Rainer Ebert

Blasphemy and the right to offend

April 21, 2013
Photo: bdnews24.com

Photo: bdnews24.com

The right to express one’s opinion freely is maybe the most important democratic right, and it is currently under assault in Bangladesh. Hifazat-e-Islam demands the introduction of strict blasphemy laws, and the government, instead of defending freedom, resorts to an ill-advised and imprudent appeasement strategy that hinders the press in its duty to inform the public, threatens the futures of young bloggers who were, and continue to be, arrested, and puts in peril the future of the democracy of the country.

Why is freedom of expression important? John Stuart Mill, the famous and influential 19th-century British philosopher of freedom, to whom many nations have every reason to owe a debt of gratitude, argued that restricting speech hinders the pursuit of truth. First, no human being is infallible. Neither Hifazat-e-Islam, nor members of the Government of Bangladesh, nor I, nor anybody else can claim privileged access to the absolute truth. Of course, part of the problem is that Islamist groups nevertheless often make exactly that claim, especially for their own, often highly subjective interpretations of the writings of earlier teachers and Islamic authorities. But, for all we know for certain, any opinion that is being oppressed might in fact be true. Second, Mill continues, even if a silenced opinion is an error, “it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.” Finally, even patently false ideas deserve protection because, only if the truth continues to be challenged, it will remain alive and does not dwindle into mere dogma.

Besides its essential importance for the pursuit of truth, freedom of expression also plays a central role in a good life. Human beings do not fare best when they are forced into a life they did not choose, but when they are sovereigns over their own lives. In order to govern their lives successfully, people must be able to make informed choices, which in turn requires a free exchange of ideas. Human beings hence have a strong interest in being free to express their opinions. Free-speech restrictions frustrate this interest and have a negative impact on human well-being.

Photo: bdnews24.com

Photo: bdnews24.com

A free exchange of ideas is also essential to democracy and human development. Bangladesh should be a country where ideas can be openly disseminated and debated. Political and social progress is possible only if all ideas are considered, from whatever source, and if received convictions are tested against opposing views. Few would challenge the proposition that human civilization has evolved over the millennia, for the most part to the greater comfort and safety of humanity. Such evolution has, throughout history, been often criticized, at best, and very often challenged and punished. One has only to think of the treatment by the Roman Catholic Church of Galileo to appreciate this simple truth. Repression of speech and debate fits authoritarian governments such as those in Saudi Arabia and North Korea, but not a free Bangladesh. In a democracy, every opinion should have equal access to the marketplace of ideas. Denying the right to speak their minds to some people – typically those whose opinions are unpopular – is treating them with less respect than other citizens.

Finally, freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. It is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Given the great value that attaches to freedom of expression, those daring to demand the suppression of a particular type of speech, namely blasphemous speech, better have good reasons for their demand. I believe they don’t.

Blasphemy is the act of mocking, insulting, or defaming things that others hold sacred, such as human prophets or religious scriptures. From an Islamic perspective, for example, insulting Allah violates the right of Allah. That, of course, gives Muslim believers a strong reason not insult Allah. But it is equally obvious that religious norms do not give a reason to abide by them to those who are not religious, such as atheists (not a dirty word, by the way), who believe that there is no god. Religious beliefs as such also must not serve as a basis for any law in a secular state.

Blasphemous speech should be criminalized, one might object, not because it is the proper role of a state to force religion upon its citizens – it is not –, but because it is offensive to religious folks, and hurts their feelings. This suggestion is worth considering, as it is uncontroversial that psychological pain matters and, all else being equal, should be avoided. We rightly expect the government to protect us from physical assault, so why shouldn’t we also expect the government to protect us from the kind of psychological harm that results from offensive speech? Why not have the government ban offensive speech?

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Photo: bdnews24.com

For one thing, almost all kinds of speech are offensive to somebody. Hifazat-e-Islam’s demand to repeal laws asserting the equal rights of women, for example, must offend everybody who wants to see women as equals in society, just as their public proclamations that Ahmadiyyas are “non-Muslims” are an insult to Ahmadiyya Muslims. Christian sermons might be offensive to some Muslims, communist speeches might be offensive to some capitalists, and some people might be offended by literature about homosexuality, or by my inter-racial marriage and the love I express for my Bangladeshi wife. Yet, we would all think that much of this, though offensive to some, must be protected.

