Today is Valentine’s day. For many people it is a day to revel in the love one shares with another, regardless of race or gender. However it is also the day that a death threat was publicly issued. This death threat has been acted on yet the person responsible for it was never arrested. Today is the 23rd anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for the death of novelist Salman Rushdie for writing the novel The Satanic Verses.
One might be tempted to think that after 23 years, and the death of Khomeni, that Rushdie can now live safely. One would be wrong. Just this year Salman Rushdie was intending to appear in India for the Jaipur Literary Festival. His trip was cancelled at the last minute as word came through that there would be an attempt to assassinate him and he felt that it would be irresponsible to put anyone else at risk. Furthermore, he wasn’t even allowed to speak via teleconferencing.
The incident was condemned by some of the attendees at the festival, notably among those Richard Dawkins who read an edited version of a speech he had written when the original fatwa was issued against Rushdie. Others at the festival expressed solidarity with the threatened author by reading from The Satanic Verses. They had to leave India to avoid a possible arrest.
Unfortunately, this violent repression of free speech is not a rare event, particularly in the Muslim world. India has also been in the news recently when they called on major internet companies, such as Facebook and Google, to remove content that may be offensive. Disappointingly there have been some concessions granted. One stated motivation is to prevent violence that may be sparked by offensive material, but ignores that religious material, by it’s very nature, is offensive to some and validates violent threats and intimidation as an acceptable way to achieve one’s goals. Rather than fawning over the demands we should be standing together and saying that such conduct is utterly unacceptable in a civilised society.
I say most of this repression, particularly the violent kind, occurs in Muslim societies. In fairness I should say that there are Muslim leaders that condemn the violence and I was heartened to hear that Dr Muhammad Tahir-Ul-Qadri issued a fatwa against suicide bombings and terrorism in 2010. While it is certainly a positive step I am not convinced it is enough because while it claims that Islam is a religion of peace and that the violence in the name of Islam is not done by true Muslims the violence is often perpetrated by Muslim governments and religious leaders. In the summary of the fatwa it says:
Non-Muslims have complete personal and religious freedom in a Muslim society. Their properties and places of worship also enjoy complete protection.
This is simply not supported by what is actually happening. In Indonesia a man who wrote that god does not exist on Facebook is facing five years in prison for blasphemy and there are calls for his execution. This is in a Muslim society. A society where freedom of religion only exists for those people following one of the six legal religions. It may be claimed that they are not real Muslims or are ignorant of the teachings of the Qur’an, but that just leaves one wondering how this fatwa will make a difference if it’s unlikely it will ever be read. Furthermore the fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie was made by a Muslim cleric in the highest position of Shia Islam. Of course it’s possible that writing a book makes you guilty and deserving of death in true Islam but that is a truly despicable position to hold.
Looking at Christianity we find that the position of the church itself is not necessarily important. A large proportion of Catholics in the US disagree with official church policy. The Vatican’s position is that evolution is true, although guided by god, but 27% of the members are creationists. It’s all well and good to claim that your version of the religion is the true one but that is exactly what every other version is claiming, and they have the verses they say supports their side too.
While religious sensibilities are not sufficient, there are cases where free speech could be justifiably limited. Those situations are those that advocate harm, for example calling on people to kill or hurt someone or a group of people. We should not see violence as a solution to problems and there is no reason to call for the death of another person and such speech would be irresponsible and unacceptable.
Another place that may be appropriate for a certain level of regulation is that of truth claims. This requires very careful consideration, however, because, while we do want to prevent people making false accusations and from claiming that a sugar pill cures cancer, we don’t want to legislate people’s thoughts and opinions. What we can do here is focus on the evidence that supports a claim. If someone makes a factual statement then they must provide evidence that supports that claim. In Christopher Hitchen‘s words:
What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.
However you cannot limit free speech because you find the view expressed to be offensive or distasteful. We are all fallible and as such as we advance morally, philosophically and scientifically we may find that we were wrong before. As we do not have perfect knowledge we must allow other views to be expressed and realise that there is a possibility that we are mistaken. When those opinions are not sufficiently supported, though, they can be dismissed.
Freedom of speech is the most important right that we can have as all other rights depend on it for their very existence. Without the right to express your opinions it isn’t even possible to begin to propose and argue for any other right. Arguments for the right to life, for freedom from discrimination, for freedom to love who one chooses and believe what you want all first require the ability to argue, the ability to freely hold and express an opinion. Without free speech that right belongs solely to whoever is in power and, while that is all well and good for them, everyone should be able to see why, with the possibility of not being the one who gets to make the decisions, that is not a desirable situation.
Free speech is also important for anyone that wants to know the truth. Without the ability to hear other opinions you may be prevented from hearing a real explanation in favour of what someone wants you to believe and many avenues of inquiry may be shut purely on someone’s whim. Research shows that criticism of ideas and debate, both needing free speech, increase the quality and quantity of ideas that a group produces. This also requires people with different opinions, ideas and backgrounds to mix, something that seems unlikely in the sort of society that prevents free expression.
All this together shows that free speech is the best situation for society and the only ones that should be opposed are those that truly desire to control other people’s very thoughts. We cannot sit back and do nothing while the most fundamental right is challenged. Everyone must stand up together and declare their support for freedom of speech and the right of every individual to hold and express an opinion, whether or not it agrees with our own views or whether we even find it offensive.