Blasphemy and the right to offend

The right to express one’s opinion freely is maybe the most important democratic right, and it is currently under assault in Bangladesh. Hifazat-e-Islam demands the introduction of strict blasphemy laws, and the government, instead of defending freedom, resorts to an ill-advised and imprudent appeasement strategy that hinders the press in its duty to inform the public, threatens the futures of young bloggers who were, and continue to be, arrested, and puts in peril the future of the democracy of the country.


Why is freedom of expression important? John Stuart Mill, the famous and influential 19th-century British philosopher of freedom, to whom many nations have every reason to owe a debt of gratitude, argued that restricting speech hinders the pursuit of truth. First, no human being is infallible. Neither Hifazat-e-Islam, nor members of the Government of Bangladesh, nor I, nor anybody else can claim privileged access to the absolute truth. Of course, part of the problem is that Islamist groups nevertheless often make exactly that claim, especially for their own, often highly subjective interpretations of the writings of earlier teachers and Islamic authorities. But, for all we know for certain, any opinion that is being oppressed might in fact be true. Second, Mill continues, even if a silenced opinion is an error, “it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.” Finally, even patently false ideas deserve protection because, only if the truth continues to be challenged, it will remain alive and does not dwindle into mere dogma.

Besides its essential importance for the pursuit of truth, freedom of expression also plays a central role in a good life. Human beings do not fare best when they are forced into a life they did not choose, but when they are sovereigns over their own lives. In order to govern their lives successfully, people must be able to make informed choices, which in turn requires a free exchange of ideas. Human beings hence have a strong interest in being free to express their opinions. Free-speech restrictions frustrate this interest and have a negative impact on human well-being.

A free exchange of ideas is also essential to democracy and human development. Bangladesh should be a country where ideas can be openly disseminated and debated. Political and social progress is possible only if all ideas are considered, from whatever source, and if received convictions are tested against opposing views. Few would challenge the proposition that human civilization has evolved over the millennia, for the most part to the greater comfort and safety of humanity. Such evolution has, throughout history, been often criticized, at best, and very often challenged and punished. One has only to think of the treatment by the Roman Catholic Church of Galileo to appreciate this simple truth. Repression of speech and debate fits authoritarian governments such as those in Saudi Arabia and North Korea, but not a free Bangladesh. In a democracy, every opinion should have equal access to the marketplace of ideas. Denying the right to speak their minds to some people – typically those whose opinions are unpopular – is treating them with less respect than other citizens.

Finally, freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. It is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Given the great value that attaches to freedom of expression, those daring to demand the suppression of a particular type of speech, namely blasphemous speech, better have good reasons for their demand. I believe they don’t.

Blasphemy is the act of mocking, insulting, or defaming things that others hold sacred, such as human prophets or religious scriptures. From an Islamic perspective, for example, insulting Allah violates the right of Allah. That, of course, gives Muslim believers a strong reason not to insult Allah. But it is equally obvious that religious norms do not give a reason to abide by them to those who are not religious, such as atheists (not a dirty word, by the way), who believe that there is no god. Religious beliefs as such also must not serve as a basis for any law in a secular state.

Blasphemous speech should be criminalized, one might object, not because it is the proper role of a state to force religion upon its citizens – it is not –, but because it is offensive to religious folks, and hurts their feelings. This suggestion is worth considering, as it is uncontroversial that psychological pain matters and, all else being equal, should be avoided. We rightly expect the government to protect us from physical assault, so why shouldn’t we also expect the government to protect us from the kind of psychological harm that results from offensive speech? Why not have the government ban offensive speech?

For one thing, almost all kinds of speech are offensive to somebody. Hifazat-e-Islam’s demand to repeal laws asserting the equal rights of women, for example, must offend everybody who wants to see women as equals in society, just as their public proclamations that Ahmadis are “non-Muslims” are an insult to Ahmadiyya Muslims. Christian sermons might be offensive to some Muslims, communist speeches might be offensive to some capitalists, and some people might be offended by literature about homosexuality, or by my inter-racial marriage and the love I express for my Bangladeshi wife. Yet, we would all think that much of this, though offensive to some, must be protected.

For another thing, there is no need to ban an entire category of speech as people can easily defend themselves against speech they find annoying or offensive. Compared to the value of free speech, the cost of avoiding offensive speech is trivial: If you don’t like what you hear, simply walk away. If you don’t like what you read on a blog, relief is just one click away. Interestingly, the Qur’an seems to suggest the same reaction: “[…] when they [the Muslims] hear ill speech, they turn away from it and say, ‘For us are our deeds, and for you are your deeds. Peace will be upon you; we seek not the ignorant.’” (Qur’an 28:55)

If the concern of Hifazat-e-Islam and other Islamists is for their own religious feelings, why do they read blasphemous blogs? If they don’t want that religious feelings are being hurt, why do they draw the attention of other believers to these blogs, or sometimes even reproduce blasphemous material in their publications? Searching for blasphemous writings and then complaining about hurt feelings is much like running into a stretched fist with open eyes and then crying “Assault!” While it is virtually impossible to ban all blasphemous speech, especially on the internet, and attempting to do so is very costly, ignoring blasphemous speech is easy and the costs of doing so are trivial, especially in a predominantly Muslim country where taboo ensures that blasphemous speech is rare.

But isn’t the real issue that blasphemous speech leads to violence, rather than that it offends? Well, does it really? Surely everybody remembers the violence that followed the release of “Innocence of Muslims,” a poorly made 14-minute video clip uploaded to YouTube in July last year. But some will also remember what happened in the first two months after the release: nothing. This is not surprising, as blasphemous speech does not cause violence directly. If there is a causal relationship between blasphemous speech and violence at all, the effect is indirect. The link between the two is people who choose to react with violence after being subjected to blasphemous speech, and typically also hate-mongers who make sure that blasphemous speech reaches those who are willing to resort to violence. One of these hate-mongers in the case of “Innocence of Muslims” was the Egyptian television host Khaled Abdallah. He reported on the video on September 8, and thereby sparked outrage across the globe.

The case of supposedly blasphemous blogs in Bangladesh is similar. For years, most people did not even know that these blogs exist. Until recently, the blasphemous content they are said to contain did not “cause” or “incite” any violence. The problem is not blasphemy. The problem is political groups with an intolerant and bigoted agenda that are using the writings of free-thinking Bangladeshis to bring about violence, and to force their idea of a medieval Bangladesh upon the rest of the nation.

Also, in fact, there is no guarantee that blasphemy laws would reduce violence. One has only to look at Pakistan to see the simple truth of that observation! A more promising response to the kind of violence we saw in the wake of the release of “Innocence of Muslims” or the debate about so-called blasphemous bloggers in Bangladesh is to insist that, whether or not people like what they hear or read, they must not resort to violence. Prohibiting speech promotes intolerance, and will hence likely not result in less violence, but more violence.

Blasphemy laws hinder the pursuit of truth, are bad for people and human development, are undemocratic and violate the fundamental freedom of expression; they have been misused to repress vulnerable minorities and political opponents, and to settle personal disputes (again, for example, in Pakistan); and they are an inadequate means to promote tolerance and protect the religious feelings of believers.

Versions of this article were published under the following titles:
“Blasphemy and the right to offend,” English (Bangladesh, 21 April 2013)
“Blasphemy and the right to offend,” New Age (Bangladesh, 25 April 2013)
“ব্লাসফেমি আইন বনাম মতপ্রকাশের স্বাধীনতা,” Bangla (Bangladesh, 5 May 2013)