Free speech and religious defamation

In 1988, when Salman Rushdie’s Booker-shortlisted novel The Satanic Verses earned a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini and triggered violent protests in several countries, many Westerners were puzzled at the furore. Some felt Rushdie had courted his fate by deliberately provoking devout Muslims with his book; others found it outrageous that a foreign head of state could impose a death sentence on a British author for nothing more than a work of fiction.  Some pundits pointed to the breadth of religious satire within various Christian societies and complained that the protesters were too thin-skinned. Others countered with the argument that faiths practised by minorities are always easier to mock and, accordingly, should receive more protection. Rarely did either side discuss the crisis strictly as a freedom of expression issue – there was always a cultural or political angle to the debate. The book itself went largely unread, but this did little to prevent attitudes from becoming more inflamed.

Since the Rushdie fatwa several further provocations have been followed by increasingly violent protests. Predictably, the political atmosphere has become more inflammatory after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.  Today religious defamation has become one of the easiest forms of provocation. The 2005 publication of the Jyllands-Posten Mohamed cartoons showed that a fairly obscure newspaper could trigger widespread protests in distant countries. More recently, scaremongering by Christian fundamentalists over the construction of a “mosque” (actually a prayer room) near Ground Zero in New York has shown that religion can be used to heat up domestic passions too.

In retrospect it seems sadly predictable that the Florida pastor who threatened to burn a copy of the Koran on September 11, 2010 should have inspired further provocations such as the crude anti-Muslim film that has caused riots in Egypt and Libya. Equally depressing is the race to the bottom as to what can be considered offensive. Twenty years ago a complex novel sparked a debate about how religious beliefs should be treated in developed democracies, today there is little interest in debate and, with the help of the Internet, a few sufficiently determined malcontents can provoke new crises with cartoonish stereotypes and childish insults.

Diplomatic efforts to temper the ensuing passions have proved harder than expected. In November 2008, after much heated debate, the UN General Assembly approved a motion to investigate “the possible correlation between defamation of religions and the upsurge in incitement, intolerance and hatred in many parts of the world” – 85 states voted for the motion, 50 opposed and 42 abstained. The vote was seen mainly as a confrontation between the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which represents nearly 60 Muslim countries and some of those with minority Muslim populations, and Western governments anxious to uphold the freedom of expression norms of secular democracy.
Further diplomatic wrangling has tried to move away from the blanket protection of religious beliefs – an impractical idea, at best – and more towards the protection of believers who are unfairly targeted. But even here clear distinctions are problematic. Open contempt for religious beliefs is a particularly loathsome part of contemporary racism and xenophobia, but there is no serious prospect of this ever being cured by legislation.

Despite the distasteful politicking within the United States as to whether the current administration  has “apologized” for offending other countries –  Romney spoke too hastily, the administration  responded too timidly – it remains important that freedom of expression be defended, even when it has been misused to produce the shameful film at the heart of the crisis. One of the less-appreciated ironies of free speech protection in America is that the same law that allows people to mock a religion also grants the faithful the right to retort with opinions of their own. Two months ago the president of a fast food chain spoke forcefully against gay marriage and justified his distaste for it on Biblical grounds. He was widely criticized within the media, but there was never any danger of him being silenced. Of course, America’s free speech protections go much further. Not long ago the Supreme Court ruled that Christians can even picket the funerals of gay soldiers with placards that would violate hate speech standards in other countries.

Situations like these are tolerated on the understanding that truth is always better served by the interplay of diverse opinions. More than eighty years ago the Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence. Only an emergency can justify repression.” This remarkable principle remains essential to the spirit of the US Constitution and it is well worth defending.


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