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Freedom & Respect: Beyond the Blasphemy Debate

Published September 18, 2017 by Rev Dr Mark Barwick

Mark Barwick reflects on the tension between the right to free speech and the building of peaceful societies in an ever-globalising world. Can the two coexist? He hopes so.


Among today's children of Abraham there are few matters as contentious as the question of blasphemy. The practice of blasphemy as a punishable offence has been around for a very long time. In Europe and America, many people have begun to associate it with Islam; however, the condemnation of blasphemy has deep roots in all three Abrahamic faiths.

Christians do well to recall that anti-blasphemy laws proliferated in Western countries until relatively recent times. Some even persist to this day. Punishment for blasphemy has been part of the Christian story as much as any other tradition, including floggings, imprisonments, torture and even death – and yes, this well into the modern era.

In our times, blasphemy has become more widely identified with Muslim-majority countries, especially those where radical groups have gained influence. Some of these groups have tried to impose a rigidly Islamist interpretation on general society and anti-blasphemy measures are often part of the programme. However, trying to translate these measures into criminal law has been problematic.

For one thing, the very notion of religious insult or speaking injuriously of someone's religion is highly subjective. What one person regards as benign criticism another person could experience as hurtful enough to bring charges. What is "blasphemy" anyway? Just raising questions about religious teachings or practices has been regarded as offensive and deserving of punishment. In this way, anti-blasphemy laws have been used to settle scores between factious groups or individuals. They have also been used to suppress minorities. Because the wording of most anti-blasphemy legislation is vague, the door is left open for biased and arbitrary court rulings.

However, the more basic threat to human dignity – and arguably to religion itself – is not in court rulings. Prohibiting "insults against religion" can be a perilous step toward suppressing free and thoughtful enquiry. It can engender fear and have a deadening effect on society.

The free exchange of ideas helps people to formulate what they think and believe about the world in which they live, including their religious convictions. No religion or belief is immune from criticism. Criticism is the crucible through which all ideas, whether great or small, must pass. This can take the form of asking questions, engaging in debate, even satire and ridicule. And yes, criticism can also at times lead to insult.

Does this mean that the right to speak freely must be protected in every circumstance, even when it is intended to insult and harm others? No, I do not believe so.

The right to free speech is not absolute. There are limits to what one can say, especially in the public domain. In the wake of terrorist attacks in Europe, notably the violence visited on Charlie Hebdo for allegedly "blasphemous" portrayals of the Prophet, much discussion has been generated on the limits of free speech in liberal democratic societies. The debate has been polarising and far from conclusive.

It is here that a word must be spoken in favour of respect. It is a fragile compact on which peaceful societies are formed. The rights of individuals to speak freely and to debate ideas must indeed be protected. And at the same time, the cohesiveness of society must also be ensured, even at the cost of limiting free speech. This is difficult for many Westerners to hear, marinated as we are in the sacredness of human rights – which has most often been translated in terms of the individual. However, individuals live in societies. Living in society – any society – begins with an obligation to respectful and just relations between all its members.

Is an open and respectful exchange on religion even possible in today's world? I certainly hope so. Both freedom and respect are needed to build peaceful societies, often a delicate project but still well within our reach.

This article is written by The Rev Dr Mark Barwick, a priest at St Alban's (Anglican) Church in Strasbourg, France. He has worked extensively in support of European policies protecting the freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief. He has also actively promoted sustained dialogue between faith communities as a cornerstone for building peaceful societies. 

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