Ye Who Are Unworthy of PEZ

Image by Deborah Austin [CC BY 2.0]

I don’t care you if you blaspheme. You can take whatever lord’s name in vain that you please. You can desecrate any holy book that tickles your fancy. Heck, you can even bad-mouth Star Trek. Whatever. But, in the name of all that is good, how dare these people sully the pure, incorruptible symbol of novel delight in pleasant moderation that is PEZ?

Via Lindsey Bever at the Washington Post:

An Easter egg hunt in Connecticut turned dark over the weekend after organizers said adult attendees “rushed the field and took everything,” behaving “kind of like locusts.”

PEZ general manager Shawn Peterson told CBS affiliate WFSB that the candy company hid more than 9,000 eggs Saturday on three separate fields at the PEZ visitor’s center in Orange, not far from New Haven. Staggered start times were planned for different age groups.

But some parents ignored the rules, and the event took an ugly turn.

Nicole Welch told WFSB that those parents “bum-rushed” the area, leaving her 4-year-old son “traumatized” and “hysterically crying.”

“Somebody pushed me over and take my eggs,” 4-year-old Vincent Welch told NBC Connecticut after the event, “and it’s very rude of them and they broke my bucket.”

PEZ said that based on participation in the free event the past two years, organizers prepared for a large crowd; but “the number of families that came out to participate far exceeded anything we could have possibly planned for.”

PEZ is not only about candy and characters (and marketing), but it’s also about keeping things under control. You pop the dispenser’s head, and you get one little candy brick at a time. It’s a way to say, “I’m going to have a treat, but I’m not going to overdo it.”

But these people. These beasts. They don’t deserve PEZ.

Laudably, the PEZ company is giving free candy to the people who played by the rules and got screwed over:

PEZ said staff members tried to locate participants who were cheated and give them candy.

“We sincerely tried our best to create a fun, free activity for everyone to enjoy,” the company said in a statement to WFSB-TV. “We made efforts to get everyone something before they left and passed out tons of candy and coupons and the front entry and tried to make the best of an unfortunate situation.”

I’m going to buy some PEZ today. But what can be done to punish those who behaved so abhorrently? If only there were a PEZ dispenser . . . of justice.

The Collision: Enforced Religion Meets the Internet

Miriam Badawi, daughter of Raif, from the Free Raif Badawi Facebook page.
Every human being alive today, provided they have access to even the most rudimentary computing hardware, is now a broadcasting platform. Compared to generations past, even for the least electronically visible among us, we have many times the reach for any thought or opinion we care to express. And we rarely have full control over who hears what we say.

The consequences for the expression of religious belief (or lack thereof) have been enormous. To my mind, the collision of the democratized Internet with the innate restrictions of certain faith traditions is the most significant development in the world of religion today. Never in human history have supernaturally based belief systems, so specific in their proscriptions for behavior and thought, been so open to scrutiny and criticism, and on such a mass scale.

And it is a collision, because the free expression of dissenting ideas are anathema to dogma, particularly state-enforced dogma. Incidents of heretics and religious dissenters are not unique to our era of course, but never has it been so easy to broadcast one’s dissent, for religious authorities to become aware of said dissent, and for the rest of the world to be awoken to how those dissenters are being persecuted. They are no longer isolated to villages or insular nations. A heretical tweet can land one in jail, but one’s next tweet can then rally a movement to demand your freedom.

This collision has sparked a global crisis, a crackdown on free expression from serial offenders such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to countries that fancy themselves democracies like Turkey, Russia, and even Greece. Often these prohibitions against religious dissent are given names like “hurting religious sentiments” or “insulting religion,” but they all fall under the rubric of blasphemy laws.

It is remarkably easy to commit blasphemy today. Some victims of persecution have been willing agitators, intentionally trying to bring about change within their own societies, such as Saudi Arabia’s Raif Badawi, who began a website for the discussion of liberal opinion; or Alber Saber, the Egyptian secular activist arrested in 2012 for allegedly sharing links to the video “The Innocence of Muslims,” which sparked enraged protests and violence across the Islamic world. But on the other hand, we also have people like Alexander Aan, an Indonesian civil servant who has begun quietly expressing atheistic opinions on Facebook, and soon faced the violent wrath of an angry mob and several months in prison as a result.

In other words, one need not seek out controversy to find it, and one need not look to publicly commit blasphemy to find oneself in existential danger as a result of expressing dissenting beliefs. A casual Facebook conversation or tweet can land one in just as much peril as being an intentional rabble-rouser online.

The silver lining to this is how easily the rest of us can become aware of this crisis, and each instance of it. Alexander Aan began his travails alone, but soon found that he had won the support of countless allies around the world, including leading human rights organizations, such as the one that employs me, the Center for Inquiry. These newfound allies, friends he could never have known he had without the same technology that allowed him to be placed in danger in the first place, rallied to his cause and leveled a degree of political pressure to Indonesian authorities that they could not have anticipated when the first locked Alex up.

And for Raif Badawi – along with his fellow dissenter, Saudi human rights activist Waleed Abu Al-Khair, who also sits in prison for blasphemy-related offenses – their cause has likewise brought to bear the combined efforts of activists, human rights organizations, and even casual users of social media to push back against their persecution. Their case was recently brought before the UN’s Human Rights Commission by my organization, which was an important enough step in itself. But when delegates of the Saudi government manically tried to silence our own representative, Josephine Macintosh, as she delivered her rebuke of Saudi’s human rights abuses, the video of the altercation went viral, exposing to tens of thousands of individuals the extent of Saudi Arabia’s crimes, the plights of Badawi and Al-khair, and the fact that a growing movement was working so hard to push back.

