Blasphemy lies in the eye of the beholder 19/2/15

Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 19 February 2015

Free speech advocates are mistaken when they cite Voltaire in defence of freedom of speech to announce: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The phrase was actually written by English writer Beatrice Evelyn Hall in The Friends of Voltaire, her 1906 biography published under the pseudonym, SG Tallentyre. It turned out to be such a succinct way to sum up the views of the famed Enlightenment thinker, that he has been credited for it ever since.

Of course, in practice, what most people usually mean is: “I will defend your right by signing a petition, or maybe, at a stretch, going on a march.”

It tends to take an atrocity like the massacre at Charlie Hebdo or this week’s attacks on a cultural event and synagogue in Copenhagen, to remind us that no, actually some people practicing freedoms of speech and religion do sometimes have to endure death at the hands of those who want to limit their freedom.

Like it or not, the fact that Islamist-inspired extremists used the excuse of protesting blasphemy and offense to Muslims to justify their actions, adds to the widespread perception that religious fundamentalists are made of sterner stuff than liberals who (mis)quote Voltaire or old-school communists who fantasise about who they would like to put “up against the wall, come the revolution.”

No one is much surprised then that the organisers of Amar Ekushey Book Fair shut down the stall of Rodela Prokashani at the Boi Mela this Monday for publishing and selling a translated 1985 book by Iranian writer Ali Dashti, Twenty Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammad, because it “allegedly hurts people’s religious sentiments.”

Absurd as it is for a book fair to ban books, the organisers were merely applying their own rules, and the laws of the land which contain plenty of (unnecessary, in my view) restrictions on works that “hurt religious sentiments.”

But it still looks more like “prudence is the better part of valour” and giving in to fear of violence from extremists to me.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that the opinions of both the author and those who called to ban his book are correct. Namely, that he wrote a scholarly work expressing personal opinions on the history of Islam and that the content offends the sentiments of, at least some, if not all Muslims.

The best response to calls, that the latter view, means it should be banned, is not to refer to the philosophy of the Enlightenment in defence of freedom of speech, or to call upon theological discursions about human free will, it is simply two words.

So what?

By definition, a publication in itself does not infringe upon the rights of others. No one can be forced to read a book or see a film to whose contents they object. But the opposite is true for calls to ban such a publication, particularly when they stir up hostility, or even worse, violence against its authors.

Blasphemy laws and their ilk are pointless in principle and dangerous in practice.

The divine cannot be damaged by hostile words or humans who do not believe.

Moreover, even if a true believer sees all faiths as sharing a common aim or Creator, religious practices and beliefs are endlessly divergent. Red wine is a sinful intoxicant to Muslims, but a sacrament to Catholics, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, you’ve noticed this before, I’m sure.  The facts are plain, religions and sects differ hugely between and within themselves. Their adherents, even more so.

Forget the free speech of the Internet age, for a society simply to have freedom of religion and respect between people of different or no faiths, necessitates freedom to hold and proclaim beliefs that may offend the sentiments of others. Only the most fanatical and repressive theocracies ever try to enforce otherwise.

Another reason why laws that talk of protecting religious sentiments should be repealed is that their language and thinking echoes a colonial mindset that sees such restrictions on speech as helping to keep the peace. For British rulers, this was more about facilitating control of a population divided along communal lines, than about showing respect for Islam, Hinduism, or other faiths in the land.

This is not the same as saying there should be never be restrictions on speech that incites hatred and violence. Just that writings which offend religious sentiment or make expressions of atheistic disbelief do not qualify as such.

Far from protecting the fabric of society, outlawing objectionable words and opinions actively undermines it, by making it easier for authorities to suppress all types of opinions.

Limiting freedom of speech is not the same as outlawing harmful actions and deeds. To believe otherwise is to believe that some basic rights are more open to arbitrary amendment than others and to risk unraveling the entire concept and purpose of universal fundamental human rights. A democratic society needs to protect the rights of those who express unpopular and yes, even offensive viewpoints.

Which is why I have to end by moving away from words offending the sentiments of religious believers to the similarly contentious question of words that undermine the state.

It is easy to see how the case filed against The Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam for publishing a photograph of a poster put out by the banned Islamist organisation, Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT), which allegedly incites the armed forces to topple the government, is an attack on the freedom of the press to perform its duty to report events, and should be rejected. This is a view with which it is straightforward to agree.

What is harder, is to ask why HT was banned in Bangladesh in 2009 when most western democracies still allow it to function on the basis that its call to overthrow nation states to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate is usually accompanied by caveats opposing violent means to achieve its aims.

There are plenty of sound reasons to disagree with and deplore the group’s philosophy. Its sophisticated propaganda and cult-like indoctrination techniques are insidious, and the alleged involvement of key individuals associated with the group in Bangladesh in seeking to foment coups, give plausible grounds for intelligence services to monitor its activities.

But laws should only be used to police and prevent unlawful actions, not to forbid personal opinions or objectionable viewpoints.

In principle, the right of an individual to express HT’s core belief that nation states should be overthrown in pursuit of what they regard as a utopian goal, is one that should be defended.

Disagree with and reject such views by all means. Ignore them, debate them, mock them, but do not ban them.

That way cedes a bit of ground to claims that society does not defend the right to express unpopular opinions. It also gives cause to others to justify and call for restrictions of other views, such as those which offend religious sentiments.

Banning opinions and views is a risky path to tread. It is always better to protect the rights of everyone to hold and express different opinions.

Of course seeking the moral high ground is difficult. It is all too easy to slip off.

It is human nature for pragmatism and the best of intentions to muddy the right road to follow and end up limiting basic freedoms of conscience and speech.

This is why principles such as the aphorism attributed to Voltaire matter so much. And should always be remembered.

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