Blasphemy and Other “Hate Speech”
September 30, 2017
During my tenure as president and CEO—in 2009, to be precise—CFI established International Blasphemy Rights Day (September 30, in case you forgot). It’s one of the accomplishments I take some pride in.
Not that I can take credit for the idea. Debbie Goddard, now CFI’s VP for Outreach, suggested it to me. But one of the responsibilities of a CEO is to recognize and act on good ideas, right?
There were a number of reasons the idea appealed to me. Prominent among them were two: First, there was a need to draw attention to the restrictions that many countries had (and continue to have) on speech critical of religion. Second, this initiative seemed especially suitable given CFI’s mission. We not only promote secularism but also free speech and free inquiry.
I decided to make this connection between working to end blasphemy laws and defending and promoting free speech the theme for my commentary this year on IBRD. Below, in slightly modified form, is a blog post I put up the other day at HuffPost. (The original can be found here.
The purposes of blasphemy laws are clear: they intimidate religious minorities into keeping silent and help immunize majoritarian religious views from criticism. What is considered sacred must not be questioned.
Of course, the nations that have laws on the books criminalizing religious dissent do not typically frame the laws in those terms. They do not expressly prohibit religious dissent. Instead, they prohibit conduct showing “contempt” for religious belief or language “defaming” religion. But framing laws in terms of protecting religious sensibilities cannot obscure the fact that the laws suppress expression of views contrary to majoritarian religious beliefs. Moreover, the purported rationale for these laws is morally unsupportable: There is no right to have one’s religious beliefs—or political or philosophical beliefs—protected from questioning or criticism, no matter how deeply offended one may be by such questioning or criticism.
The excuse given for this behavior is that the speech objected to is deeply offensive or hateful. “Hate speech is not free speech” is a slogan embraced by more than a few. But one cannot consistently claim the right to suppress speech one finds despicable without giving that same broad license to suppress speech to everyone else. “Hate speech is not free speech” is a slogan the Bangladeshi extremists would doubtless find congenial. For them questioning Islam is a form of hate speech, just as Trump supporters assert that protesting athletes are showing hatred toward their country. Admittedly, no one in the U.S. has been hacked to death—yet—but there has been serious debate over whether it’s permissible to “punch a Nazi.”
There are those who express views which most of us find utterly repugnant. I’m not sure there is, or ever was, a coherent Nazi ideology, but to the extent there is one, it is a candidate for the most immoral, disgusting, and just plain stupid set of ideas ever advanced. But even Nazis have a right to spew their nonsense, provided they adhere to the standards of peaceful protest.
Allowing all to express their views is not a sign of weakness, but of strength, and of confidence that one’s own views have a sufficiently secure foundation that they can withstand a challenge from others.
On Blasphemy Rights Day—and, for that matter, every day—we should not only support those who are being denied the right to express their criticism of majoritarian religions, but we should also commit to holding no view so sacred that it cannot be questioned through peaceful expression, whether in other countries or our own.