These issues are still front-page news, with the ongoing protests sparked by the anti-Islamic video currently circulating the internet. As well as the understandable upset and outrage caused by what’s by all accounts a highly offensive film, we also have a clash of two mutually incomprehensible ideologies, cultures and worldviews.
On one side, we have the Islamic view that criticisms of (or insults against) their religion and their prophet are blasphemous and are examples of religious hatred; that they cannot and must not be tolerated and must be banned and (further) criminalised. Some go further, proclaiming that the perpetrators of blasphemous insult must be put to death for unpardonable offence against Allah, to whom all allegiance is owed and to whom all human laws are subject.
On the other side, we have the liberal western worldview (enshrined in Human Rights Law) that freedom of expression is an inalienable right. We have the view that insult against personal beliefs (while not to be condoned) is not in the same category as physical attack and does not justify violent response. We also have the secular view that blasphemy is not an offence against someone who has a right to protection against defamation or libel under law; essentially that God (if he exists) cannot enter into human legal process, and can be left to look after himself.
I can sympathise with parts of both views while not fully agreeing with either.
Freedom of speech vs freedom of thought and action
Let’s look more closely at freedom of speech, which seems to me to sit slightly uncomfortably between freedom of thought (which can’t be limited by law) and freedom of action (which is seriously constrained by law).
It seems to me we have to be (legally) free to think and feel what we like; we can’t and mustn’t have thought police. Practically it would be impossible to police someone’s private thoughts; it’s hard enough (and sometimes counter-productive) to police even our own. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter what we think, or that we can’t influence our thought habits; Jesus warns us that actions like adultery and murder start with our thoughts and feelings. But we certainly can’t go about controlling or proscribing what goes on in other people’s heads. The best we can do is provide good examples, role models and education to positively influence people’s views and attitudes and to counter prejudices.
By contrast, we clearly don’t and can’t have complete freedom of action, freedom to do whatever we please. Laws, not to mention social convention and common sense, restrain what we can and can’t do (e.g. stealing, arson, assault etc). We aren’t free to cause harm to others or to take their property. Most people except true anarchists accept that this is a necessary constraint on our human freedoms.
Speech though seems to stand in a grey area between freedom of thought and freedom of action. Words are simply the expression of thoughts out loud (or in print); but such expression takes them out of our private headspace into the world, where they can do real good or harm. Of course, words are not deeds, and they cannot themselves do physical damage. There’s the playground saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never harm me’. But this is actually only true to a very limited extent. Words can often cause tremendous emotional and psychological damage. Words can also be powerful ideological weapons; they can change hearts and minds, win or lose elections, start or end conflicts. They are far from safe. But does that mean we can or should ban them or restrict their use? (Maybe we should all pass a test and get a Words Licence?)
Of course it’s not just words we’re talking about in freedom of expression, but art – the power of images, power to evoke an emotional or intellectual, or even a visceral, response. But that’s another topic.
Freedom of expression
So should free speech be an inalienable right under all circumstances? In principle, I’m fully signed up to the old ‘I disagree with what you say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it’ (though I might not go quite that far). But I also believe in the importance of respect, kindness, consideration; that there are certain things that shouldn’t be said, or things that people shouldn’t have to put up with hearing. Whether those things should carry legal penalties though, I’m less sure.
Let’s state the obvious that even in countries like the US and UK we don’t (and probably can’t) actually have full freedom of speech and expression. There are certain things the law won’t allow us to say without penalty; certain views we’re not permitted to express, at least under particular circumstances. Some ‘free’ expressions in certain contexts would in law be deemed (for example) as racist abuse, sexual harassment, libel or defamation of character, and would incur legal consequences.
So though freedom of expression is generally held to be a basic human right, practically there are limits and constraints; occasions when the exercise of this right conflicts with other rights or other democratic principles (e.g. the right to fair trial, the right not to be harassed, the right to privacy).
Given then that there must be some constraints on freedom of expression, should the rights of religious groups not to have their deity or faith insulted be one of them?
