On Blasphemy, Free Speech and Religion

Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about this trade-off between freedom of speech and freedom of religion like there is some kind of balance to be struck.

I’d would like to make that case that this trade-off is completely false and that there is absolutely no balance to be struck.

Freedom of speech never infringes on freedom of religion. There’s nothing I can say about religion generally or about Islam in particular that would infringe on someone else’s ability to practice his/her religion. Period.

Now, if your freedom of religion entails that you force those who do not believe your fairy tales to conform to its blasphemy laws, then that’s not freedom of religion. We have a word for that, it’s theocracy!

This respect that we’re all urged to show for religious sensitivity is actually a demand that the blasphemy law be forced on persons who do not believe in your religion. Think about this for a minute. Realize that this petition is equivalent to a polite request to follow a religion’s particular rules.

Here a simple thought experiment: Are not all Christians blasphemers in the face of Muslims? Are not all Muslims blasphemers in the face of Christians? Each religion rejects the basics teachings of the other and by definition, they are each guilty of blasphemy against an opposing religion. It’s laughable to argue that they are not conscious of each other’s blasphemy. This is the purest example of “agree to disagree”, specially considering the punishment which awaits the blasphemers.

Ask yourself, why do the “great” religions of the world all agree to disagree? A more interesting question is why did the Christian Pope completely ignore Christ’s instructions on turning the other cheek and, instead, provide a justification (and demonstration) of violence when confronted with disrespect? Mind you, the Pope made his remarks right after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Perfect timing? Coincidence? No.

The answer is power. Religion is power. This is a fact.

It’s very easy to see that the Pope’s comments were opportunistic and in defense of another religion. All religions know that a secular threat in the form of a rejection of blasphemy laws to one religion is a threat to all religions. While it may seem strange at first, in reality religious leaders of different faiths tend to have relations.

The blasphemy laws are forced on non believers, not because it’s disrespectful, but because it’s threatening. This is the reason why religions agree to disagree. They don’t threaten each other. Secularism, logic and aspirations of freedom are the real threats. Why else would the Pope make such a ridiculous statement contradicting the core teachings of his savior? He [the Pope] was protecting himself, his religion, as well as, his Muslim colleagues.

Take a look at the “thuggish-ness” of these ideas. The Christian Pope justifies violence for disrespect while, at the same time, some Muslims are making very credible threats of violence (with some actually performing it) on the idea that religious sensitivity was breached. This is how mafias operate.

This thuggish ultimatum puts the lives of cartoonists, journalists, free-thinkers and public intellectuals at risk day after day. The world is simply going to have to get used to free speech winning and make no apologies for it.

Now, I know that there are several double standards in place. It is illegal in Europe, countries like France and Germany to deny the holocaust. I think this is a bad law. A person should be absolutely free to deny the holocaust. Which is to say that he/she should be free to destroy their reputation. Others should be free to ridicule them to their hearts content. There shouldn’t be a law against this kind of idiocy. Making this category of speech illegal is a terrible mistake. Here’s why:

Islamist are using this law as a basis to condemn the hypocrisy of all the people defending Charlie Hebdo. Whatever you think about the content of the Charlie Hedbdo cartoons. Even if you grant it that these cartoons were racist or offensive, you have to concede that protecting this speech becomes important when you have one group of people who we call “Radical Muslims” who are responding to this offence with credible threats of murder in every country on earth.

We can’t give into this. We can’t give in to any blasphemy law, regardless of the religion.

The moment a person begins to ask “What was in those cartoons? Where they racist? Was it a negative portrayal of Muhammad?, etc.”, that person has completely lost the plot.

To ask such question is obscene. People were murdered over cartoons. End or moral analysis.

Did anyone ask if the 200 kidnapped school girls in Nigeria somehow offend the teachings of Boko Haram’s version of Islam? Were they dressed appropriately? Did they speak ill of the prophet?

I hope you get the point.

In the few instances that philosophy and practicality come together, freedom precedes respect. Everyone should be free to say anything they want. The second they finish their statement, we can evaluate it and decide if it merits respect or ridicule. Contrary, religion demands respect for the sake of it. No evaluation or criticism required. In fact, the mere action of evaluation or criticism is an act of disrespect already. This is the problem. The fact that certain kinds of disrespect can be met with murder is the reason why we should ALL take this very seriously.

Now, can a disrespectful statement be is so insulting that I feel compelled to punish or even take the life of a person? It’s obvious that some religious followers would say yes to this. We tend to label them as “radicals”, “fundamentalists” or “extremists”.

The dangerous irony here comes when we ask what defines a fundamentalist or an extremist. These are persons who take all scripture very seriously. As opposed to moderates or secularists who only takes certain parts of scripture seriously while ignoring others.

As a side note, I argue that it’s imperative that followers of all religious faith ignore certain commands in scripture for a moral society to function at all. Can you imagine a society where I have to kill all homosexuals or persons who work on weekends? I’m tired just thinking about it 🙂

The point is that, by definition, those who are the most ardent followers of the faith are the persons most prone to committing atrocities. Try telling a member of the  Taliban or the Islamic State that they are not true Muslims, tell me how it goes. In much the same way that my Muslims friends tell me that the Taliban are not true Muslims, I guarantee that the Taliban feel exactly the same about my friends.