For another thing, there is no need to ban an entire category of speech as people can easily defend themselves against speech they find annoying or offensive. Compared to the value of free speech, the cost of avoiding offensive speech is trivial: If you don’t like what you hear, simply walk away. If you don’t like what you read on a blog, relief is just one click away. Interestingly, the Qur’an seems to suggest the same reaction: “[…] when they [the Muslims] hear ill speech, they turn away from it and say, ‘For us are our deeds, and for you are your deeds. Peace will be upon you; we seek not the ignorant.’” (Qur’an 28:55)

If the concern of Hifazat-e-Islam and other Islamists is for their own religious feelings, why do they read blasphemous blogs? If they don’t want that religious feelings are being hurt, why do they draw the attention of other believers to these blogs, or sometimes even reproduce blasphemous material in their publications? Searching for blasphemous writings and then complaining about hurt feelings is much like running into a stretched fist with open eyes and then crying “Assault!” While it is virtually impossible to ban all blasphemous speech, especially on the internet, and attempting to do so is very costly, ignoring blasphemous speech is easy and the costs of doing so are trivial, especially in a predominantly Muslim country where taboo ensures that blasphemous speech is rare.

But isn’t the real issue that blasphemous speech leads to violence, rather than that it offends? Well, does it really? Surely everybody remembers the violence that followed the release of “Innocence of Muslims,” a poorly made 14-minute video clip uploaded on YouTube in July last year. But some will also remember what happened in the first two months after the release: nothing. This is not surprising, as blasphemous speech does not cause violence directly. If there is a causal relationship between blasphemous speech and violence at all, the effect is indirect. The link between the two is people who choose to react with violence after being subjected to blasphemous speech, and typically also hate-mongers who make sure that blasphemous speech reaches those who are willing to resort to violence. One of these hate-mongers in the case of “Innocence of Muslims” was the Egyptian television host Khaled Abdallah. He reported on the video on September 8, and thereby sparked outrage across the globe.

The case of supposedly blasphemous blogs in Bangladesh is similar. For years, most people did not even know that these blogs exist. Until recently, the blasphemous content they are said to contain did not “cause” or “incite” any violence. The problem is not blasphemy. The problem is political groups with an intolerant and bigoted agenda that are using the writings of free-thinking Bangladeshis to bring about violence, and to force their idea of a medieval Bangladesh upon the rest of the nation.

Also, in fact, there is no guarantee that blasphemy laws would reduce violence. One has only to look at Pakistan to see the simple truth of that observation! A more promising response to the kind of violence we saw in the wake of the release of “Innocence of Muslims” or the debate about the so-called blasphemous bloggers in Bangladesh is to insist that, whether or not people like what they hear or read, they must not resort to violence. Prohibiting speech promotes intolerance, and will hence likely not result in less violence, but more violence.

Blasphemy laws hinder the pursuit of truth, are bad for people and human development, are undemocratic and violate the fundamental freedom of expression; they have been misused to repress vulnerable minorities and political opponents, and to settle personal disputes (again, for example, in Pakistan); and they are an inadequate means to promote tolerance and protect the religious feelings of believers.

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Rainer Ebert is a student of philosophy at Rice University, a founding member of the Bangladesh Liberal Forum, and an Associate Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.

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18 Responses to “ Blasphemy and the right to offend ”

  1. Nilu on June 12, 2013 at 11:23 am

    Shouldn’t minorities have rights as well? When Muslims denounce polytheism isn’t it against the basic essence of Hinduism? When people here are commenting about getting hurt when someone offends their religion what about teaching such as “There is no God but Allah”. Just because your religion is in majority that does not mean rights of minorities such as hindus, christains and even atheists are curtailed. Respect the consitution that you have got. You founding fathers had the brains to make it secular society. Do you think India was ready for secularism when it was imposed on it? It has evolved into a secular society which allows hardcore religious elements to thrive allong with the communists.

  2. Kamal Sarwar on April 26, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    @ Rainer Ebert……I salute you for in-depth observation and analysis of the current scenario of Bangladesh..!! “History is a clock people use to tell their historical culture and political time of the day. It’s a compass that people use to find themselves on the map of human geography. The history tells them where they have been, where they are and what they are. But most importantly history tells a people where they still must go and what they still must be”
    I feel that religious sentiments seems to be a personal attributes of Muslims only…as if all other faiths , even restored prior to Islam in Bangladesh are constantly victimised with blasphemous acts of violence and hate speech..!!!
    When will the eye behold the sight of grass without blemish? How many rains will it take for the blood spots to wash away?

    Remember that equality is the principle that has brought us this far, and it is the principle that will help us move forward.

