Free Speech Under Siege

Since the Enlightenment, fundamentalist religious leaders the world over have railed against the idea of free speech, for understandable reasons. By permitting other people to point out the fallacies in their arguments and dispute their claim to be the infallible voice of God, the right of free speech is the single most effective countermeasure to prevent theocracy and tyranny from taking hold. Religious extremism can be found in many places, but it rarely becomes truly dominant unless it can force dissenting voices to be silent.

Lately, some of the most tyrannical and outrageous attacks on free speech have come from Islam, which has among its ranks many ruthless, violent fanatics who would like nothing better than to crush all differing opinions by force. Three stories on this theme have been in the news lately.

First, a true outrage from Pakistan – our supposed ally in the battle against Islamic extremism. The author Younus Shaikh has been convicted and sentenced to life in prison for writing a supposedly blasphemous book titled The Satanic Cleric. These crimes, supposedly, included claiming that stoning as a punishment for adultery is not mentioned in the Qur’an, and writing “contemptuous remarks” directed at Muslim imams. (Note: This is not, as I originally thought, the same case as that of Dr. Younus Shaikh – another Pakistani citizen and freethinker who was threatened with life imprisonment for violating Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Dr. Shaikh was finally freed, after two years of confinement, and wisely chose to leave the country. As best as I can determine, this is a different individual with a similar name.)

Second: Taslima Nasrin, a Bangladeshi writer and secular humanist, was recently attacked by Muslim fanatics while in Hyderabad, India, to promote translations of some of her books, including Lajja (Bengali for “shame”), about anti-Hindu bigotry among Muslims in Bangladesh. Dr. Nasrin has been repeatedly threatened by religious terrorists for her outspoken humanist and feminist views, including earlier this year when an Indian Muslim group promised a large cash reward for her murder, but she has so far remained courageously undaunted by these evil and despicable criminals. Most shocking of all, her attackers on this occasion were elected legislators in the government of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, belonging to a Muslim political party. (Dr. Nasrin was unhurt in the incident.) Thankfully, her attackers did not escape, and were arrested and charged.

Finally, consider Turkey. Harun Yahya – the pen name of Adnan Oktar – is a prolific creationist, a Holocaust denier, and has been accused of leading a religious cult that engaged in pedophilia. All in all, he’s a thoroughly unpleasant fellow. Now he can claim yet another act of evil to his name: he successfully persuaded the Turkish government to block WordPress.com, which hosts thousands of blogs, from all of Turkey because a handful of WordPress-hosted blogs had the temerity to criticize him. Turkey has a relatively secular government compared to most Muslim-majority nations, and I hope this outrageous censorship will soon be lifted (though it can be bypassed easily enough), but I’ve heard no such news yet.

It’s interesting to note that all three of these incidents occurred in countries – Pakistan, India, Turkey – that are democracies. This just goes to show that while democracy, on average, is better than any other governmental system, but it is not a panacea. No state can be more peaceful or virtuous than the people who make it up, and where violent fanatics exist, they can influence the workings of any government. Tyranny imposed by a democracy is no better than tyranny imposed by a dictator. What this means for all of us is that, where religious fundamentalism is dominant, no truly free society can be expected to arise. Until we nonbelievers succeed in quenching the fever of faith, attacks on free speech like these will be almost certain to continue.

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.

  • mackrelmint

    What is also, and perhaps more, alarming is that in Taslima Nasrin’s case, SHE was also charged by the police after being attacked at her book launch on the charge of ‘hurting Muslim feelings’ (a criminal charge for which she could be imprisoned for 3 years).

    It’s scary stuff when legislation intended to prevent incitement of hate is used to prevent ANY criticism and promotion of hate is equated to hurt feelings.

    I hail from Canada where we have legislation preventing so called hate speech. So far, it has been used reasonably judiciously, but India’s example suggests how easily it might be twisted to encompass rational criticism of religious belief.

    (sorry, I don’t know how to create a hyperlink here) CBC briefly covered her story at: http://www.cbc.ca/arts/books/story/2007/08/14/nasreem-india.html

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    That‘s something I hadn’t heard, and it’s an especially unjust coda to Dr. Nasrin’s story. She’s attacked by fanatical maniacs and it’s her fault for making them angry? That is absurd, and any competent magistrate would throw those charges out immediately. I’ll definitely have to look for updates on that story; my thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    That story just goes to show why hate speech laws are always a terrible idea. By definition, the most hated views in a society will be the least popular ones, and these laws can far too easily be used to silence viewpoints which the majority does not want to hear. The fact that genuinely undeserving people may have their feelings hurt by truly hateful speech is the price we pay, and a small price in my opinion, for a society in which all people are free to voice their beliefs.

