Freedom of speech

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Not only is freedom of religion guaranteed in the west but also freedom from religion. Nobody is obliged to believe in a religion and therefore sceptics, agnostics and atheists are free to follow their own moral codes

Freedom of speech is a core liberal human right, one that western democracies put on the highest pedestal. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The chief theorist of freedom of speech was the 19th century British liberal thinker John Stuart Mill. Mill argued that the only way society can progress is by letting human beings express their views and opinions freely. If everyone enjoys such a right then the listeners or readers will be able to figure out which standpoint is rational and cogent and which is flawed and unconvincing.

Mill put a very high premium on human intelligence and rationality. He recognised individuals as intelligent, autonomous agents capable of making correct choices if they are given several alternatives. Consequently, Mill asserted, it does not matter if bad or wrong ideas are expressed because only when such ideas exist can human beings make out what is right and what is wrong. He argued that the west transformed into the leading civilisation of the world because freedom of speech underpinned the freedom of enquiry, which made possible scientific research and the inventions and discoveries such research produced.

Did Mill then support unrestricted right to free speech and expression? The answer is no. He made a distinction between the written word, which he believed required some level of serious reflection and unbridled verbal speech, which could result in the abuse of freedom of speech and cause social unrest and upheaval. An example he identified was working class agitators who could rouse vile passions among the workers through demagogy and thus instigate them to violent action against factory owners. Such rash use of freedom of speech he wanted to restrict and prohibit.

Additionally, he introduced the harm principle to regulate liberty. Action and speech that resulted in harm to others constituted an offence that should be punished, he asserted. It is not clear if he meant physical harm only or harm in the larger sense of the word, which could include psychological torment as well. Therefore, one can say that Mill’s defence of freedom of speech and expression was not without qualifications and reservations, and some amount of vagueness. One can also argue that he privileged freedom of speech that appealed to the educated middle classes but not that of workers; he seemed to be against the freedom of the working class to challenge the bad conditions they labored under in 19th century England.

In any case, nowhere in the west is freedom of speech without regulations. Slander (verbal character assassination) and libel (character assassination in written form) are offences against which people can move the court for redress. However, slander and libel cases can be admitted by courts only if living human beings are adversely affected: their reputation is tarnished and their economic interests thus suffer. However, individuals dead and gone, including religious icons and founders, are not protected by slander and libel laws.

The US has probably the most liberal laws on freedom of speech and even infamous, extreme right wing organisations such as the unabashedly racist Ku Klux Klan are free to publish their point of view as long as they do not incite violence against non-whites, Jews and other minorities. On the whole, in western societies, preaching hatred against ethnic and religious minorities is a criminal offence. So, preaching hatred of Muslims would be treated as a criminal offence in western democracies and the culprits put on trial and punished if found guilty.

Having said this, it is important to note that, in the west, religious freedom is guaranteed. It is upon such a basis that mosques have been constructed in western cities and localities where sizable Muslim immigrant populations are found. No doubt, considerable resistance was given by native populations who perceived the growing Muslim presence threatening but permission was granted and mosques are being built in the west.

However, not only is freedom of religion guaranteed in the west but also freedom from religion. Nobody is obliged to believe in a religion and therefore sceptics, agnostics and atheists are free to follow their own moral codes. As long as people obey the law and pay taxes they can lead their lives as freely as they want. There are people who write against religions and satirical magazines also exist in many western democracies. Their publications do offend, in some cases deeply, the feelings and sentiments of believers. Their standpoint is that religions divide humanity, uphold gender inequality, oppose gay rights and historically have been responsible for wars, minority persecutions, including ethnic cleansing and genocide, and other excesses. The general understanding is that only when philosophers and scientists were liberated from the tyranny of theology and orthodoxy could knowledge unfettered by dogma grow by leaps and bounds and the west liberalise, democratise and pluralise.

Such an interpretation is a compelling one but one cannot deny that, under the garb of freedom of speech, some troublemakers deliberately abuse such freedoms to conceal their prejudices against Muslims and other groups. The same people would be very wary hurting Jewish sensibilities because the Jews are no longer perceived as a dangerous race. There is no denying that some forms of Muslim behaviour in the west are primitive and aggressive, and that such behaviour plays into the hands of anti-Muslim parties and movements, frightening ordinary people.

However, many westerners do retain faith in Christianity or at least value their Christian identity. I have lived in perhaps the most secularised of western societies, Sweden, for more than 40 years and even there some people are pious believers. I remember once, during the Christmas holidays, an old Swedish lady protested in a letter to the editor of a leading newspaper that a television channel had shown some programme casting Jesus in a bad light: as gay. So, it is not surprising that when the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) depict him in ways and forms many Muslims find scandalous, they are deeply offended.

The Daily Times

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