    Yet, in this dreadful tragic drama of internecine conflict neither of the contending protagonists will be the winner. There will be no spoils of victory for them. The losers will be the country, its people. Women’s empowerment and dignity will suffer. Above all, there is no glory in presiding over the liquidation of one’s own country.
    The winners will be the forces of evil darkness and decadence over good light and progress. The winners will be falsehood, prejudice and bigotry over truth, freedom, creativity, art and culture, poetry, music and beauty, everything for which life is worth living.

  3. sadik on April 26, 2013 at 6:48 am

    Who started violence with their abusive writing? Who started attacking the peaceful teachers in Madrasas? Who started the abusing game? Who started movement for a compulsory execution of the on-going judgement of the suspected war criminals? Hefazat or the bloggers? Who is causing the problems? Who is intolerant here?
    Does freedom of speech mean to vilify and abuse the prophets of Islam? Stuart Mill never meant that insulting my father or mother or my God or my prophet the most abusive way is the freedom expression. This is wrong and motivated explanation of this great thinker. I am a student of literature and studied him well.
    It is really foolish to say that you have to answer the Bangladesh bloggers with writing. How can a gentle man answer the most abusive language in the most abusive way?
    Freedom of expression is a democratic right. Yes, if it is for the bloggers only and not for the Hefazt, no doubt this is fascism. How come that the bloggers gather together and they are protected,encouraged, financed, fed and given the maximum media coverage, but when Hefazat people wish to gather together, they are tortured, stopped, killed and jailed. Is it the freedom of expression you are backing up? Blasphemy will be a law or not-that is the concern of the people of that country. If maximum people want that, it will be. That is the democratic practice. But the way you are backing up the atheist bloggers are totally undemocratic and fascist-like attitude.

  4. MBI Munshi on April 23, 2013 at 1:14 am

    The right to offend? If I were to prominently display a Swastika on my property in Germany or deny the holocaust I could be arrested or lose my job for both in some European countries. I recall a British historian being arrested for denying the holocaust in Austria some years back.

    You are only talking about the right to offend against religion. Seems somewhat hypocritical to me ….

    “As a matter of public law, the post-war German law codes prohibit the display of a swastika in any form or fashion, even if used satirically or as part of an anti-Nazi political statement. This law is generally applied to the specific five-by-five grid swastika design used during the Nazi era, however. Several religious organizations have petitioned the German government for permission to display other forms of the symbol.”

    • Rainer Ebert on April 23, 2013 at 2:13 pm

      On what basis are you calling me a hypocrite? The focus is on religion because of the current blasphemy debate in Bangladesh. Also, I am not representing Germany, nor did I ever defend the laws you are referring to.

  5. Shujon on April 22, 2013 at 3:37 am

    Rainer, great job in putting out this well thought out, crisply written analytical piece. You did Mill proud in this piece by laying out his arguments as they apply today and adding to them, especially in your reasonably arrived finding of no direct causal relationship between “offensive” speech and violence (the demagogues who parlay such “offensive” speech into inciting violence for their own political ends provide, as you rightly point out, the intervening event/cause to break direct causality). I think it would be worthwhile to do further research on this causality issue and whether or not blasphemy laws existing in countries like Pakistan, etc., favour the politically powerful than the weak (another one of Mill’s arguments against such laws). I would believe the answer to the second question if we look at Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, etc., would be in line with Mill’s critique of blasphemy laws.

    • Rainer Ebert on April 23, 2013 at 4:35 am

      Dear Shujon, thank you for your compliments. I’m glad you like my article. I think it’s fairly obvious that blasphemy laws in Pakistan are used to harass minorities, particularly Christians, and as weapons to settle personal disputes. Here is a recent article on that issue: http://tinyurl.com/a688z2j/, and there are many more that you can easily find on the internet. I agree that more attention should be paid to the relationship between offensive speech and violence. Those who argue that offensive speech “causes” violence often forget that those committing violent acts are not mindless animals but adults like us who are capable of distinguishing between right and wrong, and who can and should be held responsible for their actions.

  6. Golam Arshad on April 22, 2013 at 12:00 am

    Rainer: I don’t try myself to be a SCHOLAR in claimant to Individual Freedom of Free Expression. Some expression derides the proper sense and Honor in sensibility. Refrain from ills that Hates the Heart. A Case to ponder in Sense of Responsibility and accountability. Good job Professor, inking EXPRESSION in EXCELLENCE!!

    • Rainer Ebert on April 23, 2013 at 4:13 am

      I’m merely a student, not a professor. Thanks for your kind words though!

  7. Robin on April 21, 2013 at 11:47 pm

    Dear Rainer
    I was really expecting to have this kind of broad discussion on freedom of expression and so called blasphemus speech. This is because I have to face many debates with my knowns. You have practised your freedom of expression very well and it made my knowledge enriched.
    Thank you very much

    • Rainer Ebert on April 23, 2013 at 4:11 am

      Thank you, Robin. I’m glad you found my article informative.

