Sunday, March 09, 2008

Freedom of Expression: When Rights and Responsibility Clash

I have been giving some thought over the past few days over recent struggles between Muslims who resent cartoons of Mohammed being published again in Denmark and are pushing to have a film in Holland banned for views which they believe denigrate the Quran and those who see these as rightful examples of freedom of expression.

As anyone who has read my blog knows, I advocate for freedom of expression rather strongly, without apology.  I am not an advocate of hate or blasphemy laws and am concerned that censorship legislation, while often well-intentioned, is often a double-edged sword that ends up cutting off legitimate opinion that may offensive to certain small but influential groups.  Do a search on this blog and you will get a pretty good idea of where I stand on the issue.

However, it is worth noting that just because someone has the right to say something, it does not follow that he/she should say it.  I am concerned when freedom of expression endangers the lives and security of innocents like religious minorities in countries like Pakistan, as militants take out their anger on local Christians whenever they perceive that Islam has been insulted.  Neither should freedom of expression deliberately seek to provoke acts of violence against an identifiable group.  However, in such cases, the burden should lie with the prosecution to prove that this was the purpose of such expression and not on the accused to prove that it was not (hence, my dislike of human rights commissions who typically reverse this). 

But having said all this, I am concerned that religiously motivated bullies are trying to coerce media outlets and authors into silence with threats of violence or lawsuits under the guise of being "offended."  I am also concerned that pressure is being put on the media to be "responsible" and not publish anything that might possibly affront religious beliefs or contribute to conflicts between religions and their members due to religious differences.  This is unrealistic and worrisome.  From the early days of the Christian faith, the exclusive message of Jesus has offended those of other religions, causing it to be outlawed and maligned and its members persecuted. If the early church had followed the guidelines that are recommended by some, most of the New Testament would likely never have been written.   It is also the responsibility of religious adherents to defend their faith when its beliefs, founder or followers are maligned but not with threats or force but with a reasoned argument, trusting that ultimately the truth will be made known.  Joash, the father of Gideon's, challenge to the followers of Baal in Judges 6:30-31 is worth considering: "Will you contend for Baal? Or will you save him? Whoever contends for him shall be put to death by morning. If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because his altar has been broken down."

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