As we see Middle East strife heat up, with a historical link to religious differences, and the Prophet Mohamed cartoon riots still fresh in our collective memory, there has been a recent attempt by some Islamic countries to censor any religious criticism.
Humanist Network News reported on July 12 that at the June 19th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, delegates from Bangladesh, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates called for limits on freedom of speech regarding religion. It was in response to the publishing of cartoons in a Danish newspaper last year that sparked several riots in Islamic countries.
The article said:
Considering the publishing of the Danish cartoons criticizing Islam “a blatant attempt to inflame religious hatred,” they called for mechanisms to curb criticism of religion by claiming that criticism of religion is the same as incitement to religious hatred.
In other words, they want most, if not all, criticism of religion to stop.
In response at this attempt to censor speech, Roy Brown, head of the International Humanist and Ethical Union delegation to the UN in Geneva, said in a statement:
“The right to question religion and to freely express one’s views on religious matters is a human right. Human beings have human rights, religions do not. This Council has a solemn duty to protect people — not ideas, religions, customs, beliefs or traditional practices, especially when they are used as justification for the abuse of human rights. It is the believer, not the belief, that must be protected.”
On June 30th, the Council asked the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Asma Jahangir, to see if material like the Danish cartoons was religious hatred.
In a follow up article on July 19th, Freedom of Speech and the Harm Principle, Ishtiag Ahmed makes a distinction between physical harm – where someone is acted on violently because of their beliefs – and hurt feelings. Ahmed points out that the historical background of freedom of speech always stopped at physical harm as well as libel and slander. He makes a point concerning the thoughts of John Mill in his book “On Liberty”:
Mill’s chain of reasoning leads him to assert that freedom is necessary to know the truth. If we suppress an opinion, it is possible that it turns out to be true. To assume otherwise is to assume that we are infallible — something which certainly is not true. Moreover, even if an opinion is false, it might still contain some truth. Consequently, given that it is unlikely even for a generally “true” account to be without fault, by listening to other opinions and accounts we get closer to a “total” truth. He goes on to argue that even if the true account already is considered to be “total truth,” it still has to be criticized or challenged, because only by defending an account against criticism or challenge are we able to understand why it is a true account, instead of just accepting uncritically that it is.
Religious believers may not like having their beliefs questioned – and I doubt any of them feel good about it – but censoring religious criticism doesn’t lead to understanding and will continue to lead us to more strife like we are seeing in Lebanon.