Tolerance is widely accepted as an essential component of developing harmonious societies. However, societies often pursue methods of censorship (somewhat ironically) in order to successfully achieve tolerance between communities. Free speech is often trampled on in the name of preserving religious sensibilities—either through self-censorship or legislation that censors.
Religious censorship can be defined as the act of suppressing views that are contrary to those of an organized religion. The censored work is often viewed as obscene or challenging a dogma or violating a religious taboo.
Historically, diverse religious groups have called for the censorship of artistic expression on the grounds of offending religious sentiments. Perhaps one of the most infamous incidents of religious censorship in recent memory followed the 1988 publication of Salman Rushdi’s “blasphemous” Satanic Verses, which sparked violent riots around the world and resulted in the issuance of a fatwa against him, his publishers, and anyone else associated with the novel. This culminated in assassination attempts targeting the novel’s Italian translator and Norwegian publisher and the death of its Japanese translator. Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini placed a one million dollar bounty on Rushdi’s head and the author lived in hiding for several years.
Similarly, Indian artist M. F. Husain, the founding member of Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, was the target of violent intimidation campaigns for his nude paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses. His work was vandalized, and hundreds of complaints were brought against him. He was charged under the Indian Penal Code for insulting the Hindu religion and promoting animosity between religious groups (even though this was clearly not his intention). Continued harassment by Hindu right-wing groups forced Husain into self-imposed exile in 2006, and while cases against him were eventually dismissed by the Indian Supreme Court, he passed away in 2011 without ever having returned to his homeland.
In 2004, Lebanon banned the controversial Da Vinci Code after Christian leaders voiced their opposition to the content of the book, with the president of Lebanon’s Catholic Information Centre calling it “insulting”[ii]. Subsequently, with the release of the film version in 2006, several countries including Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and certain states in India imposed similar bans.
Sri Lanka is no stranger to religious censorship and punishing those considered to be offending religious sentiment. In 2010, Sri Lankan-born Bahraini national Sarah Malini Perera was taken into custody in Sri Lanka as she was preparing to ship her books which outlined her conversion from Buddhism to Islam. She was held under Emergency laws for over thirty days after authorities accused her of insulting Buddhism through her two books titled From Darkness to Light and Questions and Answers.
Defending against religious censorship is particularly difficult when some religious traditions only allow religious authorities or clergy to interpret doctrine, or when religious institutions exercise significant influence over government officials and public life. Censoring disturbing or even offensive speech, especially in art and literature, violates not only the intentions and spirit of the writer or artists, but suggests a willful lack of understanding of language itself: the ambiguity of words and images and the role of context in determining meaning.
Notwithstanding, there is a murky flip-side to this predicament which needs to be traversed with care. Some of the most virulent and violent attempts at suppressing artistic expression involved the targeting of Jyllends-Posten and Charlie Hebdo over their satirical depictions of the Prophet Mohammed. These cartoons clearly meant to offend and triggered deadly attacks against anyone associated with the publications. The body count after the Danish incident was 139;[iii]and the offices of Charlie Hebdo were raided by Muslim extremists who left 12 murdered staffers in their wake. These attacks were acts of merciless violence and utterly inexcusable. Following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, more than three million people rallied in unity marches across France, wielding pens and declaring “Je Suis Charlie.” This was a demonstration of solidarity, in defense of free expression.
Subsequently, Brian Klug, a senior research fellow at Oxford University proposed a thought experiment[iv]where he questioned what would have transpired if, in the middle of the Je Suis Charlie unity rallies, a man stepped forward wearing a badge that read “Je Suis Cherif” (one of the Charlie Hebdo gunmen). Suppose he was brandishing a placard with cartoons mocking the dead journalists? How would these custodians of free expression have reacted then? Would they have applauded this defiant act of expression or would they have been deeply offended? As Krug concluded, he probably “would have been lucky to get away with his life.”
Free speech advocates like Flemming Rose[v]—the previous editor of Jyllends-Posten—have been accused by liberal detractors of being hypocrites and free speech fundamentalists, with little regard for the limits of freedom of expression in pluralistic societies. In such multicultural contexts, even the most ardent free speech advocate cannot—and should not— allow for expression that incites violence. Let me be clear: this is not in any way a justification of arbitrary legislation that censors or of acts of horrific violence stemming from religious offence. However, the right to offend does not automatically translate to a duty to offend and does not preclude the speaker/artist/writer of any corresponding responsibility.
Many of the readers of this post will agree that there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; and for the purposes of common decency, should not be crossed. We differ only on where those lines should be drawn. Whether it is tackling enforced religion, religious offence, hatred and incitement to violence, or enforced secularism, only a constructive approach to free expression can genuinely guarantee tolerant, harmonious, and pluralistic societies. Both enforced secularism and enforced religiosity constitute a form of censorship; the key issue being enforcement rather than freedom.
Image courtesy: NY Times