At no time in history was offending another faith part of any concept of freedom. Offending was part of a wider conflict to destroy another religion, culture, or faith.

The medieval world of invading and conquering armies knew that most faith structures held societies together. It was therefore essential to attack culture through both words and deeds.

The location of such an idea didn’t come with the concept of freedom. It was the expression of the culture of the powerful.

The source of the idea of the right to offend began in the western world, both Middle Eastern and European.

In the Middle East, religious conflict was based on tribal identity which in turn provided the collective power to ward off enemies, wanting to crush another. Thus Judaism was not just a faith identity, but also a tribal one as was Islam.

The tribal conflict is also reflected in the scriptural narratives too which is why religious symbols and attire are often used to denote tribal identity as well even today.

Christian history transformed when it left the Middle Eastern shores and was taken on by Emperor Justine of Rome in the 4th century to Europe to establish greater control over his rebellious subjects.

The Roman Catholic Church developed through this interaction. Later, it was integral to the rise of the European empire over the rest of the world.

But as capitalism grew in the Renaissance, challenging feudalism upheld by the Church, several new elements emerged.

Anti-feudalism, anti-Church, and anti- totalitarian ideas joined to become a single stream. It also came in the wake of the Inquisition during which a corrupt and cruel Church system killed many of its enemies.

It was not a clash of ideas but of political control. As feudalism died, with it declined the Church of Rome manifested by the Holy Roman Empire.

Protestant Church and capitalism grew along with cultural interest in both secular and divine topics. Subsequently, other values were added to it and it ultimately resulted in the rise of commercial capitalism which led to colonialism and its value structure.

Free market and free ideas became its ideology.

Colonialism was not just built on economic supremacy of the coloniser, but also on asserting the cultural supremacy of the coloniser.

Rationality or modern ideas including the notion of the independent, thinking self – Cogito Ergo Sum (“I think therefore I am”), the defining equation of Modernity –  served as the great servant of dismantling indigenous cultures.

Renaissance, or rebirth, also became the killer of other ideas in the name of freedom. Historically, what began as a right to question became a right to offend and ultimately the right to destroy.

It’s one of the roots that give credence to the idea that one has the right to offend another’s most sacred idea to assert one’s own freedom. Yet, in the West where we see its most aggressive presence, many ideas are held to be beyond offending.

What has been the focus of offending has been religion and religious ideas, particularly I slam. It’s not an accident that the West’s main confrontation has been with Islam in its political form.

It’s a political struggle not an intellectual one.

But the popularisation of the idea in the West is a completely different matter when it comes to the East.

The right to offend religion is an unusual right to seek in a society where religion is essential for forming social identity. Such identities are fundamental to survival and religion itself was born as part of the survival scheme of the ancient human being.

Over time, its needs have varied but it has remained crucial to the creation of social values and structures.

This is particularly so in the developing world lying outside the realm of advanced financial and industrial capitalism.

Majority of Westerners do/may not have the same sense of the sacred and institutional religion as the dominant form of piety.

It has been significantly eroded by the rise of non-religious culture and replaced by other symbols. New ones have emerged including the idea of the Nation-State as the new “Faith” Religion which can’t be offended, and if committed, is severely punished.

The right to offend is also limited by punishment for hate speech, acts against the state, and many legal sanctions operate which exist to prevent offending the State and its system.

For example, burning flags in the US is a crime. So is challenging the history of Holocaust in Europe.

Socially, support for child sex is a crime, though once it was supported by some arguing that it was the sexual right of a sexual minority.

The Libertarians or those who believed in the absolute freedom for everything no longer support this cause. Pedophilia is not only a crime, but offends everyone who is not a pedophile, and so protecting children’s sexuality has become a new sacred.

Thus every freedom has its limits for society’s self preservation. The US and the West developed the “anti-censorship” concept as an absolute end in itself during the Cold War days, since the socialist world was pro-censorship. But the West itself developed its own censorship system of greater sophistication.

But traditional values of the Eastern world frown upon any offense to the sacrosanct. Religion and its values are not decorations on the cake of soul, but an essential ingredient of social survival.

In 1971, ordinary people did not offend other faiths or practices because the dream of freedom of Bangladeshis didn’t involve the right to offend others.

