Arab MK's Sharia Blasphemy Demand on Israel

This past May, Muslim Arab Member of the Knesset (MK) Ibrahim Sarsour introduced a bill in Israel's parliament that would prohibit blasphemous speech. Sarsour's demand on Israel, a model of liberal democracy, to subject herself to sharia blasphemy laws is dubious. Further, Sarsour's own provocative, even hateful, statements against fellow Israelis is further evidence that Islamist sensitivities entail no reciprocity for other groups.

Sarsour described his bill, first introduced in an earlier version in 2008, as prohibiting "any offense in any form" against "religious sentiments." This would include cursing, defaming, and depicting religious books and figures such as Muhammad, Moses, and Jesus. Sarsour cited as motive a future possibility in Israel of derogatory Muhammad caricatures and soccer game chants offensive to Muslims. Concerning free speech concerns, Sarsour discerned a "clear difference between... opinions and harming religious sentiment" as a "red line" having "no justification to cross."

Sarsour stated that current Israeli law in this area is not strong enough. Section 173 of Israel's Penal Law, according to one English translation, imposes up to a year's imprisonment for spoken or written words "liable crudely to offend the religious faith or sentiment of others." Sarsour's bill would eliminate "crudely" from the law and add the aforementioned specific applications.

Section 173 originates from violent Arab rioting against Jerusalem's and Hebron's Jews in 1929. In order to suppress the riots, the British High Commission enacted "The Abuse and Vilification (religious invective) Order No. 43" imposing a one year jail sentence upon any "word or sound in public or within earshot of any other person that may be or is intended to offend his religious sensitivities or faith." Israeli Supreme Court decisions have limited Order No. 43's initial reach in present-day Section 173, yet Israeli citizens such as the Jewish Tatiana Soskin in 1998 still face conviction. Her crime was to disseminate posters of Muhammad depicted as a pig in Hebron.

The Israeli legal community has long debated free speech restrictions. In 2003, the Israeli Democracy Institute (IDI) issued a report calling for Section 173's abolition. The IDI argued that "sensitivities" are "characterized by subjectivity" such that clashes are a "daily occurrence." IDI even argued that "harming sensitivities actually contributes to a person's advancement and to developing his faith."

Sarsour does not have any qualms being insensitive to his fellow citizens and institutions he represents in the Knesset. Sarsour is a representative of the United Arab List (UAL) party. Formed in 1996 with the participation of Israel's Islamic Movement, in which Sarsour was active, UAL is now in coalition with one MK from the Arab Movement for Renewal (Ta'al in its Hebrew acronym). The Israeli Central Elections Committee (CEC) banned UAL-Ta'al from participating in the 2009 elections due to charges such as supporting terrorism, but the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the ban. In response to the ban, UAL-Ta'al members called the CEC "fascist" and "racist."

Sarsour's past actions as MK are dubious. In 2011 he praised the Lebanese terrorist group Hizb'allah for its 2006 conflict with Israel and called for a caliphate based in Jerusalem. In 2012 he visited two imprisoned Palestinian terrorists, including Abbas Al-Sayyid, responsible for organizing a 2002 suicide bombing killing 35 people at a hotel Passover Seder. Mansour has even compared Israelis to Nazis, calling the April 28, 2008, Israeli collateral damage deaths of five Gaza family members "reminiscent of some very dark times, including that of the Nazis."

Sarsour's efforts would only restrict freedom in the Middle East's only truly free society, as Freedom House has shown. Even amidst continual Arab conflict with Israel, latest polls show that 55% of Israeli Arabs would prefer to live in Israel rather than any other country. This outpost of freedom in the Middle East is worth preserving against initiatives like Sarsour's.

This article was sponsored by The Legal Project, an activity of the Middle East Forum.