Friday, June 04, 2010

A right to be respected - Botswana Guardian

In the Botswana Guardian last week al-Hasan wrote a lengthy letter suggesting that Muslims have a right to be respected. He specifically implied that the rules within Islam that forbid the portrayal of the prophet Muhammad must