The Answer to The Problems of Free Speech is Always More Free Speech

Despite These Riots, I Stand By What I Wrote

Last week, I wrote an article defending free speech for everyone - and in
response there have been riots, death threats, and the arrest of an editor
who published the article.

Here's how it happened. My column reported on a startling development at the
United Nations. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights has always had the
job of investigating governments who forcibly take the fundamental human
right to free speech from their citizens with violence. But in the past
year, a coalition of religious fundamentalist states has successfully fought
to change her job description. Now, she has to report on "abuses of
free expression" including "defamation of religions and prophets."
Instead of defending free speech, she must now oppose it.

I argued this was a symbol of how religious fundamentalists - of all stripes -
have been progressively stripping away the right to freely discuss their
faiths. They claim religious ideas are unique and cannot be discussed
freely; instead, they must be "respected" - by which they mean
unchallenged. So now, whenever anyone on the UN Human Rights Council tries
to discuss the stoning of "adulterous" women, the hanging of gay
people, or the marrying off of ten year old girls to grandfathers, they are
silenced by the chair on the grounds these are "religious" issues,
and it is "offensive" to talk about them.

This trend is not confined to the UN. It has spread deep into democratic
countries. Whenever I have reported on immoral acts by religious fanatics -
Catholic, Jewish, Hindu or Muslim - I am accused of "prejudice",
and I am not alone. But my only "prejudice" is in favour of
individuals being able to choose to live their lives, their way, without
intimidation. That means choosing religion, or rejecting it, as they wish,
after hearing an honest, open argument.

A religious idea is just an idea somebody had a long time ago, and claimed to
have received from God. It does not have a different status to other ideas;
it is not surrounded by an electric fence none of us can pass.

That's why I wrote: "All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I
don't respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and
rose from the dead. I don't respect the idea that we should follow a "Prophet"
who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the
murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn't follow him. I don't
respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the
Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don't
respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live
again as woodlice. When you demand "respect", you are demanding we
lie to you. I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage
in that charade."

An Indian newspaper called The Statesman - one of the oldest and most
venerable dailies in the country - thought this accorded with the rich
Indian tradition of secularism, and reprinted the article. That night, four
thousand Islamic fundamentalists began to riot outside their offices,
calling for me, the editor, and the publisher to be arrested - or worse.
They brought Central Calcutta to a standstill. A typical supporter of the
riots, Abdus Subhan, said he was "prepared to lay down his life, if
necessary, to protect the honour of the Prophet" and I should be sent "to
hell if he chooses not to respect any religion or religious symbol? He has
no liberty to vilify or blaspheme any religion or its icons on grounds of
freedom of speech."

Then, two days ago, the editor and publisher were indeed arrested. They have
been charged - in the world's largest democracy, with a constitution
supposedly guaranteeing a right to free speech - with "deliberately
acting with malicious intent to outrage religious feelings". I am told
I too will be arrested if I go to Calcutta.

What should an honest defender of free speech say in this position? Every word
I wrote was true. I believe the right to openly discuss religion, and follow
the facts wherever they lead us, is one of the most precious on earth -
especially in a democracy of a billion people riven with streaks of
fanaticism from a minority of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. So I cannot and
will not apologize.

I did not write a sectarian attack on any particular religion of the kind that
could lead to a rerun of India's hellish anti-Muslim or anti-Sikh pogroms,
but rather a principled critique of all religions who try to forcibly
silence their critics. The right to free speech I am defending protects
Muslims as much as everyone else. I passionately support their right to say
anything they want - as long as I too have the right to respond.

It's worth going through the arguments put forward by the rioting
fundamentalists, because they will keep recurring in the twenty-first
century as secularism is assaulted again and again. They said I had upset "the
harmony" of India, and it could only be restored by my arrest. But this
is a lop-sided vision of "harmony". It would mean that religious
fundamentalists are free to say whatever they want - and the rest of us have
to shut up and agree.

The protestors said I deliberately set out to "offend" them, and I
am supposed to say that, no, no offence was intended. But the honest truth
is more complicated. Offending fundamentalists isn't my goal - but if it is
an inevitable side-effect of defending human rights, so be it. If fanatics
who believe Muslim women should be imprisoned in their homes and gay people
should be killed are insulted by my arguments, I don't resile from it.
Nothing worth saying is inoffensive to everyone.

You do not have a right to be ring-fenced from offence. Every day, I am
offended - not least by ancient religious texts filled with hate-speech. But
I am glad, because I know that the price of taking offence is that I can
give it too, if that is where the facts lead me. But again, the protestors
propose a lop-sided world. They do not propose to stop voicing their own
heinously offensive views about women's rights or homosexuality, but we have
to shut up and take it - or we are the ones being "insulting".

