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The recent fiasco over the cartoons of Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper shows that free speech is still very much under threat. Though this basic human right has long been guaranteed in the Western world, this controversy should remind us that there is still a large section of humanity among whom free speech is not just nonexistent, it is held in outright disdain. Sadly, the right to speak one’s mind without fear of repercussion is still the exception, not the norm.

And there are worrying signs that free speech is under renewed assault, not just from religious fanatics, but from people and societies that should be among its defenders. Rather than serving as a powerful demonstration of why free speech is so vital, the Mohammed cartoon controversy seems to have provoked some people to call for an end to criticism of religion, so that nothing like this ever happens again.

Lest this seem like an exaggeration, consider the voices – and not just Muslim voices – who responded to this incident by calling for speech that offends religious sensibilities to be banned. For example, the Vatican stated soon after the incident that “freedom of thought or expression… cannot imply a right to offend the religious sentiments of believers”. The prime minister of Turkey, Tayyip Erdogan, agreed, calling for a limit on press freedom. The European Union’s Commissioner for Justice, Franco Frattini, suggested that “respect for religion and opinions” should be balanced against freedom of expression. Pakistani regional chief minister Akram Durrani said that “Nobody has the right to insult Islam and hurt the feelings of Muslims” and that those who drew the cartoons should be “punished like a terrorist”. Astonishingly, even some self-identified atheists seem to feel this way:

As an atheist my view of religion is that it is merely well defined superstition that has existed through people’s faith and historical circumstances. This opinion does not, I believe, give me the right to insult other people’s religious belief as in the case of depicting the prophet as a terrorist.
–“Common sense needed in debate“, The Express and Star, 22 February 2006

I do not believe these calls, at least the ones originating from religious groups, stem primarily from fear of retribution, though that may play some part. Rather, I believe the cartoon controversy merely provided a convenient cover for religious groups to voice views they have always held. Make no mistake – no religion, of any kind, has ever welcomed outside criticism. As I wrote in “The Cathedral and the Garden“, this is very much the essence of religion, a set of unchanging dogmas which it is heresy to question. Though the legacy of the Enlightenment is a pluralistic society where many groups live together in harmony and compete in a free marketplace of ideas, many religious groups went along with the bargain only grudgingly.

Make no mistake: the Catholic church has never been in favor of free speech. On the contrary, it has always held the view that criticism of Catholicism should be prohibited. (“The Wall” has some relevant quotes.) Islam has historically acted the same. And the Mohammed cartoon controversy is not the first time religious groups have voiced such views. In early 2005, Christian groups in England reacted with similar outrage to a BBC production of Jerry Springer: The Opera which they believed to be “blasphemous”. One protester said, “There should be freedom of speech but there should never be freedom for desecration.” Similarly, in response to a Kansas university professor who proposed to teach an anti-intelligent design course several months ago, Republican state senator Karen Brownlee said, “We have to set a standard that it’s not culturally acceptable to mock Christianity in America.”

In a sense, religious moderates and religious fanatics support each other on this issue. The moderates create an environment where unquestioning faith is considered an acceptable worldview, creating an atmosphere the fanatics can breathe in; and when that faith is questioned, the fanatics react violently, giving the moderates a chance to say, “Yes, we agree that a violent response is unacceptable, but on the other hand we should outlaw criticism of religion so this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.” Consider this article from the National Review in which Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol compared atheists who criticize religion to violent terrorists, calling them both “extremists”. Evidently, the religious fanatics have dragged the discourse so far to the right that merely calling for anti-religious speech to be banned is now a moderate position.

The people calling for this are wrong. There is no equal guilt here, no blame to be shared. Criticizing, lampooning and even ridiculing religion is acceptable. Calling for such acts to be banned, or responding with violence, is not – period. If Muslims offended by cartoons of Mohammed, or Christians offended by arguments against Christianity, want to respond with speech of their own, they are welcome to do so.

The price of living in a society where you are free to speak your mind is that others are free to do so as well, and no person or group has any right to limit the speech of anyone else just because they feel that that speech pays insufficient reverence to their beliefs. Free speech is meaningless if it is restricted to statements so bland that no one could possibly take offense at them. If we do not have free speech when it offends some powerful group, then we do not have free speech. And free speech is important: It is vital to speak out against and prevent the evils being done in the name of religion, and if doing so requires hurting some overly sensitive people’s feelings, so be it. (A column by Malene Arpe from the Toronto Star makes this point very effectively.)

It is probably too much to hope for that the theocratic Muslim nations of the Third World will understand this at this point in history, but there are worrying signs that the right to free speech is eroding even in the democracies of the West. The recent imprisonment of Holocaust denier David Irving by Austria is just one example. As odious and disgusting as Irving’s ideas are, they are still only ideas. If they are wrong, they deserve to be met on the battlefield of reason and defeated – not suppressed by force. The latter course of action only gives legitimacy to Irving’s claims of persecution and may even inspire sympathy from people who would not otherwise pay him any mind.

After all, when the state (or any other group) tries to censor an idea and punish people for talking about it, it is natural to wonder what they are trying to prevent people from finding out, to wonder whether there is some ugly truth that censors of speech are trying to keep hidden. With the case of Holocaust denial, this is obviously not the case; whether governments prohibit it or not does not change the fact that there is abundant historical documentation of the Nazis’ atrocities. However, the same is not true of religion, and this may indeed explain why so many religions have vehemently attacked free speech throughout history. It is no surprise that belief systems that have no evidence for their beliefs would seek instead to prohibit those beliefs from being criticized.

Thankfully, this trend does not seem to have spread to the United States of America, where the First Amendment stands as a strong bulwark against any attempt – well-intentioned or otherwise – to limit free speech. Though I envy Europe its relative freedom from control by right-wing religious groups, I do not condone the worrisome moves it has made away from universal human rights. It is probably because of the Constitution and its strong protection of minority rights that the United States has remained a vigorous and vital democracy despite the degree of influence that religious extremists exert here.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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