some ethical thoughts

morality, evidence and secular thought

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Freedom of Expression Means the Freedom to Insult

This post was too long and not entirely appropriate for my blog at BIG THINK. I’m posting it here. Beware: it’s a fairly long read. 


SA Hoseini, lecturer and director of the Islamic Centre for Africa, has penned an article calling for some strange responses in light of the recent attacks surrounding the “anti-Muslim” film The Innocence of Muslims. However, his arguments are severely lacking.

Hoseini correctly calls out those Muslims using the awful film (or rather trailer or … whatever) The Innocence of Muslims as a catalyst for violence.“Attacking embassies and killing diplomatic staff, or anyone for that matter, in the course of a protest is never justifiable,” he says. Naturally, the situation is more complicated than being sparked from a single film, since we’re talking about a region rife with political and economic problems.

Regardless of this, Hoseini wants to locate the problem of insulting The Prophet:

“The problem lies in the fact that, unlike in other cases where there is clear legal recourse and relief, the Muslim faithful have no tribunal in which to address their grievance: the insult and denigration of the most sacred personality of their faith.”

Apparently the option of ignoring or accepting differing, even critical and insulting, views is not one.

What’s interesting about this phrasing is that Muhammad being overtly sacred is precisely why he’s not depicted: it was meant to combat idolatry. Now, in itself, it has become a form of idolatry that, when transgressed, invites placards depicting “Behead those who insult the Prophet/Islam”.

However, to look even at the simple WikiPedia entry on this one can see there is conflict. Here’s an example of various, very beautiful, portrayals of the Prophet. For Shia Muslims, there is not as dogmatic denunciation of portraying Muhammad, as for Sunnis. Note, I’ve incorporated the actual dialogue and discussion between Muslims of whether there can be depictions of their Prophet. Hoseini claims therefore to not only be speaking for everyone – as we’ll see – but all Muslims. How can we, let alone someone invested in Muslims and Islam, take such a conglomerate view of various factions, conflicting thoughts, beliefs, and assume to know the best means to respond in such a universal way? This is unfair to those Muslims who think there should portrayals of The Prophet in respectable ways. I for one wouln’t mind seeing more of these stunning depictions (and less of the religion, of course). Hoseini does a disservice to Muslims who do not agree with him by ignoring them altogether.

Free Speech Confusion

But now we come to the main areas. Mr Hoseini does not seem to grasp what having a right really means.

“[Those who cannot fathom the offence] feel that freedom of speech trumps the rights of religious people not to have their beliefs defamed. The argument is as fallacious as it is old. There are no absolutes when it comes to freedom of speech: Holocaust denial and hate speech are two examples of the legitimate limitations that can be placed upon it.”

Firstly: freedom of speech is understood to be the ability to say, portray, express, etc., almost any idea without worry of silencing, violence and so on. I say “almost” because while we should be able to express an idea, there might be times when expressing it “incites” violence, hatred and so on. However, this is the exception, not the rule. It must and, indeed, is very difficult to show incitement, libel and so on, which constitute justified infringement on speech. All of it, however, must fall under a case-by-case basis: not some broad ruling that this type of speech cannot be allowed. As Kenan Malik has highlighted, we ought not to judge the content of speech but assess the risk and ramifications, given the evidence at hand, of allowing it.

This means we can have religions defamed, just as we have any ideas defamed. Mockery, insult and so on are all encapsulated with the same right that allows us to speak up against oppression. In other words, the freedom to insult is freedom of speech. There is a separate question of whether insult, mockery and so on is advisable or moral. But Mr Hoseini does not appear interested in that discussion.

Secondly, who decides whether something is or is not trumping the rights of religious people? Which religious people? What if one religion by definition trumps or offends another, as with Islam’s contrary view to Christianity’s on Jesus’ divinity? We’ll see these problems return in full force at the end.

Thirdly, no one has spoken of absolutes. I’m not sure which advocate of free speech would defend the licence to say and express whatever you want, wherever you want, to whomever you want. Hoseini has not cited any. This is not an admission of weakness but reality: words can have effects; they can change behaviour by delivering ideas. So we can agree on absolutes. Hoseini, though, has chosen bad examples to justify this: Holocaust denial, while unfounded, need not be censored. Just because something is unscientific is no reason to ban it: as much as we would like people to adhere to evidence and reason, free expression only really matters when it remains for our opponents, too. Furthermore, hate speech is already a contentious notion that many, including myself, have not been persuaded by. Hoseini will need better examples, but I cannot think of any to justify this point.

“There is a difference between freedom of speech and freedom to insult.”

There isn’t.

