Freedom of religion vs freedom of speech

Once again, the ugly side of freedom of speech versus religious freedom, tolerance and belief reared its head this week as the offices of French satire magazine Charlie Hedbo were firebombed after printing cartoons representing the Prophet Muhammad. Now, it must be pointed out that the vast majority of Muslims who may be offended by these caricatures will not turn to violence; this is the act of either an individual or a group who is in the small minority. However, it cannot be denied that we have been down this road before.

There is a deep divide between those who wish to preserve religious sanctity and are against blasphemy, and those who view using religious figures in satirical ways as freedom of speech. Sadly, we can also put this down as a divide between the West and the East. What is clear is that to some, the idea that anyone would commit such acts of blasphemy as to portray the Prophet Muhammad in visual form is incomprehensible.

Many non-secular countries in the Muslim world have very strong anti-blasphemy laws. The secular West, however, is rife with depictions of religious figures — it’s safe to say that somewhere out there, someone is wearing underwear with the face of Jesus on it. This isn’t to say that there aren’t conservative religious followers of other religions who are not angry and offended by what they see as blasphemous. But for quite some time there has been an ongoing battle involving the Prophet Muhammad and freedom of speech, a battle that has been quite divisive and too often has led to violence and destruction.

So, what should be done? Well, the easiest, simplest solution would be to ban reproductions of the Prophet. It could be classified as a hate crime and treated as such, seen as being deeply offensive and hateful towards Muslims. However, this would be a massive blow to freedom of speech and open the door for more blasphemy laws, which are, frankly, completely unacceptable in a secular society. The reality is that secular society should try to understand just how deeply offensive portraying the Prophet truly is in Islam. To someone who is devout, it can be very painful and maddening to have such an important symbol treated with less than utmost respect.

However, those offended who might consider a non-peaceful response must also understand that freedom of speech can work in their favour, and that they can speak out, take part in peaceful protest or even take legitimate legal steps in some cases. No doubt netting more positive results than turning to violence.
It’s an opportunity to educate , but in a secular society, religious symbols, including the Prophet Muhammad, are not immune from satire or criticism. And in the West, freedom of speech is seen with the same reverence in many ways as the Prophet is seen to the religious — people have fought and died for both. It’s fair to say that this division is going to go on for a long time. But if both sides can at least try to understand each other on this matter, maybe, just maybe, we can put riots, firebombings and death threats in the past.

Chris Hearn wishes for peace between faith and free speech.

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