If another’s freedom is not respected, it’s absurd to expect tolerance for one’s own view. And that is why the framework for freedom of speech today is under stress, because the right to offend seems to be more important than the duty of others not to offend.

While slander and defamation protect the secular space from offence, it is open season to offend faith practices.

The conflict around religion that has already resulted in violence is rooted in the same intolerance practiced by two sides in different shapes with the same form. It’s cruel to demand the right to offend what is precious and pious to another when that harms none.

Terrorism is a political matter not a faith issue.

Defence of democracy and socialism has killed more in the last 100 years than all religious wars put together.

So what manner of freedom, is this that seeks to hurt others in the name of freedom?

Afsan Chowdhuryis a columnist.

21 Responses to “Freedom of speech doesn’t include your right to offend another’s faith”

  1. mohammad zaman

    “Freedom of speech doesn’t include your right to offend another’s faith”.

    The heading of this disjointed write up is pure BS. This is exactly what the PM and her businessman cum computer scientist cum adviser are feeding the nation to rationalize killing of free thinkers and practitioners of Sufi Islam.

    Shame on the honorable writer 🙁

    Yes, if some one has a different opinion – let them come tete a tete with forceful penmanship …

  2. Akteruzzaman Chowdhury

    Previously Mr. Afsan has written many inetersting articles on various subjects. Maulana Farooki was killed for writing much less than what Mr. Afsan has written previously. The extremists kill writers and Pirs for very flimsy reasons. I hope this piece of writing will give some added protection to this writer.

    The writer gives very little importance to the accuracy of history. Christianity was first brought to Rome by Emp Constantine in the 4th cen. There was no emp by name of Justine but there was one emperor Justinian.

    The writer has some issue with condemning paedophilia. Well if Bishops have it then what is a professor.

    It is not good to hurt the sentiments of religious minded people.
    please note that liberal minded people also have sentiments that can be hurt.

    • afsan chy

      Dear Akhteruzzaman Chowdhury,

      Many thanks for pointing out my error and mixing up Constantine and Justinian. I stand corrected and my apologies for making them.

      I think a careful read will show that I am condemning pedophilia /child sex abuse but in the 60s and the 70s some groups who were against any kind of leash on freedoms did support it on the ground that a ban on child sex did limit the rights of a minority sexual group.


  3. Khalid

    I do not agree with the author that terrorism is a political matter not faith issue. Yes, someone can be a terrorist in the eyes of the oppressor or occupier, as Gandhi and Mandela were, but they were heroes in the eyes of their followers. There were ideological terrorists like Bader-Mienhoff, Red Army, Shining Paths who were fighting for a particular doctrine. The writer believes that what we are witnessing now from Pakistan to Africa is a religious movement. A movement to establish Islamic State based on Sharia Law as enshrined in the the scripture. So there is no room for Christians, Yazdis, Shias or any dissenter. They can kill with impunity but can not be called terrorist, it is a faith issue. To drop a bomb in a Shia mosque or Ahamdiya enclosure is political!! The bloggers, writers and publishers have no right to question the authencity or historical facts.
    I agree, one or two bloggers have crossed the limit of decency. Prophet Muhammad has suffered worse at the hand of his own tribe. I have been living in western countries for the last 40-45 years and have observed comedians, cartoonists and satirists made hilarious comments about Jesus, Christianity, Church along with its fathers, mothers and brothers. They have raised questions about the authenticity of Bible. Even, Tel Aviv University have published many papers putting doubts on many stories we read in Torah, First Testamant and Quran. Sir, it is tolerance and education. Everybody has the right to question or express his or her opinion on piece of history however sacred it might be. We live in 21st century. If I quote that Prophet Muhammad had a child with an woman Mariam who was not his wedded wife, I will offend some. The son died as an infant. So did Abraham whose son Ibrahim and his slave mother was banished from the tribe later. You do not get spiritual enlightment through rituals. “লোকে বলে লালন কি জাত সংসারে।” Lucky he is not alive today. The writer will do justice by not giving tacit support to machete wielding faith mongers.