It's also worth going through the arguments of the Western defenders of these
protestors, because they too aren't going away. Already I have had e-mails
and bloggers saying I was "asking for it" by writing a "needlessly
provocative" article. When there is a disagreement and one side uses
violence, it is a reassuring rhetorical stance to claim both sides are in
the wrong, and you take a happy position somewhere in the middle. But is
this true? I wrote an article defending human rights, and stating simple
facts. Fanatics want to arrest or kill me for it. Is there equivalence here?

The argument that I was "asking for it" seems a little like saying a
woman wearing a short skirt is "asking" to be raped. Or, as Salman
Rushdie wrote when he received far, far worse threats simply for writing a
novel (and a masterpiece at that): "When Osip Mandelstam wrote his poem
against Stalin, did he 'know what he was doing' and so deserve his death?
When the students filled Tiananmen Square to ask for freedom, were they not
also, and knowingly, asking for the murderous repression that resulted? When
Terry Waite was taken hostage, hadn't he been 'asking for it'?"
When fanatics threaten violence against people who simply use words, you
should not blame the victim.

These events are also a reminder of why it is so important to try to let the
oxygen of rationality into religious debates - and introduce doubt. Voltaire
- one of the great anti-clericalists - said: "Those who can
make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." If you
can be made to believe the absurd notion that an invisible deity dictated
The Eternal Unchanging Truth to a specific person at a specific time in
history and anyone who questions this is Evil, then you can easily be made
to demand the death of journalists and free women and homosexuals who
question that Truth. But if they have a moment of doubt - if there is a
single nagging question at the back of their minds - then they are more
likely to hesitate. That's why these ideas must be challenged at their core,
using words and reason.

But the fundamentalists are determined not to allow those rational ideas to be
heard - because at some level they know they will persuade for many people,
especially children and teenagers in the slow process of being

If, after all the discussion and all the facts about how contradictory and
periodically vile their 'holy' texts are, religious people still choose
fanatical faith, I passionately defend their right to articulate it. Free
speech is for the stupid and the wicked and the wrong - whether it is
fanatics or the racist Geert Wilders - just as much as for the rational and
the right. All I say is that they do not have the right to force it on other
people or silence the other side. In this respect, Wilders resembles the
Islamists he professes to despise: he wants to ban the Koran. Fine. Let him
make his argument. He discredits himself by speaking such ugly nonsense.

The solution to the problems of free speech - that sometimes people will say
terrible things - is always and irreducibly more free speech. If you don't
like what a person says, argue back. Make a better case. Persuade people.
The best way to discredit a bad argument is to let people hear it. I
recently interviewed the pseudo-historian David Irving, and simply quoting
his crazy arguments did far more harm to him than any Austrian jail sentence
for Holocaust Denial.

Please do not imagine that if you defend these rioters, you are defending
ordinary Muslims. If we allow fanatics to silence all questioning voices,
the primary victims today will be Muslim women, Muslim gay people, and the
many good and honourable Muslim men who support them. Imagine what Britain
would look like now if everybody who offered dissenting thoughts about
Christianity in the seventeenth century and since was intimidated into
silence by the mobs and tyrants who wanted to preserve the most literalist
and fanatical readings of the Bible. Imagine how women and gay people would

You can see this if you compare my experience to that of journalists living
under religious-Islamist regimes. Because generations of British people
sought to create a secular space, when I went to the police, they offered
total protection. When they go to the police, they are handed over to the
fanatics - or charged for their "crimes." They are people
like Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the young Afghan journalism student who was
sentenced to death for downloading a report on women's rights. They are
people like the staff of Zanan, one of Iran's leading reform-minded women's
magazines, who have been told they will be jailed if they carry on
publishing. They are people like the 27-year old Muslim blogger Abdel Rahman
who has been seized, jailed and tortured in Egypt for arguing for a reformed
Islam that does not enforce shariah law.

It would be a betrayal of them - and the tens of thousands of journalists like
them - to apologize for what I wrote. Yes, if we speak out now, there will
be turbulence and threats, and some people may get hurt. But if we fall
silent - if we leave the basic human values of free speech, feminism and gay
rights undefended in the face of violent religious mobs - then many, many
more people will be hurt in the long term. Today, we have to use our right
to criticise religion - or lose it.

And finally, If you are appalled by the erosion of secularism across the
world and want to do something about it, there are a number of organizations
you can join, volunteer for or donate to.

Some good places to start are the
National Secular Society
, the Richard
Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason
, or - if you want the money to
go specifically to work in India - the International
Humanist and Ethical Union
. (Mark your donation as for their India

Even donating a few hours or a few pounds can really make a difference to
defending people subject to religious oppression - by providing them with
legal help, education materials, and lobbying for changes in the law.

An essential source of news for secularists is the terrific website Butterflies
and Wheels.

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