From Barbie to blasphemy: how religion muzzles free speech

Posted: Wed, 26th Jul 2023 by Alejandro Sanchez

From Barbie to blasphemy: how religion muzzles free speech

This week, religious groups have found ways to be offended by both of the summer's biggest blockbusters. In Pakistan the Punjab censor board, widely believed to be in thrall to religious fanatics, has delayed the release of Barbie over "objectional content".

And in India, Hindu nationalists have called for a boycott of Oppenheimer, which features a reading from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita during a sex scene. Cillian Murphy and Florence Pugh's lovemaking has been branded "a direct assault on religious beliefs" and a "conspiracy by anti-Hindu forces".

Petty grievances like these may appear inconsequential but they are the thin end of the wedge: they lay the turf for the growing global backlash against so-called blasphemy.

Earlier this month, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution banning the burning of religious texts. The resolution, backed by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, came in response to an Iraqi refugee burning a Quran outside a mosque in Stockholm. Muslim protestors in Iraq made their dissatisfaction known by storming the Swedish embassy and, seemingly without irony, burning Swedish and LGBT pride flags.

Book burning is an unedifying spectacle – better to combat an idea with reasoned critique than destruction – but freedom of expression ceases to be meaningful if it only protects those acts we agree with.

And by accepting the physical sanctity of a religious text, we begin to accept the sanctity of the dogmas therein, many of which fly in the face of liberal values and are contemptuous of human rights.

It would be a mistake to think this is a far-flung issue. Blasphemy laws, both official and de facto, are alive and well here in the UK. Earlier this year, a 14 year-old autistic pupil in Yorkshire received death threats after a Quran he brought into school was dropped and scuffed. With local councillors and imams baying for blood, the student was suspended and issued with a non-crime hate incident by the police.

And in a chilling echo of the beheading of Samuel Paty, a teacher at Batley Grammar School was driven into hiding after he showed students a caricature of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The school prostrated itself before protestors, offering a "sincere and full apology" for the "great offence" caused.

When we as a society cede ground on seemingly less important issues – take, for example, allowing religious extremists to cancel the film The Lady of Heaven – we lose our appetite for the fights that matter most. To quote the Home Secretary: "Timidity does not make us safer; it weakens us."

We are 'lucky' that in the UK, blasphemy-motivated murders are rare (although they do occur). But we cannot and should not take this for granted. We need only look across the Channel to the attack on Charlie Hebdo to appreciate the blood-stained zeal with which fundamentalists treat blasphemy. Indeed, a newly published Henry Jackson Society report warns anti-blasphemy actions in this country could "inspire intimidation, violence and even mass killings".

So let's stand united for freedom of expression and oppose notions of blasphemy in all its forms.

Image by Anderson Menezes from Pixabay

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