Whenever a religious belief is criticised,
its adherents say they're victims of
Wednesday, 28 January 2009
The right to criticise religion is being slowly doused in acid. Across the
world, the small, incremental gains made by secularism giving us the space to
doubt and question and make up our own minds are being beaten back by
belligerent demands that we "respect" religion. A historic marker has just been
passed, showing how far we have been shoved. The UN rapporteur who is supposed
to be the global guardian of free speech has had his job rewritten to put him
on the side of the religious censors.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated 60 years ago that "a world
in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief is the highest
aspiration of the common people". It was a Magna Carta for mankind and loathed
by every human rights abuser on earth. Today, the Chinese dictatorship calls it
"Western", Robert Mugabe calls it "colonialist", and Dick Cheney calls it
"outdated". The countries of the world have chronically failed to meet it but
the document has been held up by the United Nations as the ultimate standard
against which to check ourselves. Until now.
Starting in 1999, a coalition of Islamist tyrants, led by Saudi Arabia, demanded
the rules be rewritten. The demand for everyone to be able to think and speak
freely failed to "respect" the "unique sensitivities" of the religious, they
decided so they issued an alternative Islamic Declaration of Human Rights. It
insisted that you can only speak within "the limits set by the shariah [law]. It
is not permitted to spread falsehood or disseminate that which involves
encouraging abomination or forsaking the Islamic community".
In other words, you can say anything you like, as long as it precisely what the
reactionary mullahs tell you to say. The declaration makes it clear there is no
equality for women, gays, non-Muslims, or apostates. It has been backed by the
Vatican and a bevy of Christian fundamentalists.
Incredibly, they are succeeding. The UN's Rapporteur on Human Rights has always
been tasked with exposing and shaming those who prevent free speech including
the religious. But the Pakistani delegate recently demanded that his job
description be changed so he can seek out and condemn "abuses of free
expression" including "defamation of religions and prophets". The council agreed
so the job has been turned on its head. Instead of condemning the people who
wanted to murder Salman Rushdie, they will be condemning Salman Rushdie himself.
Anything which can be deemed "religious" is no longer allowed to be a subject of
discussion at the UN and almost everything is deemed religious. Roy Brown of
the International Humanist and Ethical Union has tried to raise topics like the
stoning of women accused of adultery or child marriage. The Egyptian delegate
stood up to announce discussion of shariah "will not happen" and "Islam will not
be crucified in this council" and Brown was ordered to be silent. Of course,
the first victims of locking down free speech about Islam with the imprimatur of
the UN are ordinary Muslims.
Here is a random smattering of events that have taken place in the past week in
countries that demanded this change. In Nigeria, divorced women are routinely
thrown out of their homes and left destitute, unable to see their children, so a
large group of them wanted to stage a protest but the Shariah police declared
it was "un-Islamic" and the marchers would be beaten and whipped. In Saudi
Arabia, the country's most senior government-approved cleric said it was
perfectly acceptable for old men to marry 10-year-old girls, and those who
disagree should be silenced. In Egypt, a 27-year-old Muslim blogger Abdel Rahman
was seized, jailed and tortured for arguing for a reformed Islam that does not
To the people who demand respect for Muslim culture, I ask: which Muslim
culture? Those women's, those children's, this blogger's or their oppressors'?
As the secular campaigner Austin Darcy puts it: "The ultimate aim of this effort
is not to protect the feelings of Muslims, but to protect illiberal Islamic
states from charges of human rights abuse, and to silence the voices of internal
dissidents calling for more secular government and freedom."
Those of us who passionately support the UN should be the most outraged by this.
Underpinning these "reforms" is a notion seeping even into democratic societies
that atheism and doubt are akin to racism. Today, whenever a religious belief
is criticised, its adherents immediately claim they are the victims of
"prejudice" and their outrage is increasingly being backed by laws.
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. This is not because of "prejudice" or "ignorance", but because there
is no evidence for these claims. They belong to the childhood of our species,
and will in time look as preposterous as believing in Zeus or Thor or Baal.
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.
But why are religious sensitivities so much more likely to provoke demands for
censorship than, say, political sensitivities? The answer lies in the nature of
faith. If my views are challenged I can, in the end, check them against reality.
If you deregulate markets, will they collapse? If you increase carbon dioxide
emissions, does the climate become destabilised? If my views are wrong, I can
correct them; if they are right, I am soothed.
But when the religious are challenged, there is no evidence for them to consult.
By definition, if you have faith, you are choosing to believe in the absence of
evidence. Nobody has "faith" that fire hurts, or Australia exists; they know it,
based on proof. But it is psychologically painful to be confronted with the fact
that your core beliefs are based on thin air, or on the empty shells of
revelation or contorted parodies of reason. It's easier to demand the source of
the pesky doubt be silenced.
But a free society cannot be structured to soothe the hardcore faithful. It is
based on a deal. You have an absolute right to voice your beliefs but the
price is that I too have a right to respond as I wish. Neither of us can set
aside the rules and demand to be protected from offence.
Yet this idea at the heart of the Universal Declaration is being lost. To
the right, it thwacks into apologists for religious censorship; to the left, it
dissolves in multiculturalism. The hijacking of the UN Special Rapporteur by
religious fanatics should jolt us into rescuing the simple, battered idea
disintegrating in the middle: the equal, indivisible human right to speak