But without Twitter and Facebook and other online media, we in the West might never know any of this. We might go on wholly unaware and uninterested in the challenges faced by atheists and other religious dissenters around the world. Miriam Ibrahim, originally of Sudan, is a Christian woman who was sentenced to death for refusing to convert to Islam, but the outcry for her right to follow the faith of her choosing was heard at first exclusively online, and largely from atheists and secularists. The sheer volume of attention brought to her cause online led to breathless “mainstream” media coverage, which in turn brought the heat of the world’s gaze upon Sudan, who eventually released her. She is no agitator. She didn’t have a blasphemous blog or tweet religious satire. She, simply and quietly, refused to violate her conscience, and the online world turned up the volume on her behalf.

Religious belief, whatever good can be ascribed to it, nearly always brings with it the expectation of conformity of thought and deed, lest one earn the wrath of the creator of the universe. The Internet is, among other things, an engine for sifting, parsing, and critiquing information and opinion. The collision of these two phenomena in this early part of the 21st century is one whose shockwaves will be felt for generations to come.


Editors’ NoteThis article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Patheos community here


 

You can learn much more about blasphemy laws and the fight for free expression at CFI’s Campaign for Free Expression.

You Can Be Jailed for Internet Blasphemy Before You’ve Even Committed It in India

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If you use the Internet in a particular state in India, you might be jailed for pre-crime.

I wish I was being overly dramatic, but it really does seem to be the case that a law amended earlier this month assumes authorities in the Indian state of Karnataka to have Minority Report-like precognitive powers, allowing them to arrest someone who they think might at some point violate their Information Technology laws.

Let me back up a bit. What first caught my attention was a bit of news hitting the tech blogosphere that Karnataka police were letting it be known that citizens would be violating the law by the mere act of “liking” something on Facebook that has “an intention of hurting religious sentiments knowingly or unknowingly,” and that folks should report any such activity they see to the police. (Never mind that it doesn’t make sense that something could have “an intention” of doing something “knowingly or unknowingly.”) This is reprehensible on its face, criminalizing not only “blasphemous” content, but even the appearance of approval of said content. It’s a human rights violation of the most obvious sort.

But following the links deeper into the originating reports, I find that this is just part of the problem. It seems that this is a way of enforcing what’s called, amazingly, the Karnataka Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Bootleggers, Drug-offenders, Gamblers, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders, Slum-Grabbers and Video or Audio Pirates Bill, or the “Goondas Act.” (A goonda is a hired thug.) And it’s the “prevention” part of that title that’s key, because it effectively takes any offenses under the auspices of the state’s Information Technology and Copyright acts under its own umbrella, and aims to stop them before they can actually be committed, according to the Bangalore Mirror:

Until now, people with a history of offences like bootlegging, drug offences and immoral trafficking could be taken into preventive custody. But the government, in its enthusiasm, while adding acid attackers and sexual predators to the law, has also added ‘digital offenders’. While it was thought to be against audio and video pirates, Bangalore Mirror has found it could be directed at all those who frequent [Facebook], Twitter and the online world, posting casual comments and reactions to events unfolding around them. [ … ]

Technically, if you are even planning to forward ‘lascivious’ memes and images to a WhatsApp group or forwarding a song or ‘copyrighted’ PDF book, you can be punished under the Goondas Act.

And once arrested, you can be held from 90 days to a full year before even seeing a judge to make your case. It’s horrifying. One section of the act even prohibits the “publishing of information which is obscene in electronic form,” which includes “any material which is lascivious or appeal to the prurient interest.” Sunil Abraham of the Centre for Internet and Society provides the Mirror with a terrifying and yet totally plausible example of what could happen:

If I publish an image of a naked body as part of a scientific article about the human body, is it obscene or not? It will not be obscene and, if I am arrested under the [original Information Technology] Act, I will be produced before the magistrate within 24 hours and can explain it to him. But now, I will be arrested under the Goonda Act and need not be produced before a magistrate for 90 days. It can be extended to one year. So for one year, I will be in jail even if I have not committed any wrong.

So what for me began as more fuel for the fire against blasphemy laws around the world, the battle against which my employing organization the Center for Inquiry has taken on as one of its core missions, revealed itself to be a situation with a police and surveillance state run utterly amok, persecuting those who might at some point violate some arbitrary and undefinable religious or moral sensibility.

Alber Saber Convicted of Blasphemy

My heart breaks at the news. I just did a post at Friendly Atheist on Alber’s conviction, and here’s a taste:

Egypt has struck a major blow to the fundamental human right to freedom of expression, and unjustly stripped an innocent man of his freedom, as Alber Saber, the 27-year-old atheist activist and blogger, was convicted today of blasphemy and sentenced to three years in prison.

In a case similar to that of Indonesia’s imprisoned Alexander Aan, Saber was discovered to have been an admin of an atheist Facebook page. An angry mob surrounded his house, and he was soon arrested and charged with blasphemy. While awaiting his verdict, Saber was attacked by fellow inmates who cut his throat with a razor blade after finding out that he had “insulted” their religion.

Click on over to read the rest. We have so much further to go.