  8. KMAK on April 21, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    I always find it amusing when those who do not believe in Islam think they have the right to tell Muslims what they should or should not believe in, or how they should or should not react to anti-Islamic expressions. This article is no exception. Mr.Ebert, please answer this simple question. Is it a duty of Muslims to tolerate vicious insults about the Prophet(saw)?

    I’d love to engage with the rest of your article after you answer the aforementioned question. Nevertheless, in the meantime, I’d like to make an observation. You have made a case for unrestricted freedom of speech with John Stuart Mill as the source of your inspiration. That is okay. Others would perhaps formulate political arguments based on the writings of John Locke or Tocqueville or Robert Nozick or John Rawls, among many eminent political philosophers. Yet, the moment that a Muslim stands up and quotes what he believes to be the word of God and the word of the messenger of God, you all seem to have a problem with that. Double standards much?

    • Rainer Ebert on April 23, 2013 at 4:10 am

      We should expect everybody, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and atheists alike, not to resort to violence when offended, and to tolerate others criticizing their beliefs. Words, even hateful and insulting words, must be fought with words; violence is not the answer. That being said, insulting and hateful speech almost never serves any valuable purpose and generally should be avoided.

      “Because it’s written in the Qur’an” is as good or as bad an argument as “Because Mill said so,” but that’s not the kind of argument I make in my opinion piece above. I summarize Mill’s reasons for holding the freedom of expression in high esteem because I believe that the reasons he gives are good reasons, and I believe that the reasons he gives are good reasons not because they are Mill’s, but because I find them appealing by themselves. If there is a good argument for criminalizing blasphemy in the Qur’an, I would be happy if you pointed it out to me. However, a mere “because it’s written in the Qur’an and the Qur’an is the word of god” won’t do, as appeals to what you consider an authority won’t convince those who don’t recognize that authority.

      • KMAK on April 23, 2013 at 2:19 pm

        Ebert: We should expect everybody, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and atheists alike, not to resort to violence when offended, and to tolerate others criticizing their beliefs.

        I asked you whether it is a duty of Muslims to tolerate attacks against their faith, not what you think Muslims or others should or should not be doing. If you didn’t know, Muslims derive their duties from the Quran and Sunnah, not the opinion of some German guy sticking his nose in the business of Bangladeshis. Here’s the thing Ebert, as an atheist I’m sure it is difficult for you to understand the powerful role religion plays in shaping the identity of people (and civilizations). An attack on religion is not simply an attack on some doctrines or rituals; no, it is an attack on the essence of the person who identifies with that religion.

        Ebert: If there is a good argument for criminalizing blasphemy in the Qur’an, I would be happy if you pointed it out to me. However, a mere “because it’s written in the Qur’an and the Qur’an is the word of god” won’t do, as appeals to what you consider an authority won’t convince those who don’t recognize that authority.

        If the recent Hefazat Rally proved anything, it is that the faithful comprise the majority in Bangladesh and not a handful of privileged secularists and pseudo-intellectuals who seem to think that the average God-fearing Bangladeshi who goes to the mosque, fasts during Ramadan, aspires to do the Hajj, and who, despite his lack of wealth and resources, is content with his life owing to faith in God’s Mercy, would welcome attacks on their religious identity and warmly receive steps to suppress the visibility of Islam in society! Given that ours is a religious society why shouldn’t the Quran serve as a basis of authority or even a unifying factor? Simply because few don’t believe in it?

        Let me also address the following in your article: “But isn’t the real issue that blasphemous speech leads to violence, rather than that it offends? Well, does it really?… This is not surprising, as blasphemous speech does not cause violence directly. If there is a causal relationship between blasphemous speech and violence at all, the effect is indirect. The link between the two is people who choose to react with violence after being subjected to blasphemous speech, and typically also hate-mongers who make sure that blasphemous speech reaches those who are willing to resort to violence.”

        Let’s suppose the relationship between blasphemous speech and violent reactions is true. How on earth does that justify freedom of anti-religious expressions? Considering the hostile reactions to the desecration of the Quran at the hands of US soldiers in Afghanistan and Terry Jones, the Danish cartoons, the highly offensive film about Muhammad(saw), the novel about Aisha(ra) by Sherry Jones and more, given the kind of unrest anti-religious expressions can create in Muslim societies IF SUCH EXPRESSIONS COME TO BE PUBLICIZED, then it is best NOT to tolerate anti-religious expressions publicly. Hence, the argument for restricted freedom of speech stands. Ignoring religious fervor, it is simply naive to suggest, as you have, that Muslims should ignore attacks on their faith.

