Thursday, November 01, 2012

Blasphemy is a victimless crime

In addresses to the United Nations in September, the representatives of several predominantly Muslim countries, as well as the secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), called for a ban on expression offensive to Muslims and other religions.

Most claimed that they were supportive of free speech, but that hate speech needed to be stopped.
The question is not whether there should ever be restrictions on expression. No country provides for completely unlimited free speech. Even the United States, with its famous First Amendment, has several significant limitations on expression - the canonical example being that it is illegal to falsely yell "FIRE!" in a crowded movie theatre.

Most people support the principle of placing limits on unfettered speech. Some widely accepted examples include (limited and well-crafted) laws regarding slander and libel, truth in advertising, and uttering death threats.

Given that reasonable limits exist on speech, the question is: Does mocking Islam's Prophet fall outside the bounds of acceptable expression? 


A cheap, tawdry YouTube video languished unseen until an Egyptian TV station translated it into Arabic and promoted it. Similarly, a two-bit religious huckster with an insignificant following gained the attention of the world only when media outlets spent weeks hyping his threat to burn a Koran. Who is more responsible for their infamy? A few individuals on the fringes of society, or the politicians and media that brought them from obscurity into the forefront of international relations?
Granted, these people are being deliberately provocative. Granted, these people are contributing little if anything to public knowledge or debate. Granted, they hold views that reasonable people find revolting. However, they also have the right to do all these things.

As a matter of public policy, one cannot be held hostage to the violent outbursts of others.

One might not support a woman's choice to terminate a pregnancy, but one cannot legitimately claim that abortions should be outlawed because many "pro-life" activists are provoked into assassinating doctors.

Freedom of speech is a foundational building block of human rights. Freedom from offence is not.
Free speech means that everyone - from 9/11 Truthers and vaccine denialists, to born again fundamentalist Pentecostals and God-hating rabid atheists, and even including Conservatives and Liberals, Democrats and Republicans - can take to the public square, make their arguments, and spew venom at their real or perceived enemies.
Many of the points made by the OIC, ironically, actually argue against its stated position. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary General of the OIC, states, “We are not saying stop free speech; we are staying stop hate speech.” Mockery and satire cannot reasonably be deemed hate speech, though calls for "Death to America!" might qualify. When the OIC claims that "A line has to be drawn at incitement," any observer should ask which is the greater incitement: editorial cartoons, or calling for the death of cartoonists? “You have to see that there is a provocation." Certainly, Mohammad is a revered figure for many; but a movie trailer video mocking the Prophet is no more an excuse for violence for devout Muslims than the film "Anonymous" (which posited that the famous playwright was a fraud) would be for passionate Shakespeare aficionados. And certainly, the “international community must not become silent observers.” The international community should rally around the right of provocative cartoonists, incompetent directors, and childish reverends to say what they will.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that a genuine ban on blasphemy or disparagement of religious figures would place the greatest strictures on the faithful themselves. Numerous religious texts explicitly insult and denigrate other faiths. Raymond Ibrahim, Shillman Fellow at the David Horotowitz Freedom Center, argues that consistently applied religious defamation laws would quickly ban the Koran. What is a priest or imam to do, if blasphemy becomes a crime and as a result the Bible and Koran become illegal texts?

1 comment:

  1. It comes down to the notion of freedom-to vs. freedom-from. All modern notions of free-speech recognize and negotiate this.

    Restricting my freedom-to mock a prophet or two (tastefully or not; as you rightly point out, how classy I am at this has no bearing on the argument) has little weight against someone's freedom-from my individual mocking.

    Now, if a legal collective such as a corporation or state does the mocking, then we get into systemic violence -- the long and undistinguished history of portrayals of stereotypes that marked the earliest sorts of mass media experiments.

    Even the same thoughtless and ignorant mockery quickly becomes something else, indeed. When is a Youtube like a newspaper or broadsheet, and when it is personal speech?

    I don't know, but there is a tricky balance here to achieve, and not just along a single axis.

    At the end of the day, you are right: simple personal mockery, even in the form of a shitty youtube video by convicted fraudsters, is not enough to tip over to "hate" speech as envisioned by lawmakers in most reasonable nations. Such a ban over-reaches and doesn't actually do much that provide yet another DMCA legal structure for suppressing things you simply don't like.

    There is lots I don't like about the world today; I should be free to criticize it, be it lazy Western ideology or blind observance to outmoded religious or scientism beliefs. Even if the criticism takes a form someone might call childish, hurtful or ignorant.