Trying to talk about this is like opening the door to a large blast furnace and stepping in. Before you can even say anything people are extremely emotionally charged and ready to attack. The issue of freedom of speech vs religion is very complicated and full of venom. One of the biggest problems when it comes to talking about religion is the fact that there are so many sects within each. What might apply to one sect might not apply to another. It’s extremely difficult to make an argument that naturally requires some generalizations because the first thing people will do is to say “well that’s not true of my beliefs.” It’s almost impossible to make an argument about religion because the religious often keep changing between whatever definitions are most opportunistic at any given time.
That being said, I must acknowledge that not all Muslims are jihadist extremists. The majority are not. The same is true of all religions with their own respective sects of fanatics. Unfortunately, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and these minority extremists have been very vocal as of late. They have been vocal and organized enough to start causing real changes in how some western countries operate. If these minorities were ineffective in their demands, just screaming in the wind, they wouldn’t be a problem. Yet they are gaining ground in their cause.
The United Nations recently passed a non binding resolution to make “blasphemy” a crime. It was a measure pushed by the Organization of Islamic Conference which is hoping to make the measure binding this April when the U.N. meets again in Geneva. The passing of the non-binding resolution is already a disaster for human rights because it puts the U.N.’s stamp of approval on all the arrests of people charged with blasphemy in various countries where this extremist minority has power.
One of the big issues of debate is where to draw the line between freedom of speech and hate speech. The Islamic extremists are trying to move that line to include any criticism of their religion as hate speech. I would like to argue that the line between the two hinges on inciting violence. For example the statement “I think gay people are immoral and wrong.” would fall under freedom of speech (despite how much I disagree). On the other hand, the statement “I think gay people are immoral and wrong, and therefore we should stone them.” would fall under the category of hate speech. One statement is advocating violence, the other is not.
Yet this then brings up the sticky issue of defamation. In arguments involving empirical data, things are clearer. Either X is supported by the facts or it is not. But religion is a special case because it is an area devoid of empirical facts. All claims made by religion are based on faith. This makes proving or disproving a claim difficult. I can say that Islam is a false religion, but I can’t prove it. They can also say that I am wrong, and that it is the only true religion, but they can’t prove that either. I think the solution lies in the fact that “defamation” is aimed at people, or a group of people, and not ideas. One can make remarks critical of an idea without attacking the person holding the idea.
In fact, this is the cornerstone of all types of academic debates. The notion that you can openly discuss a concept without resorting to “ad homine” attacks, that an idea should be able to stand on its own merits. If ideas were protected from questioning like the measure seeks to do with religion, all advancement would collapse. People would no longer be able to question and explore new ideas without risking punishment.
The people pushing this anti-blasphemy law say that the goal is to curtail extensive bias against Islam in the west. Now I’m normally supportive of trying to be politically correct, yet in this case I’m afraid the champions of PCness have gone too far, into the realm of appeasement. Why do you think there is bias in the west against this minority of Islam? Because these people are the ones who fly planes into buildings, murder journalists, and blow themselves up on crowded busses. This minority moves into western democracies and demand they compromise their values and in act Shari law, while the whole time they take advantages of the freedoms they so vehemently oppose.
Some people try and defend these extremists by trying to paint the issue in a multi-cultural light. They’re deceiving themselves. I love multi-culturalism, I think it enriches life and provides a wider range of experiences and understanding, but this is not multi-culturalism. This is one extremist group’s culture demanding that the other cultures change and submit. They use fear and violence to bully the other cultures into submission. The Netherlands is a prime example. That country, once a beacon of progressive liberal values, has been hijacked by these extremists in the air of appeasement. It is now a crime to criticize Islam in that country. Geert Wilders is now being prosecuted for making anti-Islamic statements, and a film. While I disagree with some of his statements, he has the fundamental right to make them, as long as he is not inciting violence. But consider this, Mr. Wilders is under 24/7 protection because thousands of angry Muslim extremists want to murder him, simply because he offended them, and he’s the criminal?
The ironic thing is that if I talked about Muslims the way their holy book talks about me (a non-believer) I would be guilty of hate speech and inciting violence. And yet an army of these Islamic fundamentalists are ready to go straight to violence at the drop of a hat, just as the Danish cartoons proved.
I think Johann Hari put it rightly when he said “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. This is not because of “prejudice” or “ignorance”, but because there is no evidence for these claims. They belong to the childhood of our species, and will in time look as preposterous as believing in Zeus or Thor or Baal.”
It’s hard nowadays to turn on the news and not see some group of Islamic extremists angry over something, be it free speech, women’s rights, or what have you. What I don’t see is moderate, normal Muslims getting up on a soap box challenging these extremists that give them a bad name. Where were they to defend free speech when the angry mobs killed people in response to Dutch cartoons? Where were they to express outrage at the murder of Theo van Gogh? They must stand and take back their religion from the extremists. The world too must stand up against these tyrants instead of prostrating themselves like the Netherlands. If we don’t, soon the extremists will establish even stronger footholds in their efforts to erode our freedoms.