So where does that leave us? There is only one answer: religion itself!

I’m trying hard to stay on the subject of blasphemy, free speech and religion, so bare with me with for  just a bit longer while I address 2 other important points:

The interpretation argument:

Over and over again, I’m constantly reminded by many Muslims that the Muslims who react to the blasphemy laws with violence are wrongly interpreting their holy book. As I said earlier in this post, you try telling them that. I guarantee that they will feel exactly the same about the “moderates”.

This excuse is ridiculous at face value. There’s no way for any one side to prove that their interpretation is correct. Simply look at the Shia/Sunni divide. Which one is right?

The Quran is just is filled with verses of violence as much as it’s filled with verses of love. To be fair, I do not want to single out the Muslim faith. Christians and Jews face the same problem. Their holy books are filled with as much violence as it’s filled with love.

Here’s my point: whether you reacted to a case of blasphemy with violence or indifference, the common denominator is still the holy book. Whether you interpreted God’s word to avenge the blasphemy or ignore it, the murderer and the moderate still read the same book. I would even argue that both read the exact same words, but one ignore it and other took action!

Realize that before a person picks up the holy book, reads it and spends a single brain cell analyzing the verses, the command of death for a certain action was already given. The problem that these non-extremists conveniently forget is that the death commandments are written in their holy books.

The problem is not extremists misinterpreting the verses. The problem is that the commands are already there for anyone to interpret as they wish! The massive religious propaganda that the word of God is prefect and eternal combined with very real social-economic circumstances further exasperates this problem.

Finally, I’ve been asked to say a few words on insults and disrespect in general and how a person should react. As already asked in this article, can a disrespectful statement be is so insulting that I feel compelled to punish or even take the life of a person?

The answer has always and will always be a resounding NO!

There is world of difference between and insult and a physical threat. In the modern world, self-defense allows a person to use reasonable force in his or her own defense or the defense of others when there is a reasonable and immediate situation which can lead to physical harm or fatal consequences.

An insult is simply a non-violent statement or expression or behavior which can cause emotional harm. It is nothing more. There is no precedent that merits the use of any type of physical force in reaction to an insult. Because it does not threaten my physical well being, self-defense does not apply.

Imagine a world where it’s permissible to inflict physical harm or punish persons for a simple insult? Now imagine these persons all feeling insulted by a range of things – from the most idiotic to the profane. Should this rule apply If I say that I’m insulted by green-eyed dogs? What would make your case of being insulted by a blasphemous cartoon any better than mine? Are you starting to see the ridiculousness of such a position?

On a more serious example: I find religion itself insulting. Should I start physically attacking all religious followers? Should I start coming up with punishments for their insults?

Of course not, I’m simply going to write about it!!

Now, to get a little philosophical, human beings are ultimately free. I’m am not responsible for the actions of another being and others are not responsible for my actions. We are only responsible for the actions that we take. Despite my hurt feelings, I choose how to express them in action. An insult from another person whose actions I cannot control nor am I responsible for does not, in any way, shape or form relieve my responsibility for my actions.

In other words, if a person insults my mother, I do not have the right to punch them in the face. I don’t even have to retaliate in the form of a punishment. Remember, you choose how to express your emotions in actions, not any external entity. To say that you didn’t have a choice is to say that you’ve lost your freedom and are now, essentially, a slave to either your emotions or another being. To remove your responsibility for inflicting physical harm to another person in the absence of a physical threat makes you the assaulter. Period.

So, how does this all tie together? How does it all end? Let’s summarize:

  1. Blasphemy laws cannot be forced on persons who do no practice your religion. Doing so, essentially makes me follow the rules of a religion which I do not believe in. It violates my freedom to not practice your religion.
  2. While speech may be blasphemous or insulting to you, it does not infringe on your ability to practice your religion. Because insults are non-violent, any retaliation which affects the physical well-being of the blasphemer is criminal.
  3. Those who demand that speech limit itself on the grounds of religious sensitivity (a.k.a blasphemy laws) are asking for theocratic rule. Those who would retaliate violently to blasphemous speech are terrorists.
  4. The only difference between a religious terrorists and a religious moderate is how seriously they took their God’s word. It’s not an interpretation issue when arbitrary commands of death are already written.

For everyone’s sake, including mine, I did not go into the concept of free speech in general, nor did I dwell into terrorism itself. These subjects are pretty complex and plenty has been written on them. I would like readers to simply understand that religion itself has nothing to say on freedom of speech, thus there is no balance to be struct. Furthermore, any violent responses to blasphemous speech are not the actions of some delusional extremist, it’s actually quite a logical response when one takes the holy books seriously.

Let’s start calling things for what they really are and let’s point the fingers in the correct direction.

“Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion” – Steven Weinberg

Notes:

While Weinberg’s quote is overly simplified [one can easily replace “religion” with “money”, etc], I do find it proper in this context. After all, never underestimate a holy books ability to corrupt.

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