Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Or Maybe The Line Crumbles

Writing in The Washington Post, Jonathan Turley notes the West’s retreat from freedom of expression. The whole article is well worth reading, but here’s a key extract:

[Blasphemy law is] the oldest threat to free speech, but it has experienced something of a comeback in the 21st century. After protests erupted throughout the Muslim world in 2005 over Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, Western countries publicly professed fealty to free speech, yet quietly cracked down on anti-religious expression. Religious critics in France, Britain, Italy and other countries have found themselves under criminal investigation as threats to public safety. In France, actress and animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot has been fined several times for comments about how Muslims are undermining French culture. And just last month, a Greek atheist was arrested for insulting a famous monk by making his name sound like that of a pasta dish.

Some Western countries have classic blasphemy laws — such as Ireland, which in 2009 criminalized the “publication or utterance of blasphemous matter” deemed “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion.” The Russian Duma recently proposed a law against “insulting religious beliefs.” Other countries allow the arrest of people who threaten strife by criticizing religions or religious leaders. In Britain, for instance, a 15-year-old girl was arrested two years ago for burning a Koran.

Western governments seem to be sending the message that free speech rights will not protect you — as shown clearly last month by the images of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the YouTube filmmaker, being carted away in California on suspicion of probation violations. Dutch politician Geert Wilders went through years of litigation before he was acquitted last year on charges of insulting Islam by voicing anti-Islamic views. In the Netherlands and Italy, cartoonists and comedians have been charged with insulting religion through caricatures or jokes.

Even the Obama administration supported the passage of a resolution in the U.N. Human Rights Council to create an international standard restricting some anti-religious speech (its full name: “Combating Intolerance, Negative Stereotyping and Stigmatization of, and Discrimination, Incitement to Violence and Violence Against, Persons Based on Religion or Belief”). Egypt’s U.N. ambassador heralded the resolution as exposing the “true nature” of free speech and recognizing that “freedom of expression has been sometimes misused” to insult religion.

At a Washington conference last year to implement the resolution, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared that it would protect both “the right to practice one’s religion freely and the right to express one’s opinion without fear.” But it isn’t clear how speech can be protected if the yardstick is how people react to speech — particularly in countries where people riot over a single cartoon. Clinton suggested that free speech resulting in “sectarian clashes” or “the destruction or the defacement or the vandalization of religious sites” was not, as she put it, “fair game….”

Enshrining the heckler’s veto….


  • B.B. · October 14, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    If they are really serious about outlawing blasphemy and religious hatred, they should start by prosecuting everyone who has ever negatively depicted Adolf Hitler in the mass media, as those who believe Hitler to be an avatar of Vishnu are quiet offended by all this.

  • Polichinello · October 15, 2012 at 12:22 am

    “These contrasting responses suggest the possibility of a two-pronged approach to the free speech issues raised by images of the Prophet. “Insulting” the Prophet with the intent of stirring up hatred might be categorized as a form of “hate speech” comparable to anti-Semitism, racism, flag desecration, or Holocaust denial, which are forbidden by law in many countries (though not the US, where a proposed amendment protecting the US flag failed to pass by a single Senate vote in 2006), because the sacred image of the Prophet has become a fundamental part of how Muslim communities have come to define themselves. While in practice it may be difficult to draw the line between “insult” and “criticism,” if there is a distinction it must lie in intention.”

    Liberty, security, diversity: pick two.

  • Secular Traditionalist · October 15, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    In a pluralism, everyone can have an opinion. These opinions inevitably clash.

    This guarantees nothing except that no one gets the type of society they want.

    We are told the way to reconcile this is to tolerate everything, but that seems to increase the friction as instability increases.

    Blasphemy laws are a symptom of this problem.

  • Author comment by Steve Cardon · October 17, 2012 at 3:41 am

    Violence and vandalism. That is a where a free society draws the line, declares zero tolerance, and means it. Unless it a matter of self-defense, destructive physical acts perpetrated against other individuals or their property must be dealt with harshly and absolutely.

    This is the only way we can get past Polichinello’s “pick two” choice… otherwise it winds up being an unsatisfactorily limited version of all three.

    There should be absolutely no sympathy or exception for a religion that requires or incites its adherents to answer insults, however hard to bear, with physical acts of violence against others. They can learn the self-restraint that is the hallmark of an advanced civilization, or they can be caged like other animals who cannot safely be allowed to roam free.

    Liberal ideas of being tolerant, even apologetic, towards violent Islamists are an insult and a threat to all those who the Islamists threaten. Perhaps we should tell Malala, the Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban for speaking out on a woman’s right to become educated: “sorry, you must remain threatened and repressed because in the opinion of some Muslims it is an insult and crime against Islam for you to speak out in favor of civil rights”.

    My vote is for absolute free speech, and a large police force that is sworn to enforce that and other constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. We can have as much diversity as are able to abide by the basic laws of the land… and no more.

    Set 1 = {liberty, security, diversity}
    Set 2 = {jail, expulsion, or death}

    choose your set.



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