February 23, 2006

The right to offend

You could call me an unequivocally staunch supporter of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. As long as its medium is within the bounds of the law, I can't think of a message that should be banned. In my opinion, Nazis have a right to print their pamphlets and deny the holocaust, NAMBLA has a right to advocate man-boy love, cartoonists can draw caricatures of Jews and Muslims and Christians. It's not that I find these instances of speech offensive--there's a lot of messages doing damage out there. But speech must be fought with speech, messages with other messages. Offensive, ignorant, divisive, racist speech must be met with more rational speech, more intelligent, enlightened thought. You do not throw stones, or burn embassies, or conflate a Danish newspaper's decision to print caricatures of Muhammed with an entire Western conspiracy bent on the subjugation of Muslims.


This is what is considered by many to be the most offensive of the caricatures of Muhammed. Do you find this offensive? Is it even the question we should be asking? In putting it on my blog, am I showing disrespect to certain Muslims, by violating their taboo against visual representations of their prophet? I disagree that in honoring such a taboo I am showing my respect to a religion. I consider myself an atheist, and while I believe in the rights of the religious to hold their beliefs, and I would defend their right to practice their beliefs and speak out about their beliefs, I do not believe that my respect of their religion goes so far that I must adhere to their taboos, because I do not hold the supernatural basis for these taboos. If you belong to a sect that considers it a sin to do something, can you be held responsible for someone else who does that thing? Does the evangelical fuel that drives so much of religion's push into the public sphere these days (I think of both evangelical Christians in the United States and Muslims) require people of faith to not only convert non believers but to punish them for transgressions in which they don't believe?


This is a photograph of "Piss Christ" by the artist Andres Serrano. It shows an image of the crucifix submerged in a container of human urine. Do you find this offensive? Or is it art? Or do you find it art that is offensive? Does it matter? There are no taboos about visualizations of Jesus Christ in the majority of mainstream Christian faiths, but there are taboos against blasphemy, and some of these taboos have been enacted into law. In the controversy surrounding "Piss Christ," this was used as an argument for its censorship. If we follow down that route, couldn't all expressions of outrage or critique leveled against a community's dominant religion be deemed blasphemous?


This cartoon was recently printed in the University of Toronto, Victoria school newspaper. It shows Jesus Christ kissing the Prophet Muhammed. Is it offensive? Is it stupid? This blogger first takes the student newspaper to task for not publishing the original Danish cartoons of Muhammed, then muses whether or not Canadian hate-speech laws could be used against this particular cartoonist for portraying Jesus in a gratuitously sexual manner. What is the reason for such a caricature, we are asked. Does there need to be a reason, or an outcome? Does it make a difference if the cartoon is pointless, or stupid, or lacking in reason? Does intent have to be appropriate before the freedom of the speech act can be upheld?

In Austria, the Nazi appologist David Irving was recently jailed for three years for denying in speeches that the holocaust took place. Irving's speech was reprehensible, offensive, beyond credulity. But it is speech, and he should not have been jailed for it. The distinction has been made that there is a difference between punishing David Irving and not punishing Danish cartoonists. That David Irving is part of a movement to instill a white supremacist order upon Europe, and that in jailing him they are really fighting that larger movement. You should not be able to do that. You may fight a supremacist movement, you may challenge racist candidates in elections, you may vote them out of office, you may attack them with speech but you may not jail them for their (however offensive) locutions.

Inherent in a freedom of speech is a freedom to offend. We cannot capitulate to certain groups who are offended by certain kinds of speech, because when we silence the David Irvings of the world based on offense, we leave the door open to silencing all speech based on the arbitrary, politicized notion of 'offense'. Freedom of speech means a freedom to criticize and attack viewpoints, thoughts, ideologies, institutions. An editorial in the British newspaper The Telegraph said it well when it wrote,

Our restraint is in keeping with British values of tolerance and respect for the feelings of others. However, we are equally in no doubt that a small minority of Muslims would be offended by such a publication to an extent where they would threaten, and perhaps even use, violence. This is a problem that the whole of the Western world needs to confront frankly, and not sidestep.

The right to offend within the law remains crucial to our free speech. Muslims who choose to live in the West must accept that we, too, have a right to our values, and to live according to them. Muslims must accept the predominant mores of their adopted culture: and most do. One of these is the lack of censorship and the ready availability of material that some people find deeply offensive: anyone who wishes to see the cartoons can find them within a few clicks on the internet.

Those Muslims who cannot tolerate the openness and robustness of intellectual debate in the West have perhaps chosen to live in the wrong culture. We cannot put it better than the editorial in an Arab paper in which the cartoons briefly appeared yesterday (before all copies were suddenly withdrawn): "Muslims of the world, be reasonable."

As well, a recent speech by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, activist, dissident, and member of the Netherlands' Liberal Democratic Party, in Berlin was republished in Die Welt...
Today, the open society is challenged by Islamism, ascribed to a man named Muhammad Abdullah who lived in the seventh century, and who is regarded as a prophet. Many Muslims are peaceful people; not all are fanatics. As far as I am concerned they have every right to be faithful to their convictions. But within Islam exists a hard-line Islamist movement that rejects democratic freedoms and wants to destroy them. These Islamists seek to convince other Muslims that their way of life is the best. But when opponents of Islamism try to expose the fallacies in the teachings of Muhammad then they are accused of being offensive, blasphemous, socially irresponsible – even Islamophobic or racist.

