumstances: Who is mocking which religion and how? Who is offended and why? In the 1960s, many in the West considered blasphemy to be a matter of fact outdated by history. Today it is one of the few that is still able to mobilize the masses. The agitated agglomeration of hundreds of thousands against the Mohammed cartoons is not only frightening for lukewarm Central Europeans; there is also something fascinating about it. There are still people who are so deeply filled with their principles that they put their hair down to them. Don't they have a hold, an inner focus that we have long since lost? This is the lure of fundamentalism, not just Islamic: a fixed structure of meaning, strong, identity-forming religious feelings. The blasphemy paragraph protects them across the board, however gloomy and ludicrous they may be. This is its dark side. But little would be gained from its abolition. His objection to the cynical triumph of the victors would also lapse.

Published 15 June 2020
Original in German
First published by Merkur 6/2006

Contributed by Merkur © Christoph Türcke / Merkur / Eurozine