People disagreeing or criticising us will happen. It’s how we respond that matters. We can’t live in a childish vacuum sniping at anyone who dares disagree with our ideas. If our ideas are strong enough, they can withstand criticism; if they’re not, defending them with censorship only highlights the ideas’ inadequacy and, more importantly, allows us to embrace better ideas. 

“In Western liberal democracies, the concept of harm is not properly defined, though insult to religion is condemned by more than 45 resolutions by international agencies including the UN.”

An appeal to majority does not justify “insult to religion” as a concept to take seriously.

“There are also those who say religion, arguably the way of life of most people in the world, does not deserve special protection. Why, then, is it not okay to say something racist or anti-Semitic?”

A very badly-worded question. Racism, sexism, and so on, are irrational and unfounded. Criticising tenets of a religion is not. This does not mean all criticism of religion is necessarily aimed at inquiry, legitimate criticism or based on reason – as the awful film is a clear example of – but, those who criticised religion, like myself, will stand with Hoseini in disparaging this film. I agree with Hoseini when he says “Innocence of Muslims is not a critical movie”. Who said it is? But surely we’re not putting this film in the same category as Thomas Paine or Bertrand Russell? “It is not critical of the ideas Muhammad offered to mankind, but attacks his personality in a way Muslims find unacceptable.” Agreed.

And to be consistent, even questions about race and sex, however, are also not necessarily all bad or hateful. We must not equate all forms of inquiry and criticism with hate or opposition; though there are cases where we can conclude racism or sexism, that should be a conclusion, not an assumption.

Hoseini then goes into slightly conspiracy-theory spinning, which is not helpful here. For example, “Obama could also use these incidents to score his own political points.” Let’s move on.

“Ultimately, the filmmakers’ motive is irrelevant.”

Agreed. It is our responses to it that matter and so far, many people have failed poorly.

“What will remain is a reminder of the public anger that results every time such an incident happens. Innocent lives are lost when thousands of well-meaning but ignorant worshippers go on the rampage.”

We know that marches and rampages are most likely the result of external, violent groups that require outrage and anger to maintain their positions. If it wasn’t the film, it probably would’ve been something else. It’s not like this film was that widely known about before the attacks. Additionally, how can “well-meaning” worshipers go on a rampage? Did Hoseini mean they want their rampage to go well? This doesn’t make sense.

“Preventing the loss of these innocent lives is more important, surely, than the right to say what you like in a movie script?”

This is a false question: it’s not about innocent lives and a “movie script”. It’s about the right to speak our minds on any topic without others wanting to kill us; it’s about ideas that could benefit millions not been stapled shut by outrage; it’s about everybody realising first and foremost that we are fallible beings with limited knowledge, imperfect if we believe in gods and that there will be people in this life, on this world who will dislike our ideas, dislike our culture, dislike us; it’s about facing up to spite and outrage and mockery and being the better person for not responding as they want you to.

That this horrible film set out to test the fragile nature of angry men and women in a Muslim region and succeeded in being a factor should be the most insulting part of all: not the stupidity of the film itself.

The question of whether it’s worth creating a film if innocents will die is actually a complex one. The answer is not obvious, since what if it is the case that the film liberates and helps many more? This is not the case with regard to The Innocence of Muslims, but Hoseini posed the question in a broad manner. As this shows, we need a case-by-case assessment, not a blanket ruling.

Then out of the blue, Hoseini ends his article with:

“It’s high time a law was passed around the world prohibiting any kind of defamation or insult to religion — otherwise we are going to witness a repeat of this kind of grim news — again and again and again.”

This is an example of somebody wanting “a law” to do the job his own convictions are unable to. It is, I’m sorry to say and with respect to Mr Hoseini, quite a childish sentiment. Exactly which authority is going to enforce this law? How? More importantly and worryingly, who decides what constitutes blasphemy? That this concept still exists should be worrying to everyone, including Mr Hoseini whose own beliefs is constituted blasphemy by other religions.

If he wrote and discussed his views regarding Jesus, what’s to stop a priest charging Mr Hoseini under this bizarre “law” for blaspheming against Christianity? Or Hinduism? Furthermore, what about the large parts of our species – and the fastest growing – of non-adherents to religion? Laws do not make things automatically better. The less interference we have from laws to solve problems the better. To prevent “this grim news” from happening again, we need to work on multiple factors, engaged in multiple levels. However, blasphemy will only give power to those who already begun the terrible attacks. Mr Hoseini in his efforts would be aiding the very people he wants stopped, not those who want peace.

Filed under free speech free expression libyan attacks muslims islam censorship innocence of muslims

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