Ian Boyne, Contributor
The Islamic fanatics and extremists who murdered the United States ambassador to Libya as well as other embassy officials, and who carried out violent protests in several Arab countries recently, are not the only enemies of free speech in our world.
There is a strong illiberal spirit even in liberal democracies, and this is by no means confined to the uneducated and unenlightened. Some of our most highly schooled people are bigots of one kind of another, grossly intolerant and arrogant and contemptuous of other people's right to free expression. The Muslim enemies of free speech represent only one extreme - and a very dangerous
Atheists and anti-Christian detractors can say all kinds of things about Jesus and Christianity; can make offensive movies and sitcoms and have absolutely no fear for their lives and property. The atheists might say we have Western culture to thank for that, rather than innate Christian sensibilities, for Christians have their own history of torture, tyranny and bloody persecution of those who merely disagreed with their dogmas.
FREEDOM TO OFFEND
What a frightful world we inhabit when in one part of the world, where the exercise of free speech is canonised, someone can choose to exercise that right; and in another part of the world, violence, murder and mayhem erupt because of that. No Western country can guarantee that its free citizens might not choose to insult or caricature the Prophet Muhammad. Why should we, in Western democracies, be held captive to Muslim fanatics and tyrants and their sense of outrage? Why should we be compelled to honour their dogmas, such as not depicting their Prophet at all?
Freedom of speech must include the freedom to insult and to offend. I don't think insulting people and being rude is a good thing, and it is certainly not something to be encouraged. Indeed, it should be condemned. But a free, democratic society must allow it.
That offending and offensive YouTube film Innocence of Muslims should be
That outrageous anti-Muslim bigotry which triggered the Arab riots should never have been produced and would not be by a person socialised in good values. We should increasingly work towards a society where that kind of crudeness and vulgar display of prejudice and bigotry is scorned. Bigots who produce films like The Innocence of Muslims should know there would not be any market for such trash.
FREEDOM TO MAKE TRASH
But in a free, democratic, open society, people must have the freedom to produce trash. Yes, there are laws governing good taste and appropriateness. Pornography is not allowed in all places, and nudity is not deemed appropriate in public places. So there is no absolute freedom. Free speech is limited. But we must protect it, as relative and incomplete as it is. We must make free speech the default position, rather than placing it under permanent suspicion.
The Muslims are offended not only by crude offerings such as The Innocence of Muslims but even by intellectual critiques such as offered by Pope Benedict in his 2006 papal lecture, where he included a controversial 14th-century quote about Islam. What was the quote that brought bitter denunciations from Muslims in a number of countries? Here it is: "Show me what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The Pope was not endorsing the view that Islam had things which were only evil and inhuman, but the Muslims were not in any mood for reason or analysis.
So the Muslim extremists not only want to tyrannise their own societies but they want to force the rest of us to oblige their religious scruples and inhibitions. Why aren't these Muslims content to observe their tyrannical rules in their own borders? Why do they feel that we in the West are morally bound, on the threat of violence, to follow their dictates?
Moderate Muslims need to speak out more forcefully against the atrocities of Muslim extremists, jihadists and Salafis. Freedom of speech is the right of all peoples. It is not a peculiarly Western right. Moderate Muslims who say those in the West always stereotype Islam must raise their voices loudly so we can see that there is no monolithic view in Islam, and that the enemies of freedom of expression do not represent all, or even the majority, of Islam.
A few years ago, Islamic militants won a major victory when fears of terrorist actions forced a leading opera house in Germany to cancel a three-year-old Mozart production which would have depicted the severed head of the Prophet Muhammad. And recall the mayhem these militants and terrorists wreaked in 2005 when a Danish cartoonist, exercising his right to free speech, portrayed Muhammad in less-than-flattering terms. Their holy man is not supposed to be depicted at all. And we all have to obey that or die and see our properties burnt. In 1989, Salman Rushdie had a bounty on his head for publishing The Satanic Verses blaspheming Islam.
Just this year, what was said to be an accidental burning of the Koran at the US Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan sparked violence, and United States President Barack Obama had to apologise. People should be free to intentionally and maliciously burn the Koran any day, anywhere! They should be free to burn the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita or any other so-called sacred writings. I think it is crude to do so, but people should have that right.
People should have the right to lampoon Jesus in any film or comedy house. I don't think people should be locked up for cursing Jesus Christ or the biblical God. There are militant atheists who accuse God of all kinds of atrocities and crimes, and I don't think their books should be banned.
But I have a problem with secularists, too, for many of them have the same spirit of the Muslim jihadists. There are gay people who, after being so oppressed, stigmatised, verbally abused and socially excluded, overreact by wanting to limit verbal attacks on them.
I believe people should be free to call homosexuality an abomination, punishable by death in an eternal hellfire (which I don't believe in). Christians who believe that homosexuality is abnormal, dirty, sick, nasty and abominable should be free to preach and proclaim that. Now I am losing all you enlightened secularists who despise Islamic fanaticism. You who were just cheering me now part company with me.Recently, THE STAR reported that some gays had strongly reacted on Facebook to a planned purity, anti-homosexuality march being planned by Christians in Kingston. The Christians had taken to Facebook to promote that march and to speak against homosexuality, and had been mobilising people to march against what they consider sexual evils in society. Their absolute right. But some gays on Facebook reacted angrily, with one person writing (to my bemusement): "These people should be banned!"
So it's not okay for Christians to say that gay marches should be banned, but it is okay for gays to call for the banning of anti-gay marches? Something is wrong with such thinking - or lack of thinking. There seem to be few who genuinely respect tolerance and diversity of opinions. Gays will adduce all kinds of arguments about how anti-homosexual rhetoric causes "grave psychological harm" and "emotional distress" to gay people, especially children and young people and, therefore, people should not have the right to emotionally abuse people. Well, the Muslims feel the same way! They feel they are abused and psychologically harmed when their Prophet is depicted in unflattering ways. Gays might not be rioting like Muslim extremists, but some of them display the same belligerent, intolerant and anti-democratic spirit.
UNSHACKLE HATE SPEECH
American media houses which talk solemnly about freedom of the press and freedom of speech and yet regularly censor hosts because they offend blacks, Hispanics, Latinos and other minority groups are grossly inconsistent. Free speech must include the freedom to insult black people - any people. Again, a society must deplore that kind of speech, but the answer to hate speech is not suppression but, as is famously expressed, 'more, better speech'. The nurturing of an open, democratic society is worth the risks and ambiguities of free speech.
In North America, especially Canada, so-called hate-speech legislation is used to suppress free speech. Political correctness has reached Orwellian dimensions. And in Scandinavia, it is worse. Speech is so sanitised there that you could be thrown in jail for calling homosexuality an abomination. In Germany, you can be punished if you deny the Holocaust. This is absurd. A free society cannot legislate against ignorance. I am a free-speech libertarian. I believe that if God has given mankind free moral agency, and if He allows mankind to rebel against Him, to curse Him and to live in total opposition and defiance to Him, and He gives humanity that freedom, what says us humans to fellow humans?
God has so privileged freedom that He has allowed horrendous evils. He has clearly put freedom over other virtues. I don't believe He will throw people in hell to burn forever for exercising their freedom to rebel against Him. My God is a tolerant, freedom-cherishing God. Not so the gods of secularism and religious fundamentalism.
Ian Boyne is
a veteran journalist. Email feedback to email@example.com and