The Devil Cannot Abide Mockery

The recent fiasco over the cartoons of Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper shows that free speech is still very much under threat. Though this basic human right has long been guaranteed in the Western world, this controversy should remind us that there is still a large section of humanity among whom free speech is not just nonexistent, it is held in outright disdain. Sadly, the right to speak one’s mind without fear of repercussion is still the exception, not the norm.

And there are worrying signs that free speech is under renewed assault, not just from religious fanatics, but from people and societies that should be among its defenders. Rather than serving as a powerful demonstration of why free speech is so vital, the Mohammed cartoon controversy seems to have provoked some people to call for an end to criticism of religion, so that nothing like this ever happens again.

Lest this seem like an exaggeration, consider the voices – and not just Muslim voices – who responded to this incident by calling for speech that offends religious sensibilities to be banned. For example, the Vatican stated soon after the incident that “freedom of thought or expression… cannot imply a right to offend the religious sentiments of believers”. The prime minister of Turkey, Tayyip Erdogan, agreed, calling for a limit on press freedom. The European Union’s Commissioner for Justice, Franco Frattini, suggested that “respect for religion and opinions” should be balanced against freedom of expression. Pakistani regional chief minister Akram Durrani said that “Nobody has the right to insult Islam and hurt the feelings of Muslims” and that those who drew the cartoons should be “punished like a terrorist”. Astonishingly, even some self-identified atheists seem to feel this way:

As an atheist my view of religion is that it is merely well defined superstition that has existed through people’s faith and historical circumstances. This opinion does not, I believe, give me the right to insult other people’s religious belief as in the case of depicting the prophet as a terrorist.
–”Common sense needed in debate“, The Express and Star, 22 February 2006

I do not believe these calls, at least the ones originating from religious groups, stem primarily from fear of retribution, though that may play some part. Rather, I believe the cartoon controversy merely provided a convenient cover for religious groups to voice views they have always held. Make no mistake – no religion, of any kind, has ever welcomed outside criticism. As I wrote in “The Cathedral and the Garden“, this is very much the essence of religion, a set of unchanging dogmas which it is heresy to question. Though the legacy of the Enlightenment is a pluralistic society where many groups live together in harmony and compete in a free marketplace of ideas, many religious groups went along with the bargain only grudgingly.

Make no mistake: the Catholic church has never been in favor of free speech. On the contrary, it has always held the view that criticism of Catholicism should be prohibited. (“The Wall” has some relevant quotes.) Islam has historically acted the same. And the Mohammed cartoon controversy is not the first time religious groups have voiced such views. In early 2005, Christian groups in England reacted with similar outrage to a BBC production of Jerry Springer: The Opera which they believed to be “blasphemous”. One protester said, “There should be freedom of speech but there should never be freedom for desecration.” Similarly, in response to a Kansas university professor who proposed to teach an anti-intelligent design course several months ago, Republican state senator Karen Brownlee said, “We have to set a standard that it’s not culturally acceptable to mock Christianity in America.”

In a sense, religious moderates and religious fanatics support each other on this issue. The moderates create an environment where unquestioning faith is considered an acceptable worldview, creating an atmosphere the fanatics can breathe in; and when that faith is questioned, the fanatics react violently, giving the moderates a chance to say, “Yes, we agree that a violent response is unacceptable, but on the other hand we should outlaw criticism of religion so this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.” Consider this article from the National Review in which Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol compared atheists who criticize religion to violent terrorists, calling them both “extremists”. Evidently, the religious fanatics have dragged the discourse so far to the right that merely calling for anti-religious speech to be banned is now a moderate position.

The people calling for this are wrong. There is no equal guilt here, no blame to be shared. Criticizing, lampooning and even ridiculing religion is acceptable. Calling for such acts to be banned, or responding with violence, is not – period. If Muslims offended by cartoons of Mohammed, or Christians offended by arguments against Christianity, want to respond with speech of their own, they are welcome to do so.

The price of living in a society where you are free to speak your mind is that others are free to do so as well, and no person or group has any right to limit the speech of anyone else just because they feel that that speech pays insufficient reverence to their beliefs. Free speech is meaningless if it is restricted to statements so bland that no one could possibly take offense at them. If we do not have free speech when it offends some powerful group, then we do not have free speech. And free speech is important: It is vital to speak out against and prevent the evils being done in the name of religion, and if doing so requires hurting some overly sensitive people’s feelings, so be it. (A column by Malene Arpe from the Toronto Star makes this point very effectively.)