        • Quadir on April 24, 2013 at 3:46 am

          First off, I must say I really enjoyed reading your posts KMAK and look forward to Ebert’s reply. I would just like to add another point to your argument. Imran Khan, the Pakistani politician, when asked about Pakistan’s blasphemy law, replied that it provided the state a means of trying and potentially protecting those who had been accused of blaspheming who might have otherwise been subject to mob violence as had unfortunately historically been the norm in Pakistan. It is a known fact that the Pakistani state has miserably failed in protecting its minorities but if sensible legislation could be made in this regard, then perhaps future instances of “mob justice” can be sorted out in the courts instead of the streets. Of course, like with any piece of legislation, IMPLEMENTATION and not intention, is the key.

          Also, I would like to reiterate that comments that insult Allah or the Prophets do not just insult a set of rituals but insult the very core of our being and this aspect is extremely difficult to explain to non-believers. They are not only offensive but also hurtful. Also, reacting against offensive speech with violence goes against the Prophetic tradition, hence it is also unIslamic.

          Under ideal circumstances, we would see open debates on public platforms between atheists, secularists and Islamic scholars but unfortunately Bangladesh simply does not have that quality of Islamic scholarship and this represents a huge failure on the part of the Bangladeshi society and state. Parents want their children to be doctors and engineers but not “aalims”, this simply needs to change if we are to evolve as a society.

          I am an ardent supporter of freedom of expression and democracy but there is no reason why certain reasonable limits cannot be placed on it (e.g. Holocaust). I would like to say that I oppose many of the other demands placed by Hefazat-e-Islam as I find them contradictory to the Prophetic tradition.

        • Rainer Ebert on April 24, 2013 at 4:18 am

          Secularism is one of Bangladesh’s founding principles. In a pluralistic democracy, religious citizens should offer secular reasons alongside any religious reasons they present in the public sphere. Otherwise, meaningful discourse among people from different religious and cultural backgrounds is difficult, and progress as well as mutual understanding unlikely.

          • Quadir on April 25, 2013 at 10:56 am

            I agree with your viewpoint that when it comes to legislation i.e. the public sphere, secular reasons as well as religious reasons should be offered when the basis for that legislation is religion. However, it is important to note that though “secularism” was a founding principle, the country’s founding principles were never created based on public consensus or a referendum. If you ask the average Bangladeshi if secular law should supersede laws based on the Quran, you will get a vehement no as your reply. As KMAK mentioned, only members of the elites and pseudo-intellectuals would reply in the affirmative.

            Another point I’d like to add is that, an intelligently drafted blasphemy law would outlaw insulting non-Muslim religious sentiments as well. Insulting Hindu/Buddhist/Christian religious sentiment is absolutely unacceptable.

            Lastly, having Islamic law does not automatically mean having a state like Iran or Saudi Arabia both of whose state structures are quite unIslamic since they are severely lacking in transparency. In the case of Saudi Arabia, an imperial monarchy goes totally against the Prophetic traditions. During the Khilafat-e-Rashidun (the rule of the rightly guided rulers, the first four Caliphs), the leader of the state could only be elected through consensus, and transparency was such that the Caliph could lose battles in Sharia court as they did in certain instances, even against religious minorities such as Jews.

            However, Bangladesh does not have the Islamic leadership that is required to emulate the system that I have mentioned. Our interim system which combines British common law and Sharia law should suffice for now as we try to develop our state institutions, including state religious institutions.

            Please do not try to shove secularism down our throats.

          • KMAK on April 25, 2013 at 1:02 pm

            Ebert: Secularism is one of Bangladesh’s founding principles.

            I wouldn’t be too sure of that. “The Independence War began unexpectedly following the military crackdown on 25 March 1971. Ordinary people fought against the Pakistani military for survival, not necessarily to establish a secular, socialist state.Moreover, the 1970 parliamentary elections had been held under a Legal Framework Order that upheld Islamic principles. Nevertheless, secularism was enshrined as a principle in 1972 Constitution, largely as a reaction to the Islamic parties’ opposition to Bangladesh independence and collaboration with the Pakistani military. To many critics, however, this Constitution looked uncomfortably similar to the Constitution of India. The perception remains that secularism was incorporated into that Constitution at the behest of India.”

            Hossain, Akhand Akthar. (2012). Islamic Resurgence in Bangladesh’s Culture and Politics: Origins, Dynamics and Implications. Journal of Islamic Studies, 23(2)pp.165-198

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