It’s always enjoyable when you get a fine example of the absurdities, comic and tragic, of closed societies operating under the scrutiny of authoritarian forces and organized religion. However, I’d also note that it sucks to practice art in a free society where the right of speech is, for the most part, sacrosanct.
Case in point: the Russian band Pussy Riot (yes, I’m ashamed I wasn’t the first to think of some kind of joke about that being my high school nickname), which filmed a semi-lewd but mostly weird video in a Russian Orthodox Church where they criticized corporate-oligarch-kinda-dictator Vladimir Putin. The ladies of Pussy Riot were arrested and put through a show trial in which they sat in a glass tank as Russian church-goers testified to their “blasphemy.” The court transcripts read like a Sacha Baron Coen film, and at times it’s hard to believe that all parties involved are not joking.
From The National Review, one witness described the blasphemous horror:
Then they shed their coats and began to jump around, movements she described as “devilish jerking.”
“Have you ever seen any devils?” defense attorney Violetta Volkova asked.
The judge interceded and struck down the question, as she would for most of the defense’s questions.
“I just wanted to clarify, how does she know how devils jerk themselves around?” Volkova yelled.
The song and performance of “Punk Prayer: Holy Mother, Chase Putin Away!” is unlikely to become anybody’s rallying cry, but that’s the beauty of practicing art in a closed society: anything you do to challenge the authoritarian norm immediately has at least the imprimatur of courage even if it’s kind of dumb. In America, if you have a sign with your preferred president wearing a Hitler mustache, you are an unoriginal clown who needs to go sit in a grade school classroom and re-learn some history. If you wear a Kim Jong Un mask and a bloody tutu dress in the streets of Pyongyang, you are one f***ing bad motherf***er.
So obviously, I stand with Pussy Riot, the members of which have gotten in trouble for their criticism of the state, but who are being tried on under the auspices of having “shaken the spiritual foundations of the Russian Federation.” This is where the conversation will get uncomfortable because using religious institutions as a pretext to authoritarian rule is as old and obvious as human civilization itself. The most important part of American constitutionalism wasn’t the idea of “freedom of religion,” as many would like to claim, but “freedom from religion.”
Religious hierarchies always revert to authoritarianism if given the room to operate. You see this in American movements like Christian Reconstructionism, you see it in Israel with the empowerment of a class of right-wing Ultra Orthodox Jews whose religious fundamentalism receives government subsidy and who recently tried to ban women from certain busses, and you see it in the Islamic world where its grip remains the strongest.
Less well publicized than Pussy Riot is the story of a Pakistani Christian teenage girl who was arrested for burning the pages of the Quran. The girl, who may be mentally handicapped, was arrested and could face life in prison or even the death penalty under Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws. This demonstrates my First Law of Religious Protest. If you’re an American evangelist burning a Quran, you’re a weird racist appealing to the passions of the majority to demonstrate your power within society in a strange dick-flexing act of idiocy. If, however, you’re a minority challenging the status quo in a place where the authoritarian regime uses religion as a shield to subjugate your sex and penalize citizens who deviate from the norm (not that we know that’s what this girl was doing) that amounts to courage. The same way that if Pussy Riot pulled their stunt at an American church, we’d all just find it vaguely annoying and show-offish.
Put more succinctly, context matters, especially in the battle for free and open societies.