Free Speech is Sacred

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Old news from when I was not blogging that I want to make sure I have a post which is a resource on this topic.

Lou Dobbs and Christopher Hitchens with invaluable report on UN Resolution
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And for more about the issue of the Orwellian UN resolution against “defamation of religion,” these two articles by Johann Hari from the time of its consideration are absolutely necessary:

Hari’s first excellent piece on the topic:

The UN’s Rapporteur on Human Rights has always been tasked with exposing and shaming those who prevent free speech – including the religious. But the Pakistani delegate recently demanded that his job description be changed so he seeks out and condemns “abuses of free expression” including “defamation of religions and prophets”. The council agreed – so the job has been turned on its head. Instead of condemning the people who tried to murder Salman Rushdie, they will be condemning Salman Rushdie himself.

Anything which can be deemed “religious” is no longer allowed to be a subject of discussion at the UN – and almost everything is deemed religious. Roy Brown of the International Humanist and Ethical Union has tried to raise topics like the stoning of women accused of adultery or child marriage. The Egyptian delegate stood up to announce discussion of shariah “will not happen” and “Islam will not be crucified in this council” – and Brown was ordered to be silent.

Of course, the first victims of locking down free speech about Islam with the imprimatur of the UN are ordinary Muslims. Here is a random smattering of events that have taken place in the past week in countries that demanded this change. In Nigeria, divorced women are routinely thrown out of their homes and left destitute, unable to see their children, so a large group of them wanted to stage a protest – but the Shariah police declared it was “un-Islamic” and the marchers would be beaten and whipped. In Saudi Arabia, the country’s most senior government-approved cleric said it was perfectly acceptable for old men to marry ten year old girls, and those who disagree should be silenced. In Egypt, a 27-year old Muslim blogger Abdel Rahman was seized, jailed and tortured for arguing for a reformed Islam that does not enforce shariah.

Underpinning these “reforms” is a notion seeping even into democratic societies – that atheism and doubt are akin to racism. Today, whenever a religious belief is criticised, its adherents immediately claim they are the victims of “prejudice” – and their outrage is increasingly being backed by laws.

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.

When you demand “respect”, you are demanding we lie to you. I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade.

But why are religious sensitivities so much more likely to provoke demands for censorship than, say, political sensitivities? The answer lies in the nature of faith. If my views are challenged I can, in the end, check them against reality. If you deregulate markets, will they collapse? If you increase carbon dioxide emissions, does the climate become destabilised? If my views are wrong, I can correct them; if they are right, I am soothed.

But when the religious are challenged, there is no evidence for them to consult.

After he posted the article from which I took those excerpts there were, sure enough, “riots, death threats, and the arrest of an editor who published the article.”  Hari’s must-read reply includes the following remarks:

An Indian newspaper called The Statesman – one of the oldest and most venerable dailies in the country – thought this accorded with the rich Indian tradition of secularism, and reprinted the article. That night, four thousand Islamic fundamentalists began to riot outside their offices, calling for me, the editor, and the publisher to be arrested – or worse. They brought Central Calcutta to a standstill. A typical supporter of the riots, Abdus Subhan, said he was “prepared to lay down his life, if necessary, to protect the honour of the Prophet” and I should be sent “to hell if he chooses not to respect any religion or religious symbol… He has no liberty to vilify or blaspheme any religion or its icons on grounds of freedom of speech.”

Then, two days ago, the editor and publisher were indeed arrested. They have been charged – in the world’s largest democracy, with a constitution supposedly guaranteeing a right to free speech – with “deliberately acting with malicious intent to outrage religious feelings”. I am told I too will be arrested if I go to Calcutta.

What should an honest defender of free speech say in this position? Every word I wrote was true. I believe the right to openly discuss religion, and follow the facts wherever they lead us, is one of the most precious on earth – especially in a democracy of a billion people rivven with streaks of fanaticism from a minority of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. So I cannot and will not apologize.

I did not write a sectarian attack on any particular religion of the kind that could lead to a rerun of India’s hellish anti-Muslim or anti-Sikh pogroms, but rather a principled critique of all religions who try to forcibly silence their critics. The right to free speech I am defending protects Muslims as much as everyone else. I passionately support their right to say anything they want – as long as I too have the right to respond.

It’s worth going through the arguments put forward by the rioting fundamentalists, because they will keep recurring in the twenty-first century as secularism is assaulted again and again. They said I had upset “the harmony” of India, and it could only be restored by my arrest. But this is a lop-sided vision of “harmony”. It would mean that religious fundamentalists are free to say whatever they want – and the rest of us have to shut up and agree.

Nothing worth saying is inoffensive to everyone.

You do not have a right to be ring-fenced from offence. Every day, I am offended – not least by ancient religious texts filled with hate-speech. But I am glad, because I know that the price of taking offence is that I can give it too, if that is where the facts lead me. But again, the protesters propose a lop-sided world. They do not propose to stop voicing their own heinously offensive views about women’s rights or homosexuality, but we have to shut up and take it – or we are the ones being “insulting.”

The argument that I was “asking for it” seems a little like saying a woman wearing a short skirt is “asking” to be raped. Or, as Salman Rushdie wrote when he received far, far worse threats simply for writing a novel (and a masterpiece at that): “When Osip Mandelstam wrote his poem against Stalin, did he ‘know what he was doing’ and so deserve his death? When the students filled Tiananmen Square to ask for freedom, were they not also, and knowingly, asking for the murderous repression that resulted? When Terry Waite was taken hostage, hadn’t he been ‘asking for it’?” When fanatics threaten violence against people who simply use words, you should not blame the victim.

And Hari recommends reading in reply to his articles:

Here are some of the most interesting: from the Hindustan Times, Katha Pollitt in The Nation, Index on Censorship, Shoayib Daniyal, The Daily Telegraph, Ophelia Benson, Stephen Poole, Andrew Sullivan, the Indian blogger Dance With Shadows, Salil Tripathi , the International Humanist and Ethical Union, Austin’s Atheism Blog, Puny Mishra, the Indian blog Communalism Blog, Satya Brat and Russell Blackford.

There was an exceptionally stupid response from The Middle East Times

Finally, the resolution passed in March.