Proposed blasphemy ban unwise and unworkable

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Criminalizing blasphemy is critical to protecting global peace, the head of the Arab league told the U.N. Security Council yesterday.

“If the international community has criminalized bodily harm, it must just as well criminalize psychological and spiritual harm,” Nabil Elaraby said. “The League of Arab States calls for the development of an international framework which is binding … in order to confront insulting religions and ensuring that religious faith and its symbols are respected.”

The Associated Press reported that Elaraby told the Security Council that “we don’t see any relation between freedom of expression which aims at enriching culture and building civilization (on) the one hand and activities that merely offend and insult the beliefs, culture and civilization of others.”

The assertion that what the world needs now is a global ban on blasphemy is both stunning and absolutely unworkable.

There’s inherent beauty and simplicity in the United States’ guarantee of freedom of speech. At its heart is the guarantee that everyone has the right to to express his or her ideas, with the understanding that everyone else in society enjoys exactly the same right. While there are very narrow exceptions in areas like child pornography and solicitation to commit crimes, free speech in the United States isn’t contingent on the quality, viewpoint or substance of the speech.

Imagine attempting to enforce a worldwide ban on blasphemy. Would that apply to all religions? If so, there’s enough diversity of faith in the world that almost any cultural expression runs the risk of offending others.

Elaraby’s proposal is not limited to direct assaults on other faiths. He is also urging limits on expression that merely offends.

The current discussion of blasphemy was, of course, inspired by the “Innocence of Muslims” video posted by a Californian to YouTube. Although amateurish, it’s essentially a mini-movie that mocks a religion. So does the mammoth Broadway hit “The Book of Mormon.” Even “Imagine,” John Lennon’s biggest hit, urges us to “imagine no religion,” not exactly a faith-friendly lyric.

Elaraby’s assertion that a worldwide ban on blasphemy is needed is as disturbing as President Barack Obama’s speech to the U.N. Journal Assembly was heartening. Obama explained why free speech must be valued in a democracy.

“We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities. We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect,” Obama said.

Elaraby’s proposal is dangerous on multiple fronts. It suggests that there’s some justification for the kind of mindless violence that erupted after this video was lifted out of obscurity.

There are some in the United States who have asked whether the first Amendment should protect this kind of hate speech.

It was exactly this kind of speech that the First Amendment was designed to protect. It’s been said many times but bears repeating. Popular speech needs no protection. It’s the ideas that provoke and, yes, offend, that force society to reflect. We may not always be able to export our values, but we need to be vigilant in protecting them within our borders.


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