Via Facebook I stumbled upon a page where an ex-Muslim Pakistani female expat has a picture posted of a Koran placed in front of her vagina (she’s naked). Whether you think this sort of behavior is juvenile or courageous or boring depends upon your perspective. But it does illustrate the power of blasphemy and symbols. Blasphemy as a concept and cognitive reflex is deeply rooted in our mental super-structure. The reflex may be the same, but the stimuli can vary a great deal. For example, Hindu statuary which elicits reverence from those who follow the Sanātana Dharma may be repulsive and blasphemous to believers in the Abrahamic religions or Arya Samaj. Actions which may seem meritorious for one perspective may be blasphemous and disrespectful from another. Blasphemy is not objective, but subjective. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have real consequences and concrete & valid results.
The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan was a shocking act of offense and destruction from the perspective world at large, and in particular Buddhists, but from a narrow iconoclastic Muslim viewpoint it was only a recapitulation of thousands of years of idol-smashing on the part of the heirs of Abraham. The destructive actions which Abraham and Muhammad are reputed to undertaken against the idols revered by their peers seem to be acts of righteous piety in hindsight, but in the context of their times they were profoundly shocking and transgressive. But you now comprehend where Abraham and Muhammad stood in relation to their motives; by their very belief and practice the pagans of their age violated norms which these two men held sacred.
The actions of radical atheists may seem shocking and blasphemous, and they’re meant to be seen in such a manner, but they’re also done with purpose. That purpose is the same as that of Abraham and Muhammad, to testify to the falsity of delusion which they perceive in others by a symbolic act. The truths which you hold dear may be the lies of another, and vice versa. But in a multicultural society the problem is that individuals with contradictory positions live cheek-by-jowl. Many Muslims, and South Asians more generally, don’t understand that in the West the norms are such that this contradiction is resolved by acceptance that communal beliefs are not sacred, because beliefs vary across communities. Rather, they attempt to import into the West Islamic and South Asian norms where communal harmony, where it is maintained, is obtained by an equilibrium of mutual distance and adherence to a wide set of taboos.
And that is why “blasphemy” is critical. Until people understand this radical norm, they need to be reminded by the act of subjective transgression.
Addendum: Muslims make great noises about the blasphemies to which they are subject, but they naturally don’t acknowledge that they are among the most thorough blasphemers the world over, disrespecting & neglecting the patrimony of generations past. Hindus, Zoroastrians, and Oriental Christians who see their ancient holy sites and relics fall into disrepair and disuse in Muslim lands must accept that as the way of the world, but this does not negate the offense and hurt which they feel. Though many Muslims can at least empathize on one level: Salafi ideology has been transforming historic Mecca into a giant mall. By profaning what other Muslims hold to be holy the Salafis believe that they are discouraging shirk.