UCT Blasphemy and Free Speech

[This is a reproduction of the article that the Cape Times printed on Tuesday, for those who haven’t seen it].

The young editors of UCT’s regrettable Sax Appeal Magazine are hopefully taking some lessons in discretion, and perhaps spelling. The vulgar and blasphemous recent issue displayed no awareness of the difference between satire and stupidity, and was in general of such low quality as to be an offence to its sponsors. However, it is the response of my fellow Christians that is of more serious concern.

The ever-vocal Errol Naidoo and the Christian Democratic Alliance appeared in the Cape Times calling for protests, boycotts, ‘national bans on all companies that supported the blasphemy’, and the intervention of human rights bodies. While some censure of these cartoons is justifiable, this kind of over-reaction is unnecessary, and represents a growing threat to the cornerstone of social freedom, free speech.

Christians have overstepped the bounds of reasonable response to this issue. Firstly, Christ himself offered no threats in retaliation when he was insulted, and this is given as a pattern that his followers are to imitate. So much more could have been achieved if Christians had behaved with the kind of humility and forgiveness that characterised Jesus himself. As it stands, the ‘attack’ on Christianity in these cartoons is so obviously childish and devoid of substance that it represents no danger except to the reputations of the magazine editors.

A far more serious concern is the threat that we as the vocal religious pose to free speech. Fundamentalist Islam has set the pace internationally for over-sensitivity to criticism. The Satanic Verses earned Salman Rushdie a death penalty and a bounty on his head. More recently, The Jewel of Medina fell foul of Islam and was pulped by its publisher, and the Danish cartoon series about Mohammad led to riots and more death threats.

Johann Hari, a reporter for the Independent, himself now a target of death threats, has pointed out a significant shift that has taken place in policies about freedom of speech. Because of the regular tantrumming of the religious on the world stage, Christian and Muslim alike, the UN agreed to redefine the task of its international free-speech watchdogs. Hari reports:

“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.”[i]

This kind of legislation no doubt seems like a blessing to the religious. It offers us official protection from the kind of discriminatory attack so artlessly perpetrated by the UCT Sax Appeal. However, I can see no valid reason why religions are more worthy of protection from criticism than anyone else. It’s not as though religions are defenceless innocents. Religions leave their fair share of victims, and there is plenty of corruption within religion that deserves the harshest possible criticism. But, from now on, society must operate with a glaring double standard. You are free to express your opinion about any subject you like, except if it touches something religious. You are free to oppose the tyranny of any system that preys upon the defenceless, unless the tyranny can be validated from a religious book or tradition. If we applied this principle to politics, if governments declared themselves immune from criticism, we’d all be crying ‘injustice’. And yet this injustice is exactly what we’re asking for the religious, and Christians are supporting it!

Free speech seems to be an enemy when someone aims offensive comments at you or a loved one or your long-dead prophet. However, it also guarantees that you have the right to counter any offensive with a better defence. It guarantees individuals, regardless of their insignificance, the right to speak out against injustice wherever it is found. Free speech is our greatest protector in society, but it is a power that we have no right to claim if we demand that the religious sphere be exempt. So, ironically, if Christ is a God of freedom, then we need to stand with those atheists who are risking all to champion free speech in the face of religious attacks on freedom.

In a plural society, blasphemies are inevitable. Opponents of my faith will offend me, just as my beliefs will offend them. So what? Only one of the many exclusivist religions can possibly be correct. The others are wrong. It’s better for all that we have the freedom to criticise and interrogate and advocate those positions as rigorously as possible. If your beliefs are true, the Truth will defend you. If you’re wrong, the Truth will set you free.

[i] http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-why-should-i-respect-these-oppressive-religions-1517789.html

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2 thoughts on “UCT Blasphemy and Free Speech

  1. Errol Naidoo says:

    Dear Jordan, I did not call for protests, boycotts or national bans as you allege. My e-mail simply described the blasphemous contents of Sax Appeal and requested that Christians contact those responsible and voice their outrage.

    Surely this is our constitutional right.

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      Yes, that is true. Sorry that I gave that impression; i truncated things for the sake of brevity, but I can see that I implicated you somewhat unfairly in the CDA’s more concrete reaction. As I said to you in my private email to you, it was the tone of your email, and the direction that it was leading, that caused me concern, and which I still maintain was unwise. It certainly was your right, and some kind of response is presumably our duty, but from a Christian perspective, I doubt that it was the wisest approach. More to come when I respond to your latest email.

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