For me this partly depends on circumstances. Where a person’s religion is inherently connected with their ethnicity, as is often the case with Judaism for example, then yes perhaps there should be some protection – but this can already be covered under anti-racism laws. And again where a particular religious group is a genuinely persecuted minority, then their rights should perhaps be given extra consideration.
But in most cases I would say no; people of religion – including me – have no particular right not to have their God(s) or beliefs insulted. And we certainly have no right not to have our beliefs robustly criticised. On the contrary, I would say it’s entirely right and reasonable for all beliefs (religious and otherwise) to be subject to the strongest criticism and scepticism, which may at times cross over into (perceived or actual) insult.
For example, I wish to be able to express my conviction that Scientology is (to put it mildly) dangerous and bonkers. I’ve no wish to cast aspersions on individual Scientologists (with maybe a few well-known exceptions). But I think that anyone should be freely able to express critical views about Scientologist beliefs. And I therefore accept in turn that people like Richard Dawkins (and indeed anyone else) should be able to say extremely rude things about Christianity, the church, the Bible, and maybe even God.
Which brings us back to the film currently circulating the internet. I absolutely do not condone libellous and scurrilous attacks on the prophet Muhammad (for a start, I really have no desire for a fatwa). I can sympathise with the hurt and anger many Muslims feel at what they see as an unprovoked attack on their faith. Nonetheless I do not believe that banning insult or criticism is a viable or constructive solution, any more so than violent protest.
Responding to criticism and insult
In a civilised society I believe we should generally both be slow to give offence (where possible – and it isn’t always possible), and slow to take offence. It’s not big and clever to go round insulting people’s beliefs (with the possible exception of Scientology), but sometimes it may be necessary to state our version of the truth, which others may find offensive. Indeed sometimes the simple statement of one person’s core beliefs (religious or otherwise) may be offensive to another person. We can and should aim to speak with respect and restraint, but others may still be upset by what we say – sometimes reasonably, sometimes not. And conversely, we may be upset by others’ views, and we may have to learn to accept that as adults.
If someone is criticising or even insulting our cherished beliefs, before plunging into angry recriminations we’d do well to stop a moment and ask ourselves some questions. Are they clearly an ignorant bigot or nutter, in which case we can pity them and pray for them; or are they a thoughtful person who might possibly have some valid reason for what they say? Is their intention clearly just to give offence, or are they offering valid and constructive criticisms that we could learn from? And if they do in fact simply hate us and/or our beliefs, might there be underlying causes to that hatred that we need to address? For example, might they feel marginalised by our beliefs, or might they have been ill-treated by our fellow-believers?
The founding principles (and founding persons) of our particular religion may well have been pure and good. But we need to be honest that the subsequent history of our religion – of any religion –contains regrettable episodes, things which have done great damage and of which we should be ashamed. For the Christian church, there have been corrupt popes, Crusades, conquistadores, Inquisitions, witch-hunts and the burning of ‘heretics’, support of the slave trade, collusion with state power and racism (as in Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa), homophobia, and subjugation of women – and these are just a few obvious ones.
We are right to be deeply sorry for these things, and we must be prepared to listen to criticism both from inside and outside in order to avoid further such catastrophes being allowed to take place. We must even be prepared to put up with some insult from those who have been hurt by the faults and failures of our religion and co-religionists.
But lest we just join the critics in pointing the finger, we need to recognise that we too are sometimes part of the problem. We do not consistently represent the pure principles of our faith; we do not always reflect the One(s) we seek to follow. We’ve all got a way to go before our whole lives, and all our attitudes, words and deeds, give a really good account of our faith and our God.
So, while I can understand why some react to criticism of their faith with violence or condemnation, that seems to me entirely the wrong kind of response. It’s a response that only perpetuates hatred rather than diffusing it; a response that only confirms people in their bad opinion of us and our beliefs.
Now, thank goodness Tom Cruise and John Travolta don’t read my blog…. 😉