WHEN novelist Salman Rushdie wrote “Satanic Verses” deemed offensive to Islam, the Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced him to death in absentia.

That order, or fatwa, was issued in 1998, and was seen as some kind of a prologue to 9/11, with the loss of over 3,000 lives in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

Mr. Rushdie, born in Bombay (now Mumbai) to a Muslim family, has since been in hiding, with a $3.3 million bounty on his head.

A more recent insult to Islam, a film called “Innocence of Muslims,” produced by an Israeli-American, cost the lives of the American ambassador to Libya and three personnel of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

The uploading of the film on YouTube sparked riots around the world, especially in the Middle East, scene of the Arab Spring ferment that led to the downfall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and the shooting death of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

Generally, Muslim Filipinos have shied away from violent protests.

Instead, their political and religious leaders called for sobriety.

“I call upon my Muslim brothers and sisters not to take the law into their hands, and not show our anger and hatred through violence and destruction,” said Sulu Rep. Tupay Loong in a statement.

President Benigno Aquino declined to ban the showing of the mercurial movie because of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression.

He said he was powerless to ban it, and the agency that can do that is the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board or MTRCB.

That’s well and good that the President himself follows the Constitution, even at the displeasure of some Muslims who want this film prohibited from exhibition.

But what is baffling is the President’s support for harsher libel law covering the entire web world, instead of decriminalizing it under the “frozen” Freedom of Information (FOI) bill.

Philippine Star columnist Federico D. Pascual Jr. pointed out the President signed a new law making harsher the libel sections of the Revised Penal Code, “without the benefit of consultation and debate.”

While there are laws limiting freedom of expression, they should be applied more in their tolerance than suppression.

Not all Muslim Filipinos are as level-headed as they had been in this particular incendiary incident.

To be sure, there are bad eggs in their baskets.

Those who plotted and took part in the gruesome Maguindanao massacre are an exception to the rule.

That the perpetrators are still not brought to justice is a shame to our slow-poke criminal justice system.

Its resolution should be one of the top priorities of the new chief justice.

But there is one consolation, according to former Chief Justice Artemio V. Panganiban.

“The presiding judge in the Maguindanao case is a no-nonsense magistrate, intelligent, honest and incorruptible,” he said in a note to this writer.

Indeed, the nation watches, waits and hopes that the mass murderers get the maximum penalties that they deserve.

Without further delay.

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