Considering how often I’ve written about this topic in the past, I had some reluctance to return to it, fearing I wouldn’t have anything new or unique to say this time around. But the right of free speech is once again under assault, and whenever that happens, I believe friends of liberty around the world have a moral duty to man the barricades and raise our voices against the barbarous fanatics who would take it away.
So, here’s the story in a nutshell (HT: Andrew Sullivan). Johann Hari, the courageous freethinker and journalist whom I cited last August in “Speak Boldly“, wrote an editorial calling attention to another case of tyrannical Islamists seeking to suppress the right of others to criticize their barbaric practices. It happened at the U.N., where a bloc of Islamic nations successfully pushed through a resolution demanding “respect” for shariah law, with the shocking result that things like child marriage or the stoning of women can no longer be discussed by the U.N. Human Rights Council.
In response came Hari’s editorial, Why should I respect these oppressive religions? Like his previous piece, it was an outstanding condemnation of irrational beliefs of all kinds, and a clarion call for the most basic of human rights. Here’s an excerpt to give you the flavor, though I highly recommend reading the whole piece:
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.
…a free society cannot be structured to soothe the hardcore faithful. It is based on a deal. You have an absolute right to voice your beliefs – but the price is that I too have a right to respond as I wish. Neither of us can set aside the rules and demand to be protected from offence.
Yet this idea – at the heart of the Universal Declaration – is being lost. To the right, it thwacks into apologists for religious censorship; to the left, it dissolves in multiculturalism. The hijacking of the UN Special Rapporteur by religious fanatics should jolt us into rescuing the simple, battered idea disintegrating in the middle: the equal, indivisible human right to speak freely.
A respected Indian newspaper, The Statesman, reprinted Hari’s essay, explaining that they felt it was in accord with India’s rich and venerable tradition of secularism. You may be able to guess what happened next:
Once again, religious lunatics and terrorists have hijacked the marketplace of ideas and twisted the universal right of free speech into a right, possessed exclusively by themselves, to never be offended. They demand legal protection from ever having to see or hear anything they disagree with, and because they’re always willing to resort to violence if their demands aren’t met, even supposedly liberal, democratic governments give in to them with depressing frequency. The de facto result is the censorship and suppression of freethinkers. Meanwhile, we who are outraged by their vicious and savage creeds seemingly have no right to call upon the government to imprison them.
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.
In a follow-up essay as brilliant as the first, Hari refuses to apologize, and slices swiftly through the flimsy excuses offered by these tyrants and their apologists:
These events are also a reminder of why it is so important to try to let the oxygen of rationality into religious debates – and introduce doubt. Voltaire – one of the great anti-clericalists – said: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” If you can be made to believe the absurd notion that an invisible deity dictated The Eternal Unchanging Truth to a specific person at a specific time in history and anyone who questions this is Evil, then you can easily be made to demand the death of journalists and free women and homosexuals who question that Truth. But if they have a moment of doubt – if there is a single nagging question at the back of their minds – then they are more likely to hesitate. That’s why these ideas must be challenged at their core, using words and reason.
…Yes, if we speak out now, there will be turbulence and threats, and some people may get hurt. But if we fall silent – if we leave the basic human values of free speech, feminism and gay rights undefended in the face of violent religious mobs – then many, many more people will be hurt in the long term. Today, we have to use our right to criticise religion – or lose it.
Amen and hallelujah! We need many more brave freethinkers like Hari – we need a thousand modern-day Voltaires willing to strike back against the evil tyranny of religious extremists, from Islam or from any other religion. If the Indian government arrests one publisher for printing essays like this, we need a thousand more who are willing to reprint them. We need to disseminate these ideas and criticisms into every corner of society, to shine a light on the barbarism of theocracy and call it what it is. Words alone may seem a small thing against the darkness and savagery of fundamentalists – but the fundamentalists themselves must be afraid of them, for why else would they lash out with such fury?
If free speech is circumscribed by the “right” of religious groups to be protected from offense, then it is an empty and meaningless freedom. Any religious sect can stifle any speech, just by taking offense at what is said. We as a species can never make moral progress if those laws shelter evil superstitions from the light of scrutiny and let them fester in the shadows. That’s why, law or no law, we freethinkers must speak out! Letting fundamentalists and fanatics control the terms of the debate is a road that leads directly back to the dark ages. If we’re to take the high road that leads to a brighter and better future, we must never hesitate to name evil and unreason what they are, and never permit ourselves to be daunted or cowed.