    • nas

      I agree with Khalid. Freedom of speech allows us to balance, challenge our ways of thinking and our view of the world. To be offended shows a significant degree of intolerance and allows bigots and extremists to flourish, go unchecked, that they can continue to behave the way they want to without impunity. There is no balance where there is no ability to have discussion and to ensure that illogical, misrepresented views are debated. Intolerance and extreme beliefs on the part of countries, groups, some religious institutions have to be challenged. Freedom has consequences, but, think about it, do you want to be told what you should think or decide how you want to think. The boundary has to be when you ask others to kill, incite violence, that is not freedom of speech that is dictatorial and has no place in what I say above.

  4. sundar swapan

    when Galileo said the earth moves round the sun he offended the faith of millions, when Darwin published his book ” origin of species” he violated and injured the faith of billions, when Ram Mohan Roy said against “Sati daha” he offended the faith of millions of Hindus, when Bidyasagar advocated for widow marriage he offended the faith of millions of orthodox hindus . According this mushroom intellectuals all these people committed severe crime and be brought under trial posthumously.

  5. Sumit Mazumdar

    This article is a hotch potch of very convoluted ideas without any solid intellectual basis. Consider the following quotes:

    “Majority of Westerners do not have the same sense of sacred and institutional religion…”

    What has the sense of sacred got to do with institutional religion? The bulk of the citizens of Europe value human life far more than the people in the so-called East. So – human life to them is sacred even as they do not go to church. Why should “sacred” be conflated with “institutional religion”?

    “Nation state as the new Faith religion…”

    Most definitely a wrong interpretation of European sense of identity, as they are moving away (or were before the Syrian refugee crisis hit them) from the concept of the Nation state!!

    “Pedophilia is not a crime”.

    Can the writer cite a single western state where pedophilia is not a crime? That pedophiles wanted it to be considered normal human behavior is different from the larger society agreeing to it.

    “But traditional values of the Eastern world … sacrosanct”

    This is simply not enough. Please read Sharat Chandra. In the Bengali Hindu village the Brahmin’s privileges are “sacrosanct”. Should that then continue?

    “… where religion is … identity”.

    Right there is the problem. As Amartya Sen has written explicitly, all of us have many identities. Why exactly should we stick to one of those?
    When the whole world is my Ummah, why should we base our identity on religion? A few lines below (or it is above?) the writer is upset about Pakistan and 1971. This is strange, because if Muslim identity takes precedence over all other identities, then does not the Pakistani military have the obligation to wipe out those who are trying to destroy that identity?

    “While slander and defamation protect the secular space from offence…”

    Hold on! What exactly does this mean? I beat my head against the wall to figure this one out. What does this piece, which can easily get conspiracy theorists excited, mean? I submit it has no meaning towarwhatsoever!

    Overall it appears that the writer is protesting against the perceived
    intolerance of the secular “West” towards Easterners whose identity comes from their religion (not clear whether the writer is also protesting against the Bangladeshi secular bloggers). In particular the writer (correctly) is miffed about the conflict (in terms of “values” as held by the secular west and the “religious” east). But this is not because of western intolerance, but because of OUR intolerance. Here is a BJP slogan from the `80s that explains it “Humse jo takrayega, chur chur ho jayega” (Those who will clash with us, will get crushed). The problem is not religion per se, but the idea that there is one absolute truth. Until religions accept Newton-Galileo-Darwin, the onus is on them to modernize and to tweak their faiths.

    Finally burning the US flag is not a crime. It is protected by the US First Amendment. Better research on this should have been done.

