Downloading Blasphemy

It’s hard to believe. Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh, an Afghan journalism student, downloaded some articles critical of the treatment of women under sharia law. He then offered a few copies to other students at his university. For this “blasphemy,” he was sentenced to death, later commuted to twenty years in prison. As I write, he’s waiting on a promised (but undelivered) pardon from Hamid Karzai.

The de-criminalization of blasphemy in the States was a long time coming, but by the fifties (see the Burstyn case, for example), blasphemy laws were largely understood to be an unfair prior restraint on the freedom of speech. In Afghanistan’s fledgling post-Taliban state, the conflict of civil and religious law is still raging. All this despite a fancy Western-designed Constitution that in theory protects expression.

I can only see cases like these multiplying in direct correlation to increased Internet access. It’s much, much harder to gag the web (which is naturally democratic, cacophonous and, by some accounts, blasphemous) than it is to threaten a newspaper or traditional media format. I hope that in that coming war, the Internet is able to out-muscle repressive censors and provincial judges. Until then, I can only hope Mr. Kambakhsh receives his pardon.

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