There’s an interesting situation which has arisen over the past week or so, and is prompting discussions about freedom of speech, a subject close to my heart ever since I worked in a Sheffield bookshop at the same time copies of The Satanic Verses were being burned in nearby Bradford. But that’s context – I don’t want to turn this post into one of those which uses anecdote or personal experience as evidence, as that would be doing an important issue something of a disservice.

To summarise; last September Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, published a series of cartoons depicting Mohammed, including one where he is shown wearing a bomb-shaped turban. Whilst I understand that depictions of the Prophet are not forbidden within the Koran, they’re not acceptable in practise to many Muslims, and obviously this depiction is hardly flattering. Following the publication of the cartoons, the offices of the newspaper in question received a bomb threat. Spanish, Italian, German and French newspapers picked up the story, and republished the cartoons, which has led to protests in the various countries, and here in the UK the Foreign Secretary has said that the decision to reprint the cartoons was disrespectful.

Okay, so let me make my position on this clear from the outset: people should be able to say anything they want, about anything they want. The only exception being where it strays into the realms of criminal actions. Other than that, people should be able to say what they want to say. Simple as that.

And if you don’t like something that someone else says, tell them so, and debate the point. Tell them why you don’t like it, and discuss it back and forth like the evolved people we claim to be. I don’t care for the BNP’s views at all, but they’re perfectly entitled to express them, in exactly the same way I’m entitled to say why I think they’re wrong.

Same goes for religion – if someone says something which is offensive to your religious beliefs, let’s see some actual discussion about it, as opposed to threats of violence. Despite the insistence of men (and it is predominantly males, hence my use of that specific word) to reinterpret the words of their chosen deity to justify them committing violent acts against one another, I feel pretty damn confident in saying that no religion truly tells its followers to kill disbelievers. Just as the Crusades were a twisting of Christian teachings, the claims that Jihad is a part of Islam seem to have their origins in men telling other believers what the Prophet said, which is invariably a mistake, as men make mistakes. Because men are men, and not god, yes ?

I don’t consider myself a religious person, but I’m fine with people who are, and those who actually have a relationship with their chosen deity and everything that entails, and as strongly as I hold to my various beliefs (life is sacred, we should strive to leave the world in a better state than that in which we entered it, etc), I’m absolutely fine if people want to knock them, and mock them, because – gasp – they’re only beliefs. They’re only ideas. I may cling to them and prize them, but I’m human and fallible, and just as I’ve come to believe different things as time’s passed, so I suspect I’ll shed opinions and hold others before I die. Because I’m only human, and it’s all a learning process.

It’s a mistake which certain religious factions appear to have made over time, and which the US government has made in recent times, to think that because you’ve silenced people who disagree with you, that you’re eliminated all opposition. It’s simply not true, and it’s a mistake to equate silence with agreement or assent. Scaring people into thinking that the USA is brilliant or that Islam is a religion that you dare not say anything about is kind of like the school bully who twists his victim’s arm until the victim agrees to say ‘I smell’ or similar; of course this doesn’t actually mean that they actually smell, they’re just doing what they think they have to in order to keep themselves safe. And of course there are parallels here between the early days of Christianity, if not most religions and other forms of belief.

It’s truly unfortunate that Islam has had such a terrible reputation in recent years, because its tenets are fundamentally life-affirming, and have obviously given millions, if not billions, of people, a path in life which they find deeply meaningful, and which has made them happy; it’s fair to say that Islamic countries were the cradle of civilisation, with artistic and scientific knowledge which was frankly staggering. But an unfortunate fringe of the religion has captured the headlines in recent years, killing people who they consider less than human and threatening people who disagree with them, making the religion seem to be synonymous with violence and hostility. It’d be like claiming that all Christians spend their whole time standing outside abortion clinics with placards, or shooting doctors. It’s simply not reflective of the true nature of the religion, or of the people who practise it.

I drew a comparison above between the violent fringes of Islam and the US government, and this is entirely deliberate; ironically, whilst the US government has done its best in recent times to try to make Islam and Terrorism in some way seem to be one and the same, the self-proclaimedly Christian administration in Washington has tried to do much the same in terms of international policy, accusing the French of being cowards when they refused to join in the attacks on Iraq (for my money, the French have been stunningly gracious in their ideological victory, not yelling ‘told you so’ at every meeting of the UN), detaining people without charge for … er, well, pretty much anything they fancy, it seems, and trying to stem any expressions of dissent. Does all this make people think that they’re right ? No, of course not. If you’re talking about something and someone tells you to shut up and refuses to let you speak, it doesn’t make you think they have a point and reconsider your views, it merely entrenches your beliefs (especially if your ideological opponent, by their behaviour, seems to be the embodiment of wrongness). And the US administration, like the more violent elements of religious groups, is just acting to affirm its opponent’s beliefs and prove them right.

So someone drew a cartoon which doesn’t adhere to your beliefs. Or wrote a musical in which your messiah appears. These people clearly don’t hold the same beliefs as you do, and if that bothers you so much, engage in some kind of dialogue with them – using the intellect and reason you believe your creator gave you – and see if you can figure out the points of difference between you. There may be more points of similarity than you’d like to think. But if not, and dialogue fails, well, it’s quite the strange leap in thinking to then decide they should be killed.
After all, chances are you think that they’re probably going to hell anyway, and why not use your energy and resources in a more profitable way, like… oh, I dunno, saving someone from dying of starvation? Somewhere in the world, someone dies that way every few seconds, and I would have thought that most deities – as the creator of life – would find that infinitely more blasphemous than someone having a belief that’s not in line with their commandments, and then expressing it. That sounds less like a loving and forgiving deity to me, and more like a human approach to things, involving anger and a tendency to think that ideas or beliefs can be damaged from without.

Which simply isn’t the case: if sincerely held, ideas and beliefs can be temporarily silenced, but not dented or extinguished. Of course, if someone holding a contrary belief offends and inflames you that much, it may well be that your beliefs aren’t as sincerely rooted as you might proclaim or like to believe, and if that’s the case, the solution is unlikely to be attempting to silence the voice of another person which questions what you think. Instead, it must be to listen to the voice within which dissents when you tell yourself what you believe.