While they exist harmoniously on paper, free expression and religion often conflict in practice, and free speech is often trampled in the name of protecting religious sensibilities — whether through self-censorship or legislation that censors.
History offers many examples of religious freedom being repressed too. Both free expression and religious freedom need protection from those who would meddle with them. And they are not necessarily incompatible.
Over 200 years ago, the United States’ founding fathers grouped together freedom of worship and freedom of speech. The US Constitution’s First Amendment, adopted in 1791, made sure that the Congress couldn’t pass laws establishing religions or prohibiting their free exercise, or abridging freedom of speech, press and assembly.
More recently, both religion and free expression were offered protection by The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) drafted in 1949. It outlines the ways in which both free expression and religious freedom should be protected in Articles 18 and 19. Article 18 protects an individual’s right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” and the freedom to change religion or beliefs. Article 19 states: “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.”
Why is it, then, that for centuries — from the Spanish Inquisition to the Satanic Verses — free speech and religion have been cast as opponents? Index on Censorship has explored, and will continue to explore, this crucial question.
Sporadically explosive conflicts arrise when words or images offensive to believers spark a violent response, the most recent example being the reaction to the controversial Innocence of Muslims film. Index has stated before that the majority of states restrain by law distinct and direct incitements to violence; however, causing offence doesn’t constitute an incitement to violence, much less a good excuse to react with violence. Yet violent protests sparked by the YouTube film led many countries to push for the video to be taken down. As the controversy unfolded, digital platforms took centre stage in an age-old debate on where the line is drawn on free speech.
The kind of connectivity provided by the web means a video uploaded in California can lead to riots in Cairo. Real-time transmission, real-time unrest. It presents a serious challenge for hosts of user-generated content like YouTube and Facebook.
Before the web, British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie’s “blasphemous” 1988 novel — The Satanic Verses — sparked protests and earned its author a death sentence from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who called upon Muslims to assassinate the novelist, his publishers, and anyone else associated with the book. The Japanese translator of the Satanic Verses was killed, and Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher was shot and wounded, leading some to think twice about publishing works potentially “offensive to Islam”.
These fears were renewed after the 2005 decision of Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten to publish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, which were protested about in riots worldwide, largely initiated as a result of agitation by Danish clerics.
The Jewel of Medina, a historical novel about the life of Muhammad’s wife Aisha was due to be published by Random House in the US in 2008, but it was pulled when an academic warned the publishers of a possible violent backlash to the novel. After the UK-based publisher Gibson Square decided to take on the novel, Islamic extremists attempted to firebomb the home of the company’s chief executive. More recently, ex-Muslim and author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook Alom Shaha wrote that initially, staff at Biteback publishing had reservations about releasing his book in the UK. Upon being presented with the book, one staff member’s reaction was, “we can’t publish this, we’ll get firebombed”.
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