Like many people over the last few days I’ve been pondering whether free speech really should extend to insulting people’s deeply held beliefs. Would it be possible to achieve all the benefits of free speech while stopping short of being offensive? If it were, self-censorship might be the moral choice.
Free speech is not an end in itself, we value it because we use it to examine and criticize influential ideas. There are many good ideas: democracy and human rights, for example, and plenty of bad ones, such as fascism and totalitarian communism. We can only sort the good from the bad if we can debate their merits and we can only overthrow the bad if we can advocate against it. That’s why all totalitarian regimes control and repress speech. Satirical cartoons are a time-honoured and effective means of challenging ideas and prompting people to think.
The Islamic ban on drawing Mohammed is a theological taboo. The whole idea is to place Mohammed, and thus Islam, above human criticism. Drawing Mohammed is seen as disrespectful because it involves the drawer thinking for themselves about Mohammed and possibly coming to un-Islamic conclusions. Islam, which means “submission”, is a matter of accepting the Koran and Mohammed’s words and example as perfect and unquestionable. Continue reading
This article was written for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and is reproduced here
What is it about the decision by Channel 4 News to censor a Jesus and Mo cartoon that makes it wrong? In essence the decision is wrong because it implies that the request that no depiction of Mohammad be shown is a reasonable one, whereas by all normal standards of the secular West the request is totally unreasonable.
You are likely familiar with the story, of how students at the London School of Economics advertised their Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society by wearing T-shirts that are utterly innocuous in their content, save that they depict the prophet Mohammad. The LSE demanded that the T-shirts be covered up but subsequently apologised for their heavy-handed action.
The issue featured on the BBC’s The Big Questions leading to the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim, tweeting the cartoon and stating that he was not offended by it. Less tolerant Muslims are now calling for his deselection and even threatening his life. In the resulting publicity Channel 4 News showed the cartoon but censored it owing to the “offence” it might cause, while the BBC’s Newsnight refused to show it at all. Continue reading
Reading the British newspapers each morning I’m often irked by the reporting of religious-freedom cases. I’ve posted before about how misunderstood the concept of “religious freedom” is — it shouldn’t grant anyone extra rights, that would violate the equally important principle of equality under the law. In a nutshell religious freedom means this: you should not be imposed upon for religious reasons. That’s it.
Of course society can have every right to impose on you for good, secular, non-religious reasons, even if these impositions affect your religious practice. Such restrictions, if they apply to everyone, are not a violation of religious freedom. But no-one may impose on you for reasons motivated by religion, either their promotion of their own religion or their dislike of yours.
Treating people equally, regardless of their religious views, is as important as religious freedom. Indeed the concepts of religious freedom and religious equality are entwined and inseparable. In the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, one of the first and finest declarations of the concept, Thomas Jefferson declared:
That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry […] opinions in matters of Religion […] shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.
The word “enlarge” is as important there as the word “diminish”. Continue reading
At the recent Freshers Fair at the London School of Economics the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society manned their stall wearing t-shirts featuring Jesus and Mo cartoons. Officers of the Student Union, backed up by university security, decided that the t-shirts created an “offensive environment” and constituted “harassment” that threatened to “disrupt the event”.
Let’s talk plainly about this. They objected because the t-shirts displayed a depiction of Mohammed. Islam adopts a rule of not depicting Mohammed, and the LSE SU have decided that everyone else at their university must obey this rule. Not to adopt this Islamic rule for yourself is “offensive” to Muslims and thus “harasses” them. It constitutes “Islamophobia”, a form of “racism”, in the Union’s overly broad interpretation of that word.
Admittedly, the t-shirts also contained a depiction of Jesus, but everyone knows that that was not the issue. Further, the mere display of satirical cartoons is not the problem. You can bet that, were the LSESU’s Labour or Conservative society to display satirical cartoons of political leaders — of the sort that appear every day in newspapers — then no-one would bat an eyelid.