  • valhar2000

    Well, I’m sure you’ve all heard the old adage that says “those who are easy to offend deserve to be offended”. I find that it is often quite true.

  • bassmanpete

    I’ve always opposed ANY restriction on free speech however hateful, offensive, racist or whatever. Laws don’t stop people from having these types of thoughts/ideas and restricting what they can say just makes it harder to identify who they are.

  • http://www.patmuchmore.com P4limpsest

    Amen to all of your points against hate speech laws. I’ve recently come to feel the same way about hate crime legislation as well. Increasing the punishment for a crime based on certain possible reasons still FEELS kind of noble to me, but it just seems like the same kind of thought-policing as hate speech laws, albeit couched in a more seemingly reasonable situation. I find it hard to argue against, however, without resorting to slippery slope fallacies. Does anyone have good arguments either for or against hate crime legislation? Unlike hate speech laws (which can truly be dismissed on principle quite easily) they seem to have extra justifications.

    In fact, I find it hard to avoid slippery-slope arguments in lots of aspects of religious argument. Are there times that these arguments don’t amount to fallacy, or does pointing to possible negative consequences of an otherwise neutral point automatically fall to the rubbish bin?

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    Hate crimes are designed to terrorize. If I kill you for some normal reason, I am targeting you; if I kill you because you’re gay (or Muslim, or black, or a woman, or whatever), then I am explicitly threatening everyone who is gay (or Muslim or black or women or whatever). I’m making you afraid to walk down the street.

    Hate speech isn’t quite the same thing, but hate crimes are different – hate crimes are declarations that an entire class of people is fair game.

  • http://www.patmuchmore.com P4limpsest

    But surely hate speech is designed to terrorize as well. Further, one could easily murder someone in order to terrorize a group that isn’t united by race or religion. I could be terrorizing a family that owns land I want, or terrorizing a city that I think has held me down. Finally, hate crime laws don’t only get used in instances of murder–random vandalism of a church is one thing, but make that vandalism in the form of anti-religious slogans and you’re in a whole different level of shit-storm. It allows a prosecution of speech from the back door. Of course no one has the right to vandalize someone else’s property, but the crime should end there. To enhance the punishment (often quite extravagantly) based on the content of the speech seems perverse. But here I am slip-slidin’ away down the slope.

  • Alex Weaver

    In fact, I find it hard to avoid slippery-slope arguments in lots of aspects of religious argument. Are there times that these arguments don’t amount to fallacy, or does pointing to possible negative consequences of an otherwise neutral point automatically fall to the rubbish bin?

    I’m not entirely sure where the concept of slippery slope as a fallacy separates from the effects of precedent on subsequent decision-making, but issues of precedent are clearly a legitimate concern. I would say that slippery slope issues are necessarily fallacious when deployed against empirical arguments (points of fact) or when they are used to scare people, but when used properly (in the context of disputes over desirable actions) and when an actual plausible connection between the proposed action and the worrisome long-term consequences can be shown to exist, they’re legitimate.

  • KShep

    Hate-crime laws……my take on these is that they are mostly feel-good legislation, since proving criminal intent toward the victim because of their race, gender, orientation, etc. is nearly impossible. Not that it couldn’t happen, but I’ve still never heard of a successful prosecution of a hate crime.

    I feel it should be pointed out, though, that many people (okay, mostly conservatives) feel these laws are designed to protect ONLY minority groups, and therefore the law is unconstitutional since it doesn’t protect everyone. They don’t realize that if, for example, a gang of crazed pink pistol totin’ lesbians attack a helpless heterosexual couple for their orientation the hate-crime law would then apply.

    I wonder how long it’ll be before one of these laws are used to prosecute a crime committed by a religious nutjob against an atheist?

    I’m not holding my breath.

  • http://www.patmuchmore.com P4limpsest

    but when used properly (in the context of disputes over desirable actions) and when an actual plausible connection between the proposed action and the worrisome long-term consequences can be shown to exist, they’re legitimate.

    Good point. I think we still have to add the caveat that the proposition would have to be sufficiently outweighed by the long-term consequences as well. No matter how plausible the string of consequences, and no matter how likely they are to follow, they can’t in-and-of-themselves disprove the utility of the proposition. Maybe the line should be drawn at the point where slippery slope arguments are the only arguments employed against a proposition? If I offer other arguments and then buttress them by showing that poor consequences would also likely follow that seems like less shaky ground.

    Thanks for the conversation on it, it helps me focus my ideas!

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/ C. L. Hanson

    On a related note, apparently there are a number of political prisoners currently scheduled for execution in Iran (see here). It looks like a case of what you’re talking about — a brutal regime silencing those who might have been a positive force for change.

