MOSCOW TIMES: Russia is Turning Into Iran
by Michael Bohm, opinion page editor of The Moscow Times.
On Tuesday, members of the four parties represented in the State Duma
introduced a bill that would carry a three-year prison sentence for "insulting
the religious feelings of others." Given the bill's widespread support in the
Kremlin and Russian Orthodox Church, it is all but assured of becoming law. This
would take Russia another step closer to becoming like Iran and other Muslim
theocracies, where "insulting Islam" is also punishable by severe prison
This is a disturbing and dangerous trend for Russia, particularly given that
it wants to modernize. In its frenzy to punish blasphemers, the country's
much-acclaimed drive to innovate and develop is bound to suffer.
The problem, of course, is that blasphemy and "insulting religious feelings"
are highly subjective notions. Who would determine what is blasphemous or
insulting? The state? The Russian Orthodox Church? This issue essentially boils
down to a question of good or bad taste.
Already, a group of Orthodox believers have said they would sue a blogger
for writing the word God with a lower-case "g." Works defending Darwinism are
also offensive to many believers. So are short skirts.
What if someone doesn't cross himself "correctly" or doesn't dress
"appropriately" in church? Notably, the three Pussy Riot punk rockers were found
guilty of these church violations in their criminal case last month.
This is precisely why these types of slopes are so slippery. Once a state
starts prohibiting literature or art for being "offensive," the list will never
Although this bill is packaged as a protection against insults to all
religions, it is doubtful that it would apply to Orthodox fundamentalists, who
have no qualms about offending the religious feelings — or sometimes even
destroying the property — of other denominations, including Russian Protestants
and Jehovah's Witnesses.
In the end, the legislation looks more like an attempt to protect
the Orthodox church against criticism. It may cause some journalists to think
twice about writing another story of a drunk Orthodox priest who caused
an accident in his Mercedes.
Another logistic problem is whether the prison system has enough room to jail
all those willing to "insult" the Orthodox church by criticizing it.
During the Pussy Riot trial, we witnessed the inherent difficulties of trying
to establish a legal basis to prosecute performance art that insulted someone's
beliefs, particularly when there was no violence or vandalism. In a weak attempt
to introduce legitimacy to the trial, pseudo linguistic experts were called
in to testify on the blasphemous nature of the phrase "holy crap," which
the Pussy Riot women yelled during their stunt in Moscow's main cathedral.
Pseudo psychologists also testified on the trauma that church personnel
supposedly suffered after witnessing the stunt, including loss of sleep.
Prosecuting blasphemy and insults inevitably turns into a campaign
to legislate morality — something Russians over 30 know all too well from their
own experience. During the Soviet period, criticizing the Communist Party was
tantamount to blasphemy, as was displaying nonconformist art. If left
uncontrolled, modern-day Russia could use the same highly subjective
and arbitrary pseudo-legal reasoning to prosecute those who insult the church,
Russian state, ruling party or President Vladimir Putin.
Tasteless, insulting, vulgar or even heretical art should not be made illegal
in a secular country that claims to uphold Western values and principles.
Although the United States may seem fanatical in its own way about protecting
First Amendment rights, it is correct on one main point: Public opinion, not
the state, should be the final arbiter of what is good or bad art.
U.S. President Barack Obama put it well during his address to the United
Nations General Assembly on Tuesday: "The strongest weapon against hateful
speech is not repression; it is more speech." That is why the U.S. First
Amendment protects the crude and offensive video "Innocence of Muslims" in the
same way it protected "Last Temptation of Christ," the 1988 U.S. film that
offended many Christians.
Notably, the presidents of Egypt and Yemen both rejected Obama's defense
of free speech on Wednesday from the same UN podium, saying blasphemy should not
be protected speech. Meanwhile, Pakistan's president reiterated during his
speech at the UN that blasphemy should be punishable by prison, thus lending
support to the Duma bill.
For Russia, though, the issue is much deeper than allowing this or that
controversial art exhibit or performance. There is a correlation between
the level of a country's freedom of speech and its degree of innovation
and economic development. In the United States, which has maximum free speech
rights, the level of innovation is high and so is its per capita gross domestic
product: $48,000. In Egypt, where freedom of speech is limited, the per capita
GDP is only $3,000. Even in oil-rich, but freedom-sparse Libya and Iran, it is
only $5,700 and $6,300, respectively. In contrast, Turkey, although 98 percent
Muslim, is a secular country and has a relatively higher degree of freedom
of speech; not surprisingly, it also has a much higher per capita GDP
In Russia, which is somewhere between the United States and Iran in terms
of freedom of speech, the per capita GDP is also somewhere in the middle:
$13,000. Yet, the more fervently Russia clamps down on freedom of speech,
the more likely it will be stuck at the $13,000 level, or perhaps even drop.
Russia needs to choose which course it wants to take: anti-Western
and theocratic or liberal-democratic. It is basically a choice between a closed
and open society. Yet it would seem that the Kremlin has already made that
choice as it attempts to develop a quasi-theocratic state.
Protecting freedom of speech is just as sacred to democracy purists in the
West as protecting Orthodox religious values is to the church and the Kremlin.
In many respects, both are fanatical in their beliefs. The only difference is
the West's fanatic belief in freedom of speech leads to economic growth
and development — notwithstanding the current economic crisis — while religious
fanaticism on a state level leads to chronic economic stagnation, decline
and high poverty rates.
But, then again, there are other ways to measure Russia's strength than
by economic indicators. After all, it was religious philosopher and writer
Fyodor Dostoevsky who believed that the strength of Russians is, above all,
in their strong spirituality. Apart from the Orthodox church, though, it is
doubtful most Russians today would want to live according to Dostoevsky's
19th-century distorted world vision.
Michael Bohm is opinion page editor of The Moscow
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