Notice that, in reporting the affair, the Independent showed one panel of the offending cartoon. Which panel? You won’t be surprised that it was the only one of the four panels that depicted Jesus but not Mo. Continue reading
Britain is in a tizz over when it is or isn’t acceptable to wear the face veils often associated with the Islamic religion. A judge has ruled that a Muslim defendant in a Crown Court may not cover her face while giving evidence, though may at other times. A college has recently rescinded a general ban on covering the face. There are reports of Muslim schools forcing girls as young as 11 to cover their faces, and Home Office minister Jeremy Browne has called for a “national debate” on the issue.
The rights to individuality, to decide what to wear, and to express one’s religion in one’s clothing are clearly part of our societal freedoms. Yet, equally clearly, this right is limited and is weighed against other factors. For example our society accepts the right of employers to ask staff to wear a uniform, and the right of schools to adopt a uniform.
Claiming “religious freedom” makes other people timid and reluctant to challenge a clothing choice, even if it is inappropriate and even if a similar choice by the non-religious would not be accepted.
Yet, once one properly understands the concept of religious freedom the right outcome is usually clear. The problem is that many people don’t understand the concept. Many people think that “religious freedom” grants you extra rights, rights to do things that you could not do if you were not religious. This would violate the basic principle of equal treatment and the equal citizenship of everyone; we should not accept that religious people get extra privileges, as though their preferences and sensibilities count for more than those of the non-religious. Continue reading
As just about everyone will already know, Richard Dawkins has been causing quite a stir by his tweeting about Islam. The criticism is that Dawkins’s tweeting is “racist”, “xenophobic”, “Islamophobic”, “bigoted”, “dishonest”, “counterproductive”, and that it enables the racism of the likes of the EDL.
Let me admit that I’m ambivalent about Dawkins’s use of Twitter, I think he’d make a far better blogger than tweeter, and he comes off much better given sufficient words to explain himself and show his eloquence. But Dawkins is clearly enjoying himself and gathering an ever-increasing Twitter following. He’s also quite capable of defending himself when necessary.
It seems to me that the criticism of Dawkins stems largely from one of the oldest memes, that it is uncouth to criticise religion. If he were criticising, say, communism or capitalism in similar terms no-one would bat an eye. But when he criticises Islam people try their best to interpret his language as “racist” and thus unacceptable.
One complaint is that Dawkins’s language is “careless” in that his language can be “co-opted into a wider discourse that Islam is in a sort of clash of civilisations with the West”, or as another critic puts it “The last thing secularism needs is a clash-of-civilisations narrative”.
Well, I disagree. I hold the principle of secularism to be of the highest importance for a decent, functioning and progressive society. Indeed I would argue that a key reason underpinning the West’s current economic dominance is that the West accepts the separation of church and state, even in highly religious nations such as the USA. This principle of being able to speak freely and question everything is vital to the development of ideas that drive progress. Continue reading
In the ongoing row over a film clip denigrating Islam the European Union, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Arab League and the Commission of the African Union have issued a joint statement that includes:
We … want to send a message today of peace and tolerance. We share a profound respect for all religions. We are united in our belief in the fundamental importance of religious freedom and tolerance. […] While fully recognizing freedom of expression, we believe in the importance of respecting all prophets, regardless of which religion they belong to.
We reiterate our strong commitment to take further measures and to work for an international consensus on tolerance and full respect of religion […] The only answer to the darkness of intolerance and ignorance is the light of mutual respect, tolerance and dialogue.
Notice how the wording repeatedly switches between “respect” and “tolerance” as though they were part of the same package and both equally necessary. Yet, the words are quite different, both in meaning and in their status as something that can be legitimately demanded.
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary makes this clear:
“Tolerate”: “(1) allow the existence or occurrence of (something that one dislikes or disagrees with) without interference. (2) endure (someone or something unpleasant) with forbearance”.
Contrast this with:
“Respect”: (1) “feeling of deep admiration for someone (or something) elicited by their qualities or achievements.”
Far from “respect” and “tolerance” being part of the same package, one can only genuinely tolerate something that one does not respect. Continue reading