Johann Hari wrote an article in the London Independent about how the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights had her job description essentially perverted by a coalition of religious fundamentalists states. Thereby changing her job of defending free speech to reporting on ‘abuses of free expression’ including specifically “defamation of religions and prophets.” Why the uproar over such a subtle change in verbage?
The example Mr. Hari gives is chilling. “So now, whenever anyone on the UN Human Rights Council tries to discuss the stoning of “adulterous” women, the hanging of gay people, or the marrying off of ten year old girls to grandfathers, they are silenced by the chair on the grounds these are “religious” issues, and it is “offensive” to talk about them.”
Chilling the issue further was the response; riots, death threats, and the arrest of an editor that published the article – reprinted in the Indian newspaper, The Statesman. All because Muslims felt offended by Mr. Hari’s statements against their religion. To be fair, Christians, Jews, and Hindus were all mentioned alongside Muslims with examples of religious ideas that were accepted to be truth by followers, but that Mr. Hari cited in his concern of the erosion of the right to criticize any religion.
“Why should I respect these oppressive religions?”
I saw the same thing happen to a photojournalist I met recently in Afghanistan. An Australian who keeps an ongoing blog, Kabul Korrespondence. A recent photo blog had posed the question visually of the Israeli’s treatment of the Palestineans being akin to the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews. Provocative to all, offensive to some, and relevant given the recent situation in Gaza. Yet completely within the realms of free speech. Ironic as there was no ‘speech’ simply photo comparisons. Comments came in on both sides, and incredibly two blog sponsors removed themselves from the blog and one comment referred to the blogsite as a ‘hate blog’.
Where is the free speech here? More importantly, where is it going? The point of free speech is not to repeat what everyone else already believes. If free speech exists only to reaffirm given beliefs how do we move forward as a people, as a nation, as a global community? You may not agree with all the ideas or comments you read. You shouldn’t. Those that disagree with us, or write to provoke us, or simply play the devil’s advocate, do more to inspire change and reform than those that walk the line of propriety.
What would have happened if Nelson Mandela had never stood up to his oppressors. His views were inflammatory and blasphemous to those in power that sought to keep apartheid in place. Had he not spoken out, would South Africa abolished apartheid on its own? Doubtful.
I look to organizations like the Kabul Weekly newspaper in Afghanistan that fights daily for its right to publish openly to bring the truth to the people. Its editor, Faheem Dashty, knows that by printing articles that may be considered offensive to politicians or those in power, not only is his newspaper, but his life, is in danger. Yet his belief that free speech is worth more than a single life, keeps the newspaper plugging along, and keeps the citizens of Kabul informed…in three languages no less.
Just this weekend, one of China’s dissident bloggers was stabbed for the words he wrote. Xu Lai, was stabbed in the stomach after reading at a Beijing bookstore. Blogs are a popular news and opinion medium in China, where newspapers are heavily censored.
The right to freedom of speech is recognized as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is not reserved for those who speak that to which we agree with.
The best response to free speech we disagree with is not censorship, its more free speech. You don’t agree, your disgusted by the vile spew you just read in a recent editorial? Respond with your voice. Raise it, write it, photograph it and prove why you are right. Allow the progressing discourse to elevate the argument and create a discussion. It will expose both sides to see another point of view, enlightening our own narrow visions, strengthening our own moral positions, and inspiring discussions on controversial topics in order to find the truth in words.