It is probably too much to hope for that the theocratic Muslim nations of the Third World will understand this at this point in history, but there are worrying signs that the right to free speech is eroding even in the democracies of the West. The recent imprisonment of Holocaust denier David Irving by Austria is just one example. As odious and disgusting as Irving’s ideas are, they are still only ideas. If they are wrong, they deserve to be met on the battlefield of reason and defeated – not suppressed by force. The latter course of action only gives legitimacy to Irving’s claims of persecution and may even inspire sympathy from people who would not otherwise pay him any mind.

After all, when the state (or any other group) tries to censor an idea and punish people for talking about it, it is natural to wonder what they are trying to prevent people from finding out, to wonder whether there is some ugly truth that censors of speech are trying to keep hidden. With the case of Holocaust denial, this is obviously not the case; whether governments prohibit it or not does not change the fact that there is abundant historical documentation of the Nazis’ atrocities. However, the same is not true of religion, and this may indeed explain why so many religions have vehemently attacked free speech throughout history. It is no surprise that belief systems that have no evidence for their beliefs would seek instead to prohibit those beliefs from being criticized.

Thankfully, this trend does not seem to have spread to the United States of America, where the First Amendment stands as a strong bulwark against any attempt – well-intentioned or otherwise – to limit free speech. Though I envy Europe its relative freedom from control by right-wing religious groups, I do not condone the worrisome moves it has made away from universal human rights. It is probably because of the Constitution and its strong protection of minority rights that the United States has remained a vigorous and vital democracy despite the degree of influence that religious extremists exert here.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://dominicself.co.uk Dominic Self

    The cartoons were probably an unfortunate example to become the prime example of ‘free speech’ as it forced people like me to start defending what was, on its own merits, fairly weak as ‘art’ or ‘satire’ or any other worthy expression. From a European point of view, I suspect they were intended as really more of a racial insult rather than a logical criticism of Islam or religion in general. And besides which, they weren’t even that *funny* (unlike Jerry Springer – The Opera of course!)

    None of this changes the point that the violent demonstrations against the freedom to mock and ridicule were obnoxious.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I thought they were funny, honestly. At least some of them. And, they are not racial insults OR religious/islamic criticisms; they were insults to TERRORISTS. I mean, seriously, the prophet with the bomb turban was making fun of the followers of the prophet who use bombs, not anyone else. If you don’t see Mohhamed as a violent revolutionary or his teachings as such, then the comic quite simply didn’t apply to you. Just like a comic making fun of abortion clinic bombers do just that; they make fun only of those who bomb abortion clinics.

    But yeah, the free press/speech trampling is getting pretty bad. Add in the whole WOT and all free speech is being endangered because it’s either “offensive” or “dangerous to national security”.

  • Archi Medez

    Adam,

    Very well presented. The context in the U.S. is interesting. The U.S. probably protects free speech better than any other country, to my knowledge. At the same time, the would-be theocrats are very active there. I was disappointed with the support that the Islamist clerics and leaders obtained internationally, in their attempts to thwart and punish practically everyone associated with the publication, from some of the politicians and religious leaders from other faiths. I was also disappointed with the response of seemingly well-meaning non-Muslims who opted for the politically-correct route in saying we need to respect religious senstivities, etc. This again gives religion a special status that other areas of , and so those who use the religion can maintain their power. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the key players in this event were the Islamic political leaders and clerics. (Of course, in countries like Pakistan, the ordinary citizens will mass-protest examples of blasphemy without any prompting from government). I’m a bit tired so I hope to try and post a bit more tomorrow. For now, here’s a few links on the controversy.

    Manifesto: Together facing the new totalitarianism (By Rushdie et al).
    http://www.jp.dk/indland/artikel:aid=3585740/

    Flemming Rose explains why Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/17/AR2006021702499.html

    Editor unrepentant over cartoons: “When asked whether he regretted his decision to publish the Mohammed cartoons, in light of the firestorm they unleashed in the Islamic world and threats against him, Flemming said it was like asking a rape victim whether she regretted wearing a short skirt.”
    “What I did did not transcend normal practice,” he said.
    http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,18165591%5E1702,00.html

    (I’ve followed the controversy fairly closely and this gives a good overview of the cartoon controversy and is well-referenced with lots of links to sources).
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jyllands-Posten_Muhammad_cartoons_controversy

    Hirsi Ali: ‘Everyone Is Afraid to Criticize Islam’
    http://service.spiegel.de/cache/international/spiegel/0,1518,399263,00.html

    Democracy in a Cartoon By Ibn Warraq
    http://service.spiegel.de/cache/international/0,1518,398853,00.html

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with the idea of religious sensitivity. Really. Just as long as it’s not a LAW, I don’t think it’s unfair to protest something if you see it as a total insult. Political correctness isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just as long as you don’t try to coerce others into following you. If you can convince them, though, by all means do so.