    • dr

      Don’t attack Mr. Chy this way. At least he tries to speak up. What are you all doing? Though I shouldn’t be defending him because once I wrote to him last year but he didn’t show me the courtesy of a reply. That was not cool. The problem is with with Bangladesh’s education system, because there is no comprehensive curricular that was followed back then. When i saw I wasn’t learning much from Du’s teachers, after completing three years there at age 21, I made a bold move to come to the States, and finish my studies. I have learnt a lot and still learning to. During those days in Dhaka, single girls didn’t come to another country. They only came when they got married with interrupted studies and then became a housewife, before they had the chance to know who they really are. To make a long story short…if I didn’t move to the West then, I know I will be a different person now. Freedom is something one has to define for herself/himself. To me, freedom means to speak my mind without fear. While in BD, I was an introvert, now people are afraid of me because I call a spade a spade. I was part of a big family and felt stifled because I couldn’t speak up and suffered silently. Here, I have created a life where no one interferes with my freedom or free spirit. Though my heart is in Bangladesh, but I don’t think I can ever live there again, because now I simply cannot be around too many people. I need my Solitude because that is my freedom that I’ve chosen. For me freedom is reading about the history of opera before going to see one. Then writing about that experience. Freedom for me means saying my prayers privately and freedom for me means not going going to the mosque, like every other immigrant woman. My relationship with God is private and I think that people with different religions should be allowed to worship their deities or someone higher up, without being judgement or causing them disturbances. Freedom to me means not wearing a sari in a Bengali gathering. Freedom to me means to be able to say to the ones when I walk in to a room…that with my long dress and a wrap, I look covered up, where they are showing a lot of skin which make them look vulgar. Freedom to me means only to wear subtle pieces of jewels instead of clunky imitation ornaments. Freedom to means to go to the park across my house and enjoy the sunshine and get some Vitamin D. Freedom to me means to walk three blocks from my house carrying two loaves of bread (without anyone thinking I’m weird) which I buy every Thursday night for a dollar and next morning go to the artificial lake where there are about two-dozen ducks waiting for me. Freedom to me means to sit there and see the happy ducks. In saying that I have to close now. Time to go and feed the ducks.

      • Arif Rahman

        Wow! An amazing story teller. I am cracking up seeing how you diverted the discussion and made it about yourself. Interesting life you live. You should write stories.

  6. Sukhamaya Bain

    An interesting write-up, Mr. Afsan Chowdhury! May I ask you to write an opinion page on what can be called offending a faith? Give the readers some specific examples. Here are some examples for you to consider. Please tell the readers which ones of these are offending a religious faith and how. 1) Someone goes to a Hindu temple and breaks up the idols. 2) Someone says that Islam treats women as inferior to men. 3) Someone says that Hindu caste system is preposterous. 4) Someone says that due to systematic discrimination and hatred by Muslims, the Hindu population of East Bengal has gone down from ~30% in 1947 to ~9% today. 5) Someone says that a continuous 30 days of daytime fasting and nighttime eating that Muslims do is unhealthy. 6) Someone says that killing animals for a religious ritual is foolish. 7) Someone draws a picture of Hanuman masturbating looking at Sita, and circulates it publicly. 8) Someone says that the 7th century wisdom of the Quran is neither very wise, nor very just, nor worth following. You can come up with more examples and tell the readers which ones are actually offences against a religion and which ones are for the advancement of the human civilization, with your rationales behind your opinions. You could also add which ones would justify murdering the sayer/doer.

  7. Sohana Yasmin

    Sorry, it’s a pathetic article. The problem of our country’s so called intellectuals is they can discuss about world history of religions and freedom of speech, but cannot talk about the very basic problem of own religion. All the organised religions were built upon the history of demolishing previous faith’s signs, symbols and images. The Prophet of Islam himself ordered and executed the demolition of more than 400 deities of Arab land. Nobody can utter that fact. So, this kind of writing is superficial and baseless. In fact we don’t have any intellectual who can utter the truth. No point of reading this kind of trash. The writer mentioned about western society and the east, but not a single word about how freedom of expression and freedom of practicing other faiths are violated in all the middle eastern and other Islamic countries, which Bangladesh, as an Islamic country, is following.

    • Zafar

      “All the organised religions were built upon the history of demolishing previous faith’s signs, symbols and images.”
      In support of your own above quoted argument why not you mention historical facts before and after your quote of Prophet of Islam. Freedom of speech is constructive only when it is impartial otherwise it have to end up with hurt and hate.

      • Arif Rahman

        For all you know this person perhaps was burning the midnight oil to write this piece. You always have a choice not to read. To call someone’s work “trash” is rather mean spirited. Why go through the trouble of reading it and then leave ugly comments? There are no shortage of reading materials.

  8. Asis Das

    Sure offending isn’t included in freedom of speech neither to kill with machette the one does so. Then we become that of an era of middle east or europe in middle age. The problem of today in Bangladesh is government apparatus is loudly speaking against offending, didn’t manage do anything, willingly or unwillingly, with the greatest of the offenders – the killers. Those speaches of PM, her son, her IGP, her home minister etc. Are just untimely and encouragine, without doubt, more killings.As you mentioned, terrorism is political, not religious then why our government is even mentioning religious sentiment etc while talkin about terrorism? That is very wrong.