The issue is not about race, colour or heritage. It is a conflict of ideas, which transcend borders and races.

Why me? I am a dissident, like those from the Eastern side of this city who defected to the West. I too defected to the West. I was born in Somalia, and grew up in Saudi Arabic and Kenya. I used to be faithful to the guidelines laid down by the prophet Muhammad. Like the thousands demonstrating against the Danish drawings, I used to hold the view that Muhammad was perfect -- the only source of, and indeed, the criterion between good and bad. In 1989 when Khomeini called for Salman Rushdie to be killed for insulting Muhammad, I thought he was right. Now I don’t.

I think that the prophet was wrong to have placed himself and his ideas above critical thought.

I think that the prophet Muhammad was wrong to have subordinated women to men.

I think that the prophet Muhammad was wrong to have decreed that gays be murdered.

I think that the prophet Muhammad was wrong to have said that apostates must be killed.

He was wrong in saying that adulterers should be flogged and stoned, and the hands of thieves should be cut off.

He was wrong in saying that those who die in the cause of Allah will be rewarded with paradise.

He was wrong in claiming that a proper society could be built only on his ideas.

The prophet did and said good things. He encouraged charity to others. But I wish to defend the position that he was also disrespectful and insensitive to those who disagreed with him.

I think it is right to make critical drawings and films of Muhammad. It is necessary to write books on him in order to educate ordinary citizens on Muhammad.

I do not seek to offend religious sentiment, but I will not submit to tyranny. Demanding that people who do not accept Muhammad’s teachings should refrain from drawing him is not a request for respect but a demand for submission.


Speaking of governments and politics, here is a photograph of two dead Iranian boys, both in their teens, who were hanged for being gay. This isn't a cartoon, it's a photograph of two Iranian boys, both in their teens, who were hanged for being gay. Both boys are dead. Do you find this offensive? It isn't speech or expression, but it is the expression of Iranian law. Under Islamic law, or sharia law, homosexuals are to be stoned to death, if married, or given a hundred lashes if unmarried. In Britain, forty percent of Muslims are in favor of some kind of form of Sharia law to the rule in their communities. Do you speak out against this? The hanging of these two boys, both in their teens, for being gay, came out of an extension of a certain application of Islam. Am I to challenge the religion this act sprang from, or submit to it?

These are my thoughts; I believe them to be true. If others have something to say or disgree, I want to hear you.

Posted by jason at February 23, 2006 03:37 AM

You know I agree with you, 100%

Posted by: Shane at February 24, 2006 03:33 PM

Yes, but I do think that David Irving, using his academic credential, perpetrates a fraud against the people he speaks to when he says fool things like the, later retracted, 'No gas chambers at Auschwitz' spiel.

A willful misrepresentation of things he knows to be other than how he represents them.

I dunno... =)

Posted by: Addymal at February 25, 2006 06:06 PM

Perhaps you should refocus your fear toward the fundamentalists in your own country - you know, those who'd like to impose Leviticus all over your flat, gay arse, and worry less about the A-rabs and what they do to their own people in their own countries. Or, am I to believe that perhaps what your post is really about is just a general fear/hatred of Muslims. It's always fun to be a racist when it's sanctioned by the state and media, idnit?

Posted by: Jeremy Post at February 27, 2006 08:45 AM

My critique is focused on fundamentalism in general--not just Muslim fundamentalism but also fundamentalist evangelicalism here in the U.S., which does indeed seem to want to drag us back to a Puritan form of moralism. At the moment we here in Minnesota are currently involved in trying to keep an anti-gay marriage amendment from being added to our state constitution.

You are wrong to call me a racist. For one, my beef is with fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity, both of which are religions. Second, asking me to sit idly and quietly by while a country like Iran, whose legal system has its foundations in Sharia law, hangs teenagers for being gay, is asking me to concede in the name of 'respect' the liberal values of individualism and freedom of sexuality that I just won't do.

But thanks for writing. And by the way, my gay arse is far from flat.

Posted by: jason at February 27, 2006 09:53 AM

Jeremy is an idiot and proves it by using stale & tired reasoning which opines that anyone who dares to question Islam's militancy is anti-Arab or anti-Islamic. A load of crap, ask the Dutch and the Danish how well that mode of thinking has served them.

And what is with the statement "worry less about what they do to their own people in their own countries." If "they" were just doing "it" to "their own people" in "their own countries" (which they're not, they're now trying to do "it" to us as well) I'd still have a problem with "it." Because denying people basic human rights and seeking to influence western democracies to do the same to their own citizens is a shameful travesty that must be opposed and fought without mercy. Consider that MY jihad

Posted by: Shane at February 28, 2006 02:34 AM

I get hard when people use the word "opine."

Posted by: Addy at February 28, 2006 09:05 AM
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