Freedom of speech doesn’t include your right to offend another’s faith

Afsan Chowdhury
Published : 12 Nov 2015, 11:41 AM
Updated : 12 Nov 2015, 11:41 AM

At no time in history was offending another faith part of any concept of freedom. Offending was part of a wider conflict to destroy another religion, culture, or faith.

The medieval world of invading and conquering armies knew that most faith structures held societies together. It was therefore essential to attack culture through both words and deeds.

The location of such an idea didn't come with the concept of freedom. It was the expression of the culture of the powerful.

The source of the idea of the right to offend began in the western world, both Middle Eastern and European.

In the Middle East, religious conflict was based on tribal identity which in turn provided the collective power to ward off enemies, wanting to crush another. Thus Judaism was not just a faith identity, but also a tribal one as was Islam.

The tribal conflict is also reflected in the scriptural narratives too which is why religious symbols and attire are often used to denote tribal identity as well even today.

Christian history transformed when it left the Middle Eastern shores and was taken on by Emperor Justine of Rome in the 4th century to Europe to establish greater control over his rebellious subjects.

The Roman Catholic Church developed through this interaction. Later, it was integral to the rise of the European empire over the rest of the world.

But as capitalism grew in the Renaissance, challenging feudalism upheld by the Church, several new elements emerged.

Anti-feudalism, anti-Church, and anti- totalitarian ideas joined to become a single stream. It also came in the wake of the Inquisition during which a corrupt and cruel Church system killed many of its enemies.

It was not a clash of ideas but of political control. As feudalism died, with it declined the Church of Rome manifested by the Holy Roman Empire.

Protestant Church and capitalism grew along with cultural interest in both secular and divine topics. Subsequently, other values were added to it and it ultimately resulted in the rise of commercial capitalism which led to colonialism and its value structure.

Free market and free ideas became its ideology.

Colonialism was not just built on economic supremacy of the coloniser, but also on asserting the cultural supremacy of the coloniser.

Rationality or modern ideas including the notion of the independent, thinking self – Cogito Ergo Sum ("I think therefore I am"), the defining equation of Modernity –  served as the great servant of dismantling indigenous cultures.

Renaissance, or rebirth, also became the killer of other ideas in the name of freedom. Historically, what began as a right to question became a right to offend and ultimately the right to destroy.

It's one of the roots that give credence to the idea that one has the right to offend another's most sacred idea to assert one's own freedom. Yet, in the West where we see its most aggressive presence, many ideas are held to be beyond offending.

What has been the focus of offending has been religion and religious ideas, particularly I slam. It's not an accident that the West's main confrontation has been with Islam in its political form.

It's a political struggle not an intellectual one.

But the popularisation of the idea in the West is a completely different matter when it comes to the East.

The right to offend religion is an unusual right to seek in a society where religion is essential for forming social identity. Such identities are fundamental to survival and religion itself was born as part of the survival scheme of the ancient human being.

Over time, its needs have varied but it has remained crucial to the creation of social values and structures.

This is particularly so in the developing world lying outside the realm of advanced financial and industrial capitalism.

Majority of Westerners do/may not have the same sense of the sacred and institutional religion as the dominant form of piety.

It has been significantly eroded by the rise of non-religious culture and replaced by other symbols. New ones have emerged including the idea of the Nation-State as the new "Faith" Religion which can't be offended, and if committed, is severely punished.

The right to offend is also limited by punishment for hate speech, acts against the state, and many legal sanctions operate which exist to prevent offending the State and its system.

For example, burning flags in the US is a crime. So is challenging the history of Holocaust in Europe.

Socially, support for child sex is a crime, though once it was supported by some arguing that it was the sexual right of a sexual minority.

The Libertarians or those who believed in the absolute freedom for everything no longer support this cause. Pedophilia is not only a crime, but offends everyone who is not a pedophile, and so protecting children's sexuality has become a new sacred.

Thus every freedom has its limits for society's self preservation. The US and the West developed the "anti-censorship" concept as an absolute end in itself during the Cold War days, since the socialist world was pro-censorship. But the West itself developed its own censorship system of greater sophistication.

But traditional values of the Eastern world frown upon any offense to the sacrosanct. Religion and its values are not decorations on the cake of soul, but an essential ingredient of social survival.

In 1971, ordinary people did not offend other faiths or practices because the dream of freedom of Bangladeshis didn't involve the right to offend others.

If another's freedom is not respected, it's absurd to expect tolerance for one's own view. And that is why the framework for freedom of speech today is under stress, because the right to offend seems to be more important than the duty of others not to offend.

While slander and defamation protect the secular space from offence, it is open season to offend faith practices.

The conflict around religion that has already resulted in violence is rooted in the same intolerance practiced by two sides in different shapes with the same form. It's cruel to demand the right to offend what is precious and pious to another when that harms none.

Terrorism is a political matter not a faith issue.

Defence of democracy and socialism has killed more in the last 100 years than all religious wars put together.

So what manner of freedom, is this that seeks to hurt others in the name of freedom?

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher