Freedom of religion vs freedom of speech

Once again, the ugly side of freedom of speech versus religious freedom, tolerance and belief reared its head this week as the offices of French satire magazine Charlie Hedbo were firebombed after printing cartoons representing the Prophet Muhammad. Now, it must be pointed out that the vast majority of Muslims who may be offended by these caricatures will not turn to violence; this is the act of either an individual or a group who is in the small minority. However, it cannot be denied that we have been down this road before.

There is a deep divide between those who wish to preserve religious sanctity and are against blasphemy, and those who view using religious figures in satirical ways as freedom of speech. Sadly, we can also put this down as a divide between the West and the East. What is clear is that to some, the idea that anyone would commit such acts of blasphemy as to portray the Prophet Muhammad in visual form is incomprehensible.

Many non-secular countries in the Muslim world have very strong anti-blasphemy laws. The secular West, however, is rife with depictions of religious figures — it’s safe to say that somewhere out there, someone is wearing underwear with the face of Jesus on it. This isn’t to say that there aren’t conservative religious followers of other religions who are not angry and offended by what they see as blasphemous. But for quite some time there has been an ongoing battle involving the Prophet Muhammad and freedom of speech, a battle that has been quite divisive and too often has led to violence and destruction.

So, what should be done? Well, the easiest, simplest solution would be to ban reproductions of the Prophet. It could be classified as a hate crime and treated as such, seen as being deeply offensive and hateful towards Muslims. However, this would be a massive blow to freedom of speech and open the door for more blasphemy laws, which are, frankly, completely unacceptable in a secular society. The reality is that secular society should try to understand just how deeply offensive portraying the Prophet truly is in Islam. To someone who is devout, it can be very painful and maddening to have such an important symbol treated with less than utmost respect.

However, those offended who might consider a non-peaceful response must also understand that freedom of speech can work in their favour, and that they can speak out, take part in peaceful protest or even take legitimate legal steps in some cases. No doubt netting more positive results than turning to violence.
It’s an opportunity to educate , but in a secular society, religious symbols, including the Prophet Muhammad, are not immune from satire or criticism. And in the West, freedom of speech is seen with the same reverence in many ways as the Prophet is seen to the religious — people have fought and died for both. It’s fair to say that this division is going to go on for a long time. But if both sides can at least try to understand each other on this matter, maybe, just maybe, we can put riots, firebombings and death threats in the past.

Chris Hearn wishes for peace between faith and free speech.

3 Comments on "Freedom of religion vs freedom of speech"

  1. Actually, the difficulty with any definition of blasphemy, assume that the god(s) involved are a) real and b) likely to take vengeance of the whole of humanity for some imagined slight.

    Both Muhammed and Genghis Khan were colourful warriors. However, there is no proof that either was a prophet, that an al-lah ever existed (except as a meteorite), or that the rules supposedly laid down by any of the gods will not offend a different and equally violent god.

    The only solution to this problem is to make physical violence – such as setting fire to other people’s homes – not only illegal but also despicable. No excuses! If there is a god al-lah, let him take care of punishing so-called blasphemers.

    And the MSM must stop saying “well they were offended”. I wonder if they would show understanding for a group of feminists that blew up a mosque?

  2. It is the wont of the religious to claim victimisation at any perceived sleight, and secularism doesn’t sit comfortably with any of them because they all make claims to universal truth. It is perhaps doubly galling to the devout, because not only is their religion not dominant in politics and the affairs of the state, but is forced – entirely fairly – to take an equal standing among other religions and different gods. An interesting thing about many religious people is that when exposed to the beliefs of another, they’ll often snigger up their sleeve; quite a feat when you have a plank in your own eye.

    The best response to mewlings from Christians about persecution is to remind them their holy book tells them they should expect to be ridiculed. Their’s is a rather tall story, and nobody forces them to accept it. If they do, fine. But don’t bleat and cry when the reaction of people they would force their beliefs on is less than positive.

    It may be controversial to say, but let’s be frank; Islam is a combative religion, so any sleight against the muslim is to be met with force. There is a tradition of “saving face” and “maintaining honour” in Islam, of the self and one’s family. Thus we have young girls murdered by brothers and uncles and even fathers for bringing dishonour on their family by dating some boy.

    The problem in European countries is that down the generations muslims tend to become more devout than their parents and grandparents who immigrated. The reasons are complex but what seems central is a desire to preserve cultural identity. The host nations have something to answer for in this, because these people were often met with mistrust and prejudice.

    But that does not affect the principle that secularism is intrinsically fair, and if it is enshrined in the constitution of a state, as in France, then by living there you give your assent to that principle. The answer to the muslim who doesn’t like freedom of expression in his chosen home, if he is intent on alienating himself, should be to politely invite him to leave. Go to a country where Islam dominates.

    Then their hypocrisy is quickly exposed. They want to have their cake and eat it. As old as the hills is the injunction to good manners: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

    And since the madness begotten of blind adherence to rigid theology is also as old as the hills, thus we have secularism. Like it or lump it.

  3. There is no proof Muslims firebombed the offices. It could be right wing extremists who want to make it look like Muslims did it, or it could be a publicity stunt or a prank. Even Charlie Hedbo said it’s likely Muslim extremists but it could just be “two drunks.”

    Let’s not rush to judgement. We’ve been down that road before too! (Oklahoma City and Norway)

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