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Considering how often I've written about this topic in the past, I had some reluctance to return to it, fearing I wouldn't have anything new or unique to say this time around. But the right of free speech is once again under assault, and whenever that happens, I believe friends of liberty around the world have a moral duty to man the barricades and raise our voices against the barbarous fanatics who would take it away.

So, here's the story in a nutshell (HT: Andrew Sullivan). Johann Hari, the courageous freethinker and journalist whom I cited last August in "Speak Boldly", wrote an editorial calling attention to another case of tyrannical Islamists seeking to suppress the right of others to criticize their barbaric practices. It happened at the U.N., where a bloc of Islamic nations successfully pushed through a resolution demanding "respect" for shariah law, with the shocking result that things like child marriage or the stoning of women can no longer be discussed by the U.N<i. Human Rights Council.</p>

In response came Hari's editorial, Why should I respect these oppressive religions? Like his previous piece, it was an outstanding condemnation of irrational beliefs of all kinds, and a clarion call for the most basic of human rights. Here's an excerpt to give you the flavor, though I highly recommend reading the whole piece:

All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don't respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don't respect the idea that we should follow a "Prophet" who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn't follow him.

...a free society cannot be structured to soothe the hardcore faithful. It is based on a deal. You have an absolute right to voice your beliefs – but the price is that I too have a right to respond as I wish. Neither of us can set aside the rules and demand to be protected from offence.

Yet this idea – at the heart of the Universal Declaration – is being lost. To the right, it thwacks into apologists for religious censorship; to the left, it dissolves in multiculturalism. The hijacking of the UN Special Rapporteur by religious fanatics should jolt us into rescuing the simple, battered idea disintegrating in the middle: the equal, indivisible human right to speak freely.

A respected Indian newspaper, The Statesman, reprinted Hari's essay, explaining that they felt it was in accord with India's rich and venerable tradition of secularism. You may be able to guess what happened next:

That night, four thousand Islamic fundamentalists began to riot outside their offices, calling for me, the editor, and the publisher to be arrested – or worse. They brought Central Calcutta to a standstill. A typical supporter of the riots, Abdus Subhan, said he was "prepared to lay down his life, if necessary, to protect the honour of the Prophet" and I should be sent "to hell if he chooses not to respect any religion or religious symbol? He has no liberty to vilify or blaspheme any religion or its icons on grounds of freedom of speech."

Then, two days ago, the editor and publisher were indeed arrested. They have been charged – in the world's largest democracy, with a constitution supposedly guaranteeing a right to free speech – with "deliberately acting with malicious intent to outrage religious feelings". I am told I too will be arrested if I go to Calcutta.

Once again, religious lunatics and terrorists have hijacked the marketplace of ideas and twisted the universal right of free speech into a right, possessed exclusively by themselves, to never be offended. They demand legal protection from ever having to see or hear anything they disagree with, and because they're always willing to resort to violence if their demands aren't met, even supposedly liberal, democratic governments give in to them with depressing frequency. The de facto result is the censorship and suppression of freethinkers. Meanwhile, we who are outraged by their vicious and savage creeds seemingly have no right to call upon the government to imprison them.

In a follow-up essay as brilliant as the first, Hari refuses to apologize, and slices swiftly through the flimsy excuses offered by these tyrants and their apologists:

These events are also a reminder of why it is so important to try to let the oxygen of rationality into religious debates – and introduce doubt. Voltaire – one of the great anti-clericalists – said: "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." If you can be made to believe the absurd notion that an invisible deity dictated The Eternal Unchanging Truth to a specific person at a specific time in history and anyone who questions this is Evil, then you can easily be made to demand the death of journalists and free women and homosexuals who question that Truth. But if they have a moment of doubt – if there is a single nagging question at the back of their minds – then they are more likely to hesitate. That's why these ideas must be challenged at their core, using words and reason.

...Yes, if we speak out now, there will be turbulence and threats, and some people may get hurt. But if we fall silent – if we leave the basic human values of free speech, feminism and gay rights undefended in the face of violent religious mobs – then many, many more people will be hurt in the long term. Today, we have to use our right to criticise religion – or lose it.

Amen and hallelujah! We need many more brave freethinkers like Hari - we need a thousand modern-day Voltaires willing to strike back against the evil tyranny of religious extremists, from Islam or from any other religion. If the Indian government arrests one publisher for printing essays like this, we need a thousand more who are willing to reprint them. We need to disseminate these ideas and criticisms into every corner of society, to shine a light on the barbarism of theocracy and call it what it is. Words alone may seem a small thing against the darkness and savagery of fundamentalists - but the fundamentalists themselves must be afraid of them, for why else would they lash out with such fury?