  9. DTBarua

    So is the directed towards the ‘devil-like, angry’ Atheists/Secularists? Or is directed towards the religious?

    Your entire article seems to present the institution of Religion as this innocent naive thing, completely glossing over the the mellennias of oppression, bigotry and superstition.

    The last century had been the first time the religious institutions had been in the defensive, the first time they had to explain themselves, their position, be accountable, had to create apologetics, had to become humble in a way, had to really dilute their doctrines and customs to suit modern society. Before that they reigned supreme, their faith-based-position was the one that was to be followed unquestioned, it was the doubters/non-believers who had to shy away, keep quiet to save one-self from actual physical harm. In some parts of the world that is still the case.

    And the thing is different countries or societies have different religion to bash. I have lived in the west, so I can put some perspective. For example, the Americans generally bash Christianity because the majority tend to identify as Christians and Christians are the ones who tend to be the homophobes, the xenophobes, the conservatives, the ones who are anti-women, the ones who bomb abortion clinics and so on, so they are the ones who generally get the flak. So if we take that to be a trend, in case of Bangladesh what do you think will happen in Bangladesh?

    “Renaissance, or rebirth, also became the killer of other ideas in the name of freedom. Historically, what began as a right to question became a right to offend and ultimately the right to destroy.” — killer of other ideas? Right to Destroy?! What bollocks!

    Saying, “lets burn your house, because I do not like your Idea,” is a hate-crime. But saying, “There is no evidence for your Idea and it kind of sucks,” maybe offensive, but definitely, is not a hate-crime.

    Parties of God should fear the other parties of God. not the Irreligious.

  10. Kayes

    Actually it does. Freedom of speech means just that. Freedom from all restrictions inlcuding, meh, especially, the religious kind. Freedom to offend anyone and anything. The real issue is why would a religion be so fragile that little words would offend the thing that had somehow stood up for thousnads of years. It is a people isssue. The intolerant f**ks just cannot have anyone have a different view. They want to silence all and have a tranquil humanity. Not for me, bubba!

  11. Adnan R. Amin

    Thank you, Afsan bhai for taking a broad, moral stance that transcends the immediacy of prevailing extremist fervor. Free Speech is no better understood in the context of blogger killings, than it is in that of the Inquisition. “Freedom” means nothing unless followed by the preposition “to”. The freedom to propagate lies and rumors, for example, is not a freedom at all. Is the freedom to deny History (the Holocaust or the number of martyrs in 1971) a necessary freedom? POTUS now has ‘the freedom’ to order an extrajudicial killing of a citizen. Is that something to be welcomed or celebrated?
    ‘Freedom’ is not a magic word that absolves or legitimizes everything that follows. Let’s think about what a particular freedom seeks to do, to whom and why. Otherwise, we can gain nothing by chanting “freedom, freedom”, while blindly swallowing principles and theories that have arisen from experiences that have nothing to do with Bangladesh.

  12. Golam Arshad

    Dear Afsan: You are absolutely right, eruption of wars hinged on faith and religion. Be it Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity or Islam. The will of God negated by human throughout the ages.Mighty Empire fallen on tethering knot of faith and religion. Religion being used to ornate power of the powerful. Sri Krishna, Gautam Buddha, Moses, Jesus and Prophet Muhammad (put) had to evolve their relentless effort for establishing God Supremacy over Human might and power. The magic of power pushed humans to arrogance, and then downfall. Mighty Caesar was annihilated by his own cohorts and bootlickers. Beware of sycophant! Beware!! These sychopant conceal their venom and inject in time. Beware!
    Freedom gets ugly when intolerance takes an upper hand. The current wave of religious intolerance and extremism must be contained not by wrath but by wisdom in consensus not in discord but in harmony. Not in wielding the baton of power but by judicious understanding! We do hope and pray that A Dialog for Political Amity takes place soon with all stakeholder of National solidarity.
    Thank you my friend for a brilliant write up!

    Golam Arshad
    Former Press Minister
    Embassy of Bangladesh
    Washington DC

Comments are closed.