Saturday, February 14, 2009

Freedom of Speech Means, Especially, Freedom to Criticize

Johann Hari wrote an outstanding piece that was published in late January in the British newspaper The Independent. In it, he looked at ongoing efforts, at the UN and elsewhere, to suppress any speech that the most fanatical adherents might interpret as disrespectful of their religious beliefs. Here's how it starts:

The right to criticise religion is being slowly doused in acid. Across the world, the small, incremental gains made by secularism – giving us the space to doubt and question and make up our own minds – are being beaten back by belligerent demands that we "respect" religion. A historic marker has just been passed, showing how far we have been shoved. The UN rapporteur who is supposed to be the global guardian of free speech has had his job rewritten – to put him on the side of the religious censors.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated 60 years ago that "a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief is the highest aspiration of the common people". It was a Magna Carta for mankind – and loathed by every human rights abuser on earth. Today, the Chinese dictatorship calls it "Western", Robert Mugabe calls it "colonialist", and Dick Cheney calls it "outdated". The countries of the world have chronically failed to meet it – but the document has been held up by the United Nations as the ultimate standard against which to check ourselves. Until now.

Starting in 1999, a coalition of Islamist tyrants, led by Saudi Arabia, demanded the rules be rewritten. The demand for everyone to be able to think and speak freely failed to "respect" the "unique sensitivities" of the religious, they decided – so they issued an alternative Islamic Declaration of Human Rights. It insisted that you can only speak within "the limits set by the shariah [law]. It is not permitted to spread falsehood or disseminate that which involves encouraging abomination or forsaking the Islamic community".

In other words, you can say anything you like, as long as it precisely what the reactionary mullahs tell you to say. The declaration makes it clear there is no equality for women, gays, non-Muslims, or apostates. It has been backed by the Vatican and a bevy of Christian fundamentalists.

Incredibly, they are succeeding.

His article was later republished in The Statesman, an Indian newspaper. Riots ensued, among other hysterical overreactions. So he wrote a follow-up piece, also excellent. If I had to pick one sentence that sums it up, it would be this:

The solution to the problems of free speech – that sometimes people will say terrible things – is always and irreducibly more free speech.

I urge you to read both. He is saying a lot better than I was able when I was earlier reflecting upon questions raised by the Geert Wilders kerfuffle.*

(h/t: Andrew Sullivan)

* Who, it turns out, was prevented from entering the UK two days ago, despite originally having been invited by members of the British government to visit. Guess why.

[Added] On a related note: I blogged several times on the Geert Wilders story. The latest entry has all the links.

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