On 28 January 2009, an opinion piece by young British journalist Johann Hari was published in The Independent. This piece is a strong argument for our right to criticise religion. Hari is, quite properly, scathing about recent developments within the UN, as a result of which the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression has now been tasked with reporting on so-called abuses of freedom of speech, including "defamation" of religion. In other words, the Special Rapporteur's functions will no longer be confined to detecting and shaming those who suppress freedom of speech; it will now include attacking those who exercise freedom of speech in which ways that offend the religious.
Note that we are not talking here about the incitement of specific crimes against the religious, such as if I addressed a rioting crowd and told them to vandalise a mosque or a synagogue. We are talking about any speech that can be characterised as "defamatory" of a religion or its prophets, such as criticism of Jesus or Muhammad. We are talking about a mechanism to try to censor a wide range of robust anti-religious speech. Hari is justifiably outraged by this development.
The article goes on to elaborate that Hari feels no need to "respect" religions. I totally agree: we must affirm the right of other individuals to believe whatever superstitious or moralistic nonsense strikes them as true, and their right to speak the truth as they see it. But there is no need to esteem, or defer to, the nonsense itself.
Much of what confronts us when we examine religion, particularly but not solely the Abrahamic monotheisms, is barbaric and absurd when viewed in the light of modern scientific and moral understanding. Obviously, some religious groups have refined their doctrines to the point where they are inoffensive (I've said numerous times on this blog and elsewhere that I do not consider genuinely moderate Christians, liberal Jews, and so on, to be my enemies) and so abstract or demythologised as to defy attack on their factual claims. But there is all too much unreconstructed religion around that relies on holy books and traditions from more primitive times, and more often than not attempts to impose the dubious wisdom of these books and traditions on entire societies.
What's more, the problem will get worse. Even as non-belief continues to grow in the advanced countries of Western Europe, Oceania, and North America (even the US), barbaric, unreconstructed forms of Christianity and Islam are growing by immense numbers every year in the populous nations of Africa, South America, and the Middle East. Even in the most liberal and industrially-advanced countries, illiberal monotheisms are growing in numbers, prominence, and political influence. At the level of the United Nations, the UN's original role of preventing a recurrence of Nazi-like evils has largely been forgotten. On many issues, anti-liberal parties such as the Vatican and the key Muslim states (Iran, Syria, and others) are able to attract majorities to their position, or at least enough countries to scuttle liberal-minded initiatives that are in keeping with the UN's original mission, such as the initiative by France and the Netherlands to oppose the criminalisation of homosexuality. More liberal countries such as Canada, the countries of Western Europe, and those of Oceania, need to engage very actively to oppose these tendencies in the UN. It may be that a time will come when the UN has diverted so far from its original purpose that those countries have no choice but to leave and to form their own international organisation. If so, that is still decades away, and we shouldn't despair of the UN quite yet, but we do need to discuss these issues openly and fearlessly.
Please read Johann Hari's article. There is little in it that I disagree with, and he had every right to say what he did, whether you agree with it or not.
On 5 February, Hari's article was published in India, in a Kolkata-based newspaper called The Statesman. This seems like a valuable contribution to discussion of religion in India, in keeping with that country's secular traditions and its proud claim to being the world's largest democracy. What happened next?
In response, a group of Muslims staged protests outside the newspaper's offices. By Monday 9 February, these had turned violent. It's one thing to disagree with Hari's opinion, or even to express your disagreement by peaceful means such as a well-ordered protest. But there is no right to engage in violence, as when crowds start attacking police. Worse, this protest did not merely express disagreement with Hari's viewpoint; it sought that the editor and publisher of the newspaper be arrested for the crime, in India, of "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings".
What is truly outrageous is that any supposedly democratic country should have such a crime on its statute books. Shame on India.
But there's worse to come. The outcome so far is that the individuals concerned actually were arrested! To be fair, this seems to have followed the editor's voluntary attendance at a police station in an effort to defuse tensions, but the fact remains that these people are now charged with criminal offences for publishing Hari's article. Perhaps the prosecution against them will fail (it may be difficult to prove malice), but the ability of such laws to chill valuable debate about religion is obvious. Hari himself risks being arrested if he ever travels to India. I wish I had words to express the full depths of my anger about all this.
On 13 February, The Independent published a further article by Hari entitled "Despite these riots, I stand by what I wrote". Here, Hari strongly defends freedom of speech, including freedom to criticise religion. Once again, please read what he has to say.
Johann Hari has my total support, as do the Indian journalists who have been arrested under India's contemptible legislation. Please do whatever you can to support them, to shame India, and to oppose any moves to get similar laws enacted in your own country. Even if the wording of a proposal in your country seems to be innocuous, you can be assured that people who want these laws won't stop until they are in a form that is strong enough to stifle any strong criticism of religion. Even now, supposedly liberal academics routinely complain that the defences in existing religious vilification laws here in Australia are too effective, and that stronger laws are needed to make sure that cases are brought successfully.
In my opinion, no issue is more important than this one. If we allow laws that prevent us criticising religion, we have given away the entire Enlightenment project. I'm not all that brave, but this is the one issue that I would fight for physically, if I had no other choice, or risk jail for. It embodies my deepest commitments. We must do whatever it takes to stand up for our freedom of speech in such an important area. Fortunately, I live in a society where democratic opposition is still possible, and all I feel called on to do at the moment is fight with words. But let's not be afraid to do that much.
For most of us, the prospect of violence or jail hasn't arisen yet: there are no real sacrifices demanded of us, except the sacrifice of some of our time. Thankfully, our courage is not being put to the test in any really harsh way. No one is threatening us with force. But others, such as the publisher, editor, and staff of The Statesman, are not so lucky. Please, please do whatever you can to support them and to take a stand on this overwhelmingly important issue.