Quid Rides? De te Fabula Narratur

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Religious Intolerance and the Law

Posted by Anthony on March 3, 2009

By Anthony J. Aschettino

While in many states religion has been demoted to the field of personal belief, in others it has been elevated to the law of the land and the disrespect (perceived or otherwise) or criticism of the dominant creed is often met with harsh consequences. This is particularly true in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, but aspects of the intolerance have crept slowly yet surely into Europe and the Americas over the past few decades where the law has been manipulated in far more subtle ways and with help from other religious institutions who see a common interest in suppressing free speech and thought.

Currently there has been severe pressure from many Muslim states to make insulting religion a crime on the international level. They have been backed, not surprisingly, by certain Christian religious factions because even though on a theological level these groups are virulently opposed to one another, on this issue they can find some common ground as they have on issues ranging from abortion to gay rights. These groups have succeeded in forcing the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights to investigate alleged “crimes” by people who do not respect religion, phrased worryingly as “abuses of free expression” and “defamation of religions and prophets.”

Johann Hari, a British journalist of fine repute, questioned this assault on a fundamental right of democratic institutions: that of freedom of speech. In an article written on January 28th, he asked why people were forced to “respect” religions, specifically by being forbidden from criticizing them. As part of his article, he wrote: “All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don’t respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don’t respect the idea that we should follow a “Prophet” who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn’t follow him. I don’t respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don’t respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice. When you demand “respect”, you are demanding we lie to you. I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade.”

His words set off a firestorm in India, where The Statesman reprinted his article. The editor and publisher of the paper were arrested on charges of “deliberately acting with malicious intent to outrage religious feelings.” There were riots in the streets of Calcutta by Muslims, and one can hardly be blamed for linking these images with the riots of the Danish cartoons or the publication (the twentieth anniversary of which just past recently) of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses. It seems that Mr. Hari’s advocating for complete and unfettered freedom of speech has been judged and found wanting.

The problem here is manifold, but we can easily pare it down to the lowest common denominator: freedom of speech means the right to criticize anything at anytime. Nothing can be immune to it, for the moment one begins to put shackles on the right to speak freely it starts a slippery slope towards a society where anything can be declared “off topic.” Despite the particular example cited here, Muslims are not the enemies of free-speech nor should anyone be led to believe that: Hindus have rioted in India almost as frequently on freedom of speech and expression issues. Among the enemies of free speech, however, are those religious believers who attempt to shut down criticism of their faith by enacting laws that make criticism of the faith a punishable offense.

This is not about shouting fire in a crowded theater. It is about whether or not humanity will find itself hamstrung by the knee-jerk reactions of religious fanatics. The only solution is to continue pressing forward with the steadfast belief that freedom of speech is a universal right, perhaps the most universal of rights. With it, civilized society will prosper and grow. Without it, humanity is doomed to a bleak future where individuals must police their own thoughts before saying anything so as to not upset the all too easily offended.

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