    This case is particularly urgent in terms of world stability since Bush seems to be hinting at military action against Iran. Such an invasion would likely increase the Islamic government’s justification of further repression (as war often does). I’m not sure precisely what to do about this, but encouraging people to learn a little about the history of the region (especially recent history) can’t hurt: For a user-friendly introduction, please see the film Persepolis (which is the story of a kid who was attending a secular school up until the Islamic government took power and whose life was colored by the increasingly repressive atmosphere).

  • FreedomOfThought

    I’m new and this is my first post to this forum, so I might as well get started with some comments that will surely get me flayed alive :-)

    I, too, believe in unrestricted free speech…to a point. When speech is about concepts, ideas, opinions, views, etc, then I believe such speech must be protected. But, when the speech turns to inciting violent or criminal action, it moves from the realm of speech to the realm of action, and I do not believe in unrestricted freedom of action. Your rights end where mine begin. I believe that anything that involves only consenting adults is protected action. Violence against others (unless they actually want it, big boy :-), infringes on their freedoms, of course. So, it is reasonable to restrict actions, but not thoughts, expression, and speech.

    I don’t know if the following are “good” arguments for or against hate-crime laws or not, but whenever I start waxing philosophical about criminal activity and its relationship to various freedoms, I have to remind myself that, by and large, at least in the U.S., the people who are arrested for violent crimes are violent criminals.

    And I don’t mean to gloss over the seriousness and tragedy of the all too frequent miscarriages of justice that occur, such as the one unfolding now in Jena, LA, but I’ll have to save that tirade for another day.

    I’m sure all here have read and seen much in the paper and on TV about just how bad some people can be. Someone once asked me, “How does a rational society deal with irrational behavior?”, and he meant murder. His answer, “By acting just as irrationally.”, and he meant the death penalty.

    When those of us who believe ourselves “rational” deal with other rational people, we can act rationally. But when we deal with irrational people, it is usually futile to try to deal with them rationally. So, you and I don’t need for judges to sit ten feet in the air towering over us to impress us with the seriousness and soberness of the situation, but violent criminals do, sometimes, respond to such psychological tricks. An irrational practice for the likes of us, but if it gives a violent criminal one millisecond of pause to think that maybe he’s out of his league at the moment, then that one millisecond could make all the difference in maintaining control in the court room vs. having a violent criminal rampaging through it. (Yes, of course, it doesn’t always work, but it does usually seem to work.) Similarly, I think, the gradations of punishments for different crimes are intended (if not entirely successfully) to deal with the gradations of violence in criminals. To us rational folks, it just seems either “feel good” or just plain silly, but to the mind of a more or less violent someone who is thinking maybe he’ll just mosey over to that g-d- gay bar down the street and just maybe kill himself a queer for Christ, or even bag himself a atheist, it may give him a moment of pause ’cause he’s heard from his drinking buddies that they’ll go a lot harder on him if it’s a “hate-crime”. It is a matter of marketing. These sorts of laws, at least in the U.S., are not in place to control folks like us, but to protect us from folks like them.

    Can such laws be abused…absolutely. It wouldn’t be the U.S. if they weren’t. Are they effective…who knows. But as long as there’s a chance that some asshole who heard I was an atheist pauses to think about the extra consequences just long enough for me to get a head start on him to my car in that dark parking lot, then I’m all for it. Of course, I won’t count on it, and I will never know if it really worked, but I guess I feel (have faith?) that having such laws is better than not having them. (More so for others, than for myself, because I don’t frequent dark parking lots anyway.)

    So, finally, the point is, yes, hate-crime laws seem silly, but then we are not their target audience.

    (Just some of my random, synaptic firings. My opinion can be changed by a puff of wind. :-)

    “Any country that lets me run my mouth the way I do and get away with it…deserves to be saved.”–Bill Mahr.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Hi there FreedomOfThought,

    No need to worry, we don’t flay newcomers around here. :)

    Actually, I think most people here would agree with you. This paragraph…

    I, too, believe in unrestricted free speech…to a point. When speech is about concepts, ideas, opinions, views, etc, then I believe such speech must be protected. But, when the speech turns to inciting violent or criminal action, it moves from the realm of speech to the realm of action, and I do not believe in unrestricted freedom of action.

    …is completely in accord with my views, and probably most people’s views here. Speech that incites or encourages criminal activity is itself a crime, and should be dealt with accordingly. But speech that only expresses an idea, no matter how detestable, should not be a crime.

    We have to keep in mind the difference between hate speech laws and hate crime laws. Hate crime laws punish an action more severely if that action was already a crime and was motivated by hate of a particular group. Hate speech laws, however, punish the mere expression of an idea regardless of whether any action accompanies it. I’m always opposed to hate speech laws, but I think hate crime laws are at the very least defensible, though I personally haven’t made up my mind about them. (Should I really be punished more harshly for beating you because I hate your race or religion than for beating you because I just don’t like your face?)