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The complicated relationship between religion and free speech

(Index on Censorship/IFEX) - 22 November 2012 - For centuries, free speech and religion have been cast as opponents. Index looks at the complicated relationship between religion and free speech.

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 arise 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. Most states have laws to control clear and direct incitements to violence; but causing offence is neither an incitement to violence nor a reason to respond 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".

Protecting religious sensitivities at price of free expression

Many countries have legislation designed to quell religious tensions and any ensuing violence.

India, for example, has a Penal Code with provisions to protect "religious feelings", making "acts" or "words" that could disturb religious sensitivities punishable by law. However, while such laws exist to address or prevent sectarian violence their vagueness means that they can also be used by groups to shut down free expression. This opens up a question, which is when do states have the right to censor for public order reasons even if the actual piece of writing, art or public display is not a direct incitement to violence.

In the 1990s, Indian artist and Index award winner MF Husain was the subject of a violent intimidation campaign after painting Hindu gods and goddesses naked. He received death threats and had his work vandalised. Hundreds of complaints were brought against the artist, leading to his prosecution under sections 295 and 153A of India's Penal Code, which outlaw insulting religions, as well as promoting animosity between religious groups. Locally these laws are justified as an effort to control sectarian violence. While the cases against Husain were eventually thrown out, the spectre of new legal battles combined with violent threats and harassment pushed Husain to flee his home country. He never returned, and died in exile last year.

Across the world restrictions on free expression are imposed using laws designed to protect religious sensitivities.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws are notorious for being abused to silence and persecute the country's religious minorities. Although the country's Penal Code has always had a section on religious offence, clauses added in the 1980s set a high price for blasphemy or membership of the Ahmadi sect of Islam - an Islamic reformist movement. These laws, including a possible death sentence for insulting the Muslim prophet Muhammad, have been slammed by civil society inside and outside of Pakistan.

A report issued in September by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, says that blasphemy laws should be repealed. Controls on free speech in order to protect religious sensibility seem to run parallel to controls on religion.

Globally, restrictions on religious expression have increased according to a report released last month by the Pew Research Center. In 2010, the study found that 75 per cent of the world's population lived in countries where restrictions placed on religious practice were rated as either "high" or "very high". The study found that the greatest restrictions on religion take place in the world's most heavily populated countries - India, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, and Russia stood out on the list.

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