Sunday, 15 February 2009

On causing offence to religion

The debate over the Geert Wilders controversy has put the spotlight on to what extent it is acceptable to cause offence to religious feelings and beliefs. And I wish to amplify why I think it's a very dangerous road to go down to accept restrictions on freedom based on offence to religious sensibilities as opposed to incitement to hatred.

Let's indulge in a few thought experiments. Suppose I were to write the following sentence: "Jesus sodding Christ! That fat bastard Buddha ripped the turban from a Sikh's head to slaughter the sacred cow, in order to celebrate the gay wedding of Moses and Muhammad."

In that sentence, have I potentially offended all the world's major religions? Yes, probably. Is what I say true? No, as Moses and Muhammad weren't gay and didn't live at the same time, for instance. Does that sentence incite hatred or violence against religion? I don't think so, but if the test for deciding whether or not something can be said is whether it gives offence, then I wouldn't be able to say that.

Let's move on to a slightly more controversial example. "Monotheistic religions have been responsible for more deaths than Adolf Hitler." Is that offensive to Judaism, Christianity and Islam? Yes, probably. Is it true? Again, probably it is, but I don't know that there are any reliable statistics for number of deaths caused by numerous religious-inspired wars. But does it incite violence against those religions? I doubt it. But again it would be banned if the test were just causing offence.

How about this one: "The Roman Catholic Church, an organisation headed by a former member of the Hitler Youth and which collaborated with fascists during the Second World War, has been responsible for the deaths of countless women and children in Africa due to its opposition to sensible birth control policies."

Now, that sentence will probably offend many Catholics due to the gratuitous mention of Pope Benedict's youthful activities and the implication that the church is a Nazi organisation. Is it true? A case can certainly be presented that it is true, but it is more a matter of opinion than a statement of fact. Does it incite violence? No. Is the intention to disparage the Catholic church and thus possibly increase hatred against Catholics? Possibly, but I think restricting statements like this would be an intolerable restriction of legitimate debate.

And what about: "The Holocaust didn't happen and the gas chambers in Auschwitz were faked by a worldwide Jewish conspiracy." Now that sentence would be a criminal offence in many countries, but not the UK. It's also untrue, as the Holocaust is a matter of historical record. It is also used to incite hatred against Jews. Should it therefore be banned? I don't think so, as the best defence against the scum who peddle this filth is to expose the hollowness of their arguments and not to give them the fake respectability of being able to portray themselves as victims of people restricting freedom of speech.

And finally for an easy one: "Kill the Jews, kill the Christians, kill the Muslims." Should sentences like that be banned? Yes, as there is a clear danger that somebody could act on that. It directly promotes violence and such incitement has no place in any society.

It's in this context that I think Geert Wilders should have been free to come into this country to promote his views.Wilders, as others have noted, is no defender of freedom. His film is repugnant, as it is designed to stir up resentment of Muslims. And it's also untrue as it relies on inaccurate or out of context Koranic translations. But it doesn't incite violence, as even many supporters of the ban acknowledge. And for that reason, the fact that it was offensive to many Muslims and to others should not have been a reason to restrict Wilders' freedom.


Tristan said...

I'd disagree with the last one - can you be held responsible for the actions of others just because you suggested it?
I say no, therefore it should not be illegal.
I would not be opposed to a civil suit brought against someone on such grounds - but the government should not have a say in what we may say.

Bernard Salmon said...

Does it really matter much whether it's a civil or a criminal offence? Surely it can only be a civil offence if the law allows legal action to be taken against things people say. The point is that there are forms of speech which do directly incite violence and people should be held responsible for that.

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