  • Archi Medez

    BlackWizard,

    Re religious sensitivity: I agree. I don’t think gratuitous insult of people’s religious beliefs is helpful. At the same time, as you say, there should not be laws protecting religious sensitivity. I think one of the key problems with the way this controversy was handled in the media is that the actual content, the intended meaning, of the cartoons got downplayed. There were important issues addressed, such as women’s subjugation, terrorism and jihadists’ beliefs, and freedom of expression (one cartoon showed an illustrator at his desk shaking with fear, hunched over his desk, drawing a picture of Mohammad). But these issues got buried in the media frenzy.

    Something similar happened with the film _Submission_, in that media attention became focussed on the issue of offensiveness and also on the ensuing threats and the assassination of Van Gogh. The actual subject matter of that film–domestic abuse (i.e., wife-beating) under traditional or fundamentalist Islam–got overshadowed in the controversy.

    The substantive issues got trivialized as the spotlight was put on the issue offensiveness. (This of course happens routinely whenever Islam is substantively criticized publicly). The publishers of the cartoons were put on the defensive, being called upon to explain themselves. That’s fine, but generally the media did not put the more important questions to the Islamic leaders, clerics, and scholars: What about the issues (women’s subjugation, terrorism, free expression), and how they relate to Islam’s teachings and contemporary practice throughout the world and in Europe particularly (esp. Denmark where the cartoons were originally published)? The media could have better served their public duty by investigating these issues.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    Yup, that’s how I look at it. I think if they want to protest the paper itself, fine, let the paper deal with it. There is certainly a capitalistic aspect to where if a paper pisses people off too badly, they lose, and that’s their own damn fault. But legal infringements on them, violence against them, etc is BS. And the liberal media (I don’t care what anyone says, it’s liberal) didn’t stand up for itself. Indeed, media went out of it’s way to hurt another media outlet; it’s pretty bad when the news cares more about being nice than the actual news.

    Oh, and Archi, I just read your essays at Ebon, very informative. I too somewhat believed the moderate Muslims when they said that Islam was not a violent, domineering, imperialistic religion/political system. I’m glad to heve learned more.

  • Jim Sabiston

    One must bear in mind that througout human history free speech has been actively surpressed by the ruling and/or religious leadership. Freedom of speech as it exists in the US is a unique development in human history. Political leaders traditionally are criticized for their active and sometimes brutal suppression of free speech. But political actions are always transient,being an external event, typically passing with the offending leader. Religious suppression of freedoms is more sinister and potentially permanent as it plays upon the internal subconcious cognizant systems within the population. It becomes integrated into the societal/religious doctrine and ‘a way of life’. Recovery from this colsed societal structure can be a slow and painful process, if it occurs at all. The religious leaders know this fully well and the fundamentalist leaders use it to great effect. This is the real crime behind the Danish cartoons. It would have remained a local event except that it was grabbed by a Muslim group and distributed more widely throughout the Islamic countries expressly for the purpose of sowing dissent and offense. The Islamic clerics are simply using the age old tool of fear of an external enemy to buttress their own power base.

    As regards effects in Western world, we must be forever vigilant against the supporters of the ‘avoid offense at any cost’ school of thought. This path leads unavoidably to censorship and the death of freedom of speech as we have known it. Our own leaders, political, religious and corporate are working at accomplishing this every day. Gratuitous insults should be avoided out of simple respect, but I do not consider the Danish cartoons to be in this class. Archi pointed out that the real message of the cartoons was lost in the controversy over how ‘offensive’ they were. Too true, and it is an important message, if only the majority of the Muslim population would ‘own up’ to it.

    As for the media (liberal or otherwise-both arguements can be supported these days), do not look to them for the truth. All major media outlets are currently owned by major corporations and the news that gets printed/telecast tends towards a sensationalist bent because it sells. Truth is the first casualty in this environment. Unbiased reporting and analysis is the second.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    Yup…though, the far left and right wing political ideologies now are adhered to as dogmatically as religion, so is yet another threat. What we really need, at least in the US, is to go back to teaching the Constitution as the first lesson of government. I graduated without ever having read it as a class assignment, only occasionally hearing parts from teachers, while they prattled on about completely UNconstitutional Congressional acts. Honestly, this is what is lacking in schools, and I think that is not entirely by accident.


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