The popular response to the Charlie Hebdo (CH) incident shows that most people condemn a violent response to news articles that they do not like (i.e. by killing the authors). However, there is less agreement on whether or not CH crossed a line of acceptability.
CH itself insists that the Freedom of Expression should be unconditional; because if a government limits it, that government will be able to curtail other human rights with impunity.
On the other hand, Pope Francis says that the freedom of expression should be limited by respect for religion.
Respect vs Absolute Freedom
There are problems with both views. Let us take Pope Francis’ view first. In effect, he says that the freedom of expression should not violate standards of behaviour determined by various religions. But these standards themselves are not uniform, or even consistent. Laws to enforce ‘respect’ for religion often become ‘anti-blasphemy’ laws. A problem with anti-blasphemy laws is that they enforce a religion’s rules on non-members. Anti-blasphemy laws has resulted in the imprisonment, and even the deaths, of Christians in certain Muslim-majority countries e.g. Pakistan.
The Philippines has one such law, which we inherited from Spanish times. Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code in the Philippines specifies prison terms for those who hurt religious feelings; we could call it our ‘anti-blasphemy law lite’.
When evangelical Christians condemned the Black Nazarene practice as idolatry, they were threatened with a charge under Article 133, for hurting the feelings of Roman Catholics . But, to be fair, isn’t the parading around of ‘idols’ hurting the feelings of evangelical Christians?
Then, there is Carlos Celdran’s ‘Damaso’ action in the Manila Cathedaral that is supposed to have offended religious feelings. Celdran was protesting against the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines’ (CBCP) stand on the Reproductive Health (RH) bill by silently holding up a placard saying ‘Damaso’ in the Manila Cathedral. The Manila Archdiocese promptly filed a suit against Celdran, on the basis of Article 133. But which ‘religious feelings’ were being disrespected by him? It seems that Celdran was merely ‘disrespecting’ the political stance of the church hierarchy, nothing else.
This case is reminiscent of the imprisonment of the Pussy Riot protesters by the Russian government, on the basis of being disrespectful of the Russian Orthodox church, which was widely condemned.
The Freedom of Religion should allow for various religions to freely criticize each other, especially when it comes to matters of religious doctrine. Otherwise we would have the tyranny of a favored religion. In the Philippines, it is the Catholic church which is being protected from hurt, or disrespect, no matter what this costs in terms of other religions’ beliefs or freedom of religion.
But CH’s belief in the absolute freedom of expression also has problems. Absolute freedom of expression could easily be abused by people who want to incite others to discriminate against, attack, or prosecute people because of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or political beliefs. It will allow people to call for the persecution of other religions (or any other group), or to advocate steps that will inhibit other people’s freedom of religion. For example, there could be calls to prohibit the construction of mosques (which would inhibit Muslims’ right to worship). Recent Facebook posts (in the Netherlands) calling for people to burn mosques are another example. One may say that those are just words: but words can kill. Some people did respond to those calls with action – a number of mosques were subsequently firebombed.
Upholding Human Rights
European countries generally follow another rule: that the freedom of expression is limited only by other human rights and freedoms. I would call this the HR principle. In this, the freedom of expression is limited only in cases where it deprives (or potentially deprives) the human rights of other people e.g. the right to life, the right to practice their religion, the right to be free from discrimination.
When people call for the burning of mosques or the killing of Jews, the case is clear-cut. These should be forbidden, and the perpetrators punished. When CH draws caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, the principle is also easy to apply – the drawings do not inhibit anyone from practicing their religion. The Muslim prohibition on eating pork, and on making images of Molhammed, should cover only practicing Muslims, but not people of other beliefs.
But there are cases which are less clear-cut. When some people say that islam is a political ideology that breeds terrorists; it is not that easy to say that doing so violates the human rights of anyone. After all, ‘islam’ is not a person, ‘muslims’ are. Or those who say ‘homosexuality is an illness’ would have to be allowed – because it refers to ‘homosexuality’ and not homosexuals. The courts will have to decide, in these, and other borderline cases, which ones should be allowed in the spirit of upholding the freedom of expression.
But legally allowing certain border-line opinions to be expressed does not mean that everybody should stand idly by when this happens. Contrary articles, speeches, assemblies etc criticizing such ‘disrespectful’ positions should be also allowed in the spirit of freedom of expression. In other words, you are allowed to say disgusting things, but other people are also allowed to condemn your disgusting statements.