Friday, February 03, 2006

Religious intolerance (Islamic edition)

I've written before of my intolerance of religious intolerance. To date, my rants have been against the intolerant Christian extremist right, but they're not the only intolerant religious fanatics out there. Case in point: the recent "Islamic rage" over perceived sacrilegious political cartoons in the European press.

I'll give the Christian right a little credit; when they take offense to something, they normally don't riot in the streets. (They're more into letter writing and advertiser boycotts.) Offended Muslims, on the other hand, tend to act out a bit more. Not only have Islamic leaders spoken out against the apparently insulting cartoons ("Any insult to the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, is an insult to more than 1 billion Muslims and an act like this must never be allowed to be repeated," said Hamid Karzai, Afghan president -- and a moderate Muslim leader), but hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets, and gunmen in Gaza surrounded the local office of the European Union and threatened to kidnap citizens of the countries where the cartoons were published. Look for burning effigies soon.

While I believe that all religious beliefs should be treated with respect, that doesn't obviate the right to freedom of expression, or of freedom of the press. Just because some in a given religion might take offense to a particular statement doesn't mean the statement should be repressed. Freedom of speech trumps self-righteousnesss any day, no matter how blasphemous the statements might be perceived.

Religious zealots should not be kow-towed to. When Christian extremists take issue with a television show like The Book of Daniel, the TV networks and stations shouldn't back down and take it off the air. (Which, unfortunately, is what happened in the case of the aforementioned show -- although, to be fair, the show really sucked and nobody watched it, anyway.) When reactionary Muslims take issue with newspaper cartoonists lampooning the foibles of the Islamic world, the newspapers (and their governments) shouldn't back down and censor themselves. When it comes to free speech, any person or organ has the right to offend just about anyone else. It's the nature of liberty.

Unfortunately, the Europeans are really frightened of a militant Islamic response, and are quickly backing away from the issue. Here's the response to date, courtesy of

  • In an effort to calm Muslim anger, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister, was set to appear last night on the al-Arabiya satellite news channel to explain his government's position. He also called a meeting of all foreign ambassadors in Copenhagen for today as the debate in Europe polarised defenders of press freedom and religious groups.
  • Ursula Plassnik, foreign minister of Austria, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said she understood the offence Muslims felt, adding that EU leaders needed to "clearly condemn" acts that insult religion.
  • Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary-general, said he believed "freedom of the press should always be exercised in a way that fully respects the religious beliefs and tenets of all religions."

Wussies. Religious fanatics should not be allowed to rule the day. It doesn't matter whether they're Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Pagan, religious extremists have to live in the same world as the rest of us, and play by the same rules; their beliefs cannot be held above society's laws and liberties. Governments and people everywhere should stand up for the right to speak freely and to criticize without fear of reprisal; religious freedom comes with the freedom to be disagreed with and insulted. It doesn't matter whether the offended (and offending) religious followers are in the minority or the majority, tyranny in the form of religious fascism cannot be allowed. Contrary opinions should not be condemned, they should be embraced.

This is, of course, one of the problems with religion. Believers easily turn into fanatics, and fanatics threaten the fabric of our society. If you're offended by someone or something you take as blasphemous, turn the other cheek; don't force your extremist views on the rest of us, and definitely don't try to censor those who disagree with you. Differing religious beliefs aren't blasphemous, nor is criticism sacrilegious. If the religious among us can't be tolerant of other beliefs, then perhaps the rest of us shouldn't be so tolerant of the intolerant believers. Any religion that threatens to supress all criticism and differing opinions is one small step away from totalitarianism.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds are quite free to disagree.

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