An atheist blogger rants about the idiocy of religion and its adherents, and forms Facebook groups in which he declares himself God and orders his followers to smoke marijuana. Here, we call this kind of thing the new normal. But in parts of the Muslim world, it can get you executed -- and in the West Bank, where a mild-mannered barber was recently arrested on heresy charges for "insulting the divine essence," it's posing a serious test for the Western-backed regime that would presumably rule a Palestinian state, if one ever comes into being.
Walid Husayin, 26, the son of an Islamic scholar in Qalqilya, faces a possible life sentence for likening the god of Islam to a "primitive Bedouin," among other things, on his blog. Posting in English and Arabic, he attracted a wide following and inspired outrage in several Arab countries. Authorities finally tracked him down after he started blogging in an Internet cafe and an employee alerted Palestinian intelligence.
Arab countries, many of which have laws forbidding blasphemy against Islam, have long tried to export the criminalization of irreligious speech to the rest of the world. The U.N. General Assembly is regularly confronted with resolutions to oppose the "defamation of religions" -- presumably targeting the verbal abuse of any religion. Yet such laws, where they are enforced, are nearly always done so selectively. In other words, if you insult the Orthodox church in Greece or Islam in Indonesia you're likely to go to jail, but anybody else's religion is fair game. Further, anti-blasphemy laws are frequently used to suppress the speech of artists, dissidents, journalists and others. It's an idea deeply incompatible with democracy and human rights. And that's why the enforcement of anti-blasphemy laws in the West Bank is troubling.
The Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, is not among the more repressive governments in the Arab world. Husayin is thought to be the first person arrested for heresy by the authority, which tends not to observe the kind of hard-line Islamic law favored by its Gaza rival, Hamas.
As Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian leaders continue the long, slow march toward statehood, they must make careful choices about the society they are creating. Will the new country move toward fundamentalist values and Islamic law, as many followers of Hamas would like, or will it opt to be a more open, democratic society? No matter how offensive Husayin's actions were to Muslims around the region, his case needs to be handled with care, and would best be resolved with a slap on the wrist.