Updated: Jul 8
July 7, 2020 by Alan Iturriaga
I set out to write an essay about the relationship between freedom of speech and religion. The topic of religion is so provocative that it was difficult to measure whether now is an appropriate time to publish this essay. Yet, perhaps especially in divisive times such as today, we must keep a flow of conversation in motion. I truly believe that only dialogue and synthesis can lead to true progress. We must urgently advocate for conversation to continue, especially when it concerns topics or ideas with which we are not willing to compromise. In this essay, I argue in favor of the right to blaspheme, and furthermore, the right to analyse, ridicule, and overall critically scrutinize any idea despite it being perceived as sacred.
I am an atheist. Furthermore, I am an anti-theist. I don’t only not believe in a god, but I believe that faith is harmful to society. However, my views on religion are not the subject of this essay. Instead, I’d like to refer to a clip from Bill Maher’s show “Real Time,” in which Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and secular icon talks to Maher about what they perceived as the U.S Democratic Party’s failure to properly criticise the lack of – and persecution of – liberal values in the Islamic world. Maher claimed that freedom of speech, freedom of religion, equality for women, and equality for minorities are principles that were “lacking” in the Muslim world. Harris in turn comments that Democrats had failed to criticize theocratic governments. Not long into the conversation, enraged Hollywood A-lister, Ben Affleck, calls out Harris’ remarks as “gross and racist.”
The clip is relatively old, but I find myself revisiting it regularly. The subject matter of the conversation, as well as Affleck’s response, make me remember the Danish cartoonists who were accused of bigotry and blasphemy for depicting the prophet Mohammad in the paper Jylland-Posten. From the Danish cartoon controversy, my mind wanders to the assassination attempts on writer Salaman Rushdie. After Rushdie published his novel The Satanic Verses, Ayatollah Khomenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a decree that called for Rushdie’s death on the basis of blasphemy. And finally, my wandering mind settles on the remembrance of Theo van Gogh, the Danish filmmaker who was brutally murdered by a religious fanatic because of his film, Submission, which aimed to expose misogyny within the Islamic community. All of these cases are representative of great tensions between the principles of freedom and the persecution of hate speech. The reason that I keep revising these incidents is that I remain perplexed at the amount of people who were willing to condemn the blasphemers. This was especially the case with the Danish cartoonist incident, whose main effect was the upheaval of a series of protests that spanned across the globe, and which, according to The New York Times, resulted in around two-hundred deaths.
Two-hundred deaths were the price of blasphemy for the publishing of a cartoon in a secular liberal democracy – a publication which, by the way, was not an infringement upon Danish law.
However, violence against people like Gogh and the Danish cartoonists could be (as it has been) labelled as an irrational and disproportionate response from radical fundamentalists. To which I say: fine, you may do so. Yes, it may be that only religious fundamentalism will act in such a grotesque manner. However, it seems that what lies at the core of these scandals remains– the tension between the right to freedom of speech, and its regulation for the sake of public safety and the reasonable right not to be insulted.
I usually have a good grip on what I believe regarding freedom of speech – my position being that it is necessary. Additionally, it is also my belief that there should be reasonable restrictions imposed on free speech, such as those that relate to hate speech. My convictions are tested, though, when it comes to topics related to religion. For example, Islamophobia is something that, unfortunately, is very much real. It is disgusting, and fundamentally and irreconcilably opposes everything I uphold and cherish about Humanism. That is why many times I have wondered whether by expressing my criticism of Islam, I am unintentionally fueling xenophobia and bigotry. But saying that criticism of Islam is inherently racist is simply reinforcing the stereotype that somehow all people who look Muslim are Islamic, which in turn leads to the wrongful assumption that they are dangerous. We must separate ideology from race if we are to strive towards a truly egalitarian society. To do so, we are not to shy away from difficult conversations, but express our convictions honestly, and in necessary detail in order to avoid confusion. When I say I believe that mainstream Islamic dogma is deeply and inherently immoral, I mean it. And, I have no trouble criticising it in the same breath that I criticize the Christian and Jewish traditions. I do not mean to say that every believer is evil; I have met many of them from at least two out of the three abrahamic religions, and they are all reasonable and kind people, in whom I have found companionship and true friendship. My belief is, though, that the communal fundamental flaw of these religions – as if to say, their original sin – is being devoted to the worship of an authoritarian figure and of authoritarian values. God himself, it seems to me, is irrevocably authoritarian. My claim is, by any reasonable measurement, outrageous, probably offensive, and definitely blasphemous. The burden of extraordinary proof for this extraordinary claim rests on my shoulders. The question is, despite the blasphemy, are you willing to listen?
Put it this way – it's not personal. Judgment based on ideas is the opposite of racism and xenophobia, which concern themselves with physical attributes and shallow cultural assumptions. Honest philosophical criticism should be the only legitimate form of judgement, as it remains our most powerful ally against the evils of racism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism.
Lastly, I understand there may be people who disagree with me. Such contention I welcome with open arms. I challenge you, dear reader, in the interest of celebrating freedom of speech and the advancement of moral and humanist values, to write a response in rebuttal of my essay.
Alan Iturriaga ('20) recently graduated from SMUS, he serves as a Senior Editor on the Editorial Board and runs the Muse Collective on Instagram.
* Opinions in this article do not represent the Board.