If free speech is circumscribed by the "right" of religious groups to be protected from offense, then it is an empty and meaningless freedom. Any religious sect can stifle any speech, just by taking offense at what is said. We as a species can never make moral progress if those laws shelter evil superstitions from the light of scrutiny and let them fester in the shadows. That's why, law or no law, we freethinkers must speak out! Letting fundamentalists and fanatics control the terms of the debate is a road that leads directly back to the dark ages. If we're to take the high road that leads to a brighter and better future, we must never hesitate to name evil and unreason what they are, and never permit ourselves to be daunted or cowed.

(Crossposted at Daylight Atheism.)

Originally posted to ebonmuse on Sun Feb 15, 2009 at 08:04 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I don't think I've ever been prouder to be the (12+ / 0-)

    the first to recommend a diary.

    This,not terrorism,is the number one threat to our way of life.

    by ctkeith on Sun Feb 15, 2009 at 08:12:51 AM PST

  •  Hit the nail on the head, (9+ / 0-)

    scenes like these need to be stopped and the offenders prosecuted, not those who are expressing their right to free speech.

    "Remember back when W and the Republicans f'ed up the entire world?"

    by A Man Called Gloom on Sun Feb 15, 2009 at 08:14:29 AM PST

  •  The right to not be offended is slowly worming (13+ / 0-)

    its way into international law, and it's quite a disturbing trend.

    We are building a team that is continuously being built. - Sarah Palin

    by burrow owl on Sun Feb 15, 2009 at 08:18:23 AM PST

  •  Religion is the enemy of freedom. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Bensdad, justCal

    So long as people follow a creed that has absurd demands and a concept of "sin", there will be people who wish to force those commands on others. It must end.

  •  As long as the anti-religious-censorship movement (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    happymisanthropy, luckylizard

    restricts its loathing (as above) to those who demand legal action or threaten violence as a reaction to being offended, I'll have no argument with it.

    I've seen the argument degenerate into attacking religion as a social phenomenon, rather than fanaticism. The two do intersect, but neither is equal to the other. Chastising believers for the acts of a relatively small subset (those who are both religious and fanatics) doesn't seem particularly productive.

    Ask not any question of the Eldar; for they will give you three answers, all of which are true, and all terrifying to know.

    by Shaviv on Sun Feb 15, 2009 at 09:11:09 AM PST

    •  Humorous coincidence (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Ask not any question of the Eldar; for they will give you three answers, all of which are true, and all terrifying to know.

      by Shaviv on Sun Feb 15, 2009 at 09:15:58 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  You're conflating two issues (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      1. Should people have a right to have their religion "respected" to the extent that criticism of it is unacceptable?


      1. Is religion good, bad, or possessing of a contextually-dependent value? And if the later, what elements determine that value?

      It sounds like you agree with the author and with me on the first point: freedom to choose a religion or lack thereof necessarily implies the right to critically discuss one's options.

      It sounds like you would disagree with my position on the second point: religion is inherently dangerous and should be argued against at every opportunity.

      They are both valid questions for debate and both are relevant to the base post and the issues it raises.

    •  And? (0+ / 0-)

      I've seen the argument degenerate into attacking religion as a social phenomenon, rather than fanaticism.

      "Degenerate" is surely a value judgment without apparent justification.

      Many of us would argue that religion as a social phenomenon is in fact a fundamentally pernicious thing, and that fanaticism is an inevitable outgrowth of that phenomenon. Obviously you think we're wrong, but you've hardly explained why.

      The two do intersect, but neither is equal to the other.

      Indeed not; so what? Does free speech not extend to criticism of religious beliefs held by people who feel smugly superior to fundamentalist "fanatics"?

  •  Humanity is being pulled in two..... (6+ / 0-)

    ..different directions. We are the product of the Enlightenment and, in America at least, the pursuit of science and reason and the belief in the equality of man has taken us literally all the way to the moon. Now darkness is tugging at us. The Middle Eastern religions (not the people, the religions) are pulling us back down toward the dark ages. I view Hollans as the test case -- the most liberal and progressive society on Earth and it is now a flashpoint for the clash between the Enlightenment and those would pull us back to a dark, tribal past.

    I went to a fundamentalist Christian Church when I was a kid. Homosexuality and abortion were never discussed. It was all New Testament stuff, with an emphasis on love. Now the fundie churches just preach hate (while the pastors are spending thousands on jet planes, whores and meth).

    Two Middle Eastern religions risk tearing the world apart with their tribal infighting while a third has morphed into an insincere and craven arm of multinational corporations whose goal is the destruction of government and enslavement of workers.

    I used to be very religious. That all ended for me on 9/11 when I saw with crystal clarity what was tearing the world apart: extremist adherents to Middle Eastern Religions.

    Tonight I'm going to party like it's 1929.

    by Bensdad on Sun Feb 15, 2009 at 09:12:22 AM PST

  •  Well Said--and Important. (0+ / 0-)

    The Hari articles deserve far wider attention.

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