Free Speech Under Attack in the “Free World”
Among the new blasphemers is legendary French actress Brigitte Bardot, who was convicted last June of “inciting religious hatred” for a letter she wrote in 2006 to then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, saying that Muslims were ruining France. It was her fourth criminal citation for expressing intolerant views of Muslims and homosexuals. Other Western countries, including Canada and Britain, are also cracking down on religious critics.We rather welcome the punishment of anti-Christian speech, and not because we favor censorship, but rather because free speech has to be viewed as a prisoners’ dilemma what has iterated to a cooperative solution.
Emblematic of the assault is the effort to pass an international ban on religious defamation supported by United Nations General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann. Brockmann is a suspended Roman Catholic priest who served as Nicaragua’s foreign minister in the 1980s under the Sandinista regime, the socialist government that had a penchant for crushing civil liberties before it was tossed out of power in 1990. Since then, Brockmann has literally embraced such free-speech-loving figures as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom he wrapped in a bear hug at the U.N. last year.
The U.N. resolution, which has been introduced for the past couple of years, is backed by countries such as Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive nations when it comes to the free exercise of religion. Blasphemers there are frequently executed. Most recently, the government arrested author Hamoud Bin Saleh simply for writing about his conversion to Christianity.
While it hasn’t gone so far as to support the U.N. resolution, the West is prosecuting “religious hatred” cases under anti-discrimination and hate-crime laws. British citizens can be arrested and prosecuted under the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act, which makes it a crime to “abuse” religion. In 2008, a 15-year-old boy was arrested for holding up a sign reading “Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult” outside the organization’s London headquarters. Earlier this year, the British police issued a public warning that insulting Scientology would now be treated as a crime.
No question, the subjects of such prosecutions are often anti-religious -- especially anti-Muslim -- and intolerant. Consider far-right Austrian legislator Susanne Winter. She recently denounced Mohammad as a pedophile for his marriage to 6-year-old Aisha, which was consummated when she was 9. Winter also suggested that Muslim men should commit bestiality rather than have sex with children. Under an Austrian law criminalizing “degradation of religious doctrines,” the 51-year-old politician was sentenced in January to a fine of 24,000 euros ($31,000) and a three-month suspended prison term.
But it is the speech, not the speaker, that’s at issue. As insulting and misinformed as views like Winter’s may be, free speech is not limited to non-offensive subjects. The purpose of free speech is to be able to challenge widely held views.
Yet there is a stream of cases similar to Winter’s coming out of various countries:
In May 2008, Dutch prosecutors arrested cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot for insulting Christians and Muslims with a cartoon that caricatured a Christian fundamentalist and a Muslim fundamentalist as zombies who meet at an anti-gay rally and want to marry.
Last September, Italian prosecutors launched an investigation of comedian Sabina Guzzanti for joking about Pope Benedict VXI. “In 20 years, [he] will be dead and will end up in hell, tormented by queer demons, and very active ones,” she said at a rally.
The logic is simple: if conservative Christians have the power to shut up secular leftists, and secular leftists have the power to shut up conservative Christians, then each side will come to accept that tolerating the other side is the price of its own free speech.
But where one side can shut up the other with impunity, it has no incentive to be tolerant. This is usually the case in academia, and in places like Canada.
In February, Rowan Laxton, an aide to British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, was arrested for “inciting religious hatred” when, watching news reports of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza while exercising at his gym, he allegedly shouted obscenities about Israelis and Jews at the television.
Also in February, Britain barred controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders from entry because of his film “Fitna,” which describes the Koran as a “fascist” book and Islam as a violent religion. Wilders was declared a “threat to public policy, public security or public health.”
And in India, authorities arrested the editor and publisher of the newspaper the Statesman for running an article by British journalist Johann Hari in which he wrote, “I don’t respect the idea that we should follow a ‘Prophet’ who at the age of 53 had sex with a 9-year-old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn’t follow him.” In India, it is a crime to “outrage religious feelings.”
History has shown that once governments begin to police speech, they find ever more of it to combat. Countries such as Canada, England and France have prosecuted speakers and journalists for criticizing homosexuals and other groups. It’s the ultimate irony: free speech curtailed for the sake of a pluralistic society.