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How blasphemy divides the Arab world from the West

Beyond the Mohammed-video riots lie clashing claims to two different kinds of freedom.

This month of bloody riots against blasphemy in the Muslim world is scheduled to end just as it began: with a provocation. Today, a scattering of atheists and freethinkers will celebrate something called International Blasphemy Rights Day, a coordinated recognition of the freedom to slander any religion or prophet. The day’s most prominent festivities will occur on college campuses, where in the three-year history of the event, students have arranged philosophical panel discussions, showings of blasphemous art, and open-mic nights that welcome speakers whose speech might in another context draw a barrage of rocks or bullets.

If Hallmark makes a card for this particular holiday, it’s unlikely to be sold in the gift shops of Cairo or Benghazi. Those cities are still recovering from reactions to a California-made YouTube video ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed, which caused riots in countries from Libya to Pakistan. It is tempting for observers in the West to write off these eruptions of street-level anger as local and temporary, fanned by religious sectarians and anti-US feeling. But the riots are also symptoms of a bigger clash in understandings of human rights, one taking place at the level of government and UN declarations, with one side defending the freedom to blaspheme, and the other calling for international law to enshrine a freedom from blasphemy.

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