Free speech isn't a threat to religion; it's a safeguard

Free speech and freedom of religion, properly understood, do not conflict; they reinforce each other

by Jacob Mchangama on 17 May 2013 11:05

Does free speech threaten social peace and religious groups? And if so should we limit expressions that insult deeply held religious feelings?

Those questions are crucial in a globalized world where technology allows expressions to flow instantly between countries and regions with very different cultural norms and legal standards for acceptable speech. Those who favour restrictions on speech, either through self-censorship or outright bans, point to increasing instances of violent reactions to “insults” against Islam that began with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, culminated during the Danish cartoon crisis, and flared up again during the controversy of the crude film “The innocence of Muslims”.

In my new film “Collision! Free speech and religion” I argue that the claim that free speech must be restricted to secure social peace is both false and dangerous. In fact free speech and freedom of religion, properly understood, do not conflict; they reinforce each other and constitute the necessary precondition for peaceful coexistence in diverse and pluralist societies.

Nothing demonstrates this point better than the case of the Baha’is, a small monotheistic faith which emerged in 19th century Iran. In the U.S. the protection of the First Amendment has allowed this small religious community to flourish and the spectacular Baha’i temple has long been a source of local pride in affluent Wilmette, Illinois. Here the Baha’is are a respected part of the community and never have to worry about being targeted by the government or their neighbours.

Yet in Iran, where free speech and freedom of religion is denied, the Baha’is are systematically persecuted due to their “blasphemous” and “heretical” beliefs. Many Baha’is have been imprisoned and some tortured and killed. In other words the very freedoms that allow critics and dissenters to insult the feelings of religious believers also protect the rights of the latter to exercise their faith freely.

With time a free and open debate on religion breeds a culture of tolerance that benefits the religious believer, the sceptic, and the atheist, and allows these to live together in peace. It is therefore a tragic error when governments in the West seek to appease governments and religious hardliners who demand limits on criticism of religion.

Such a move would repudiate rather than strengthen tolerance and thereby endanger one of the most cherished and hard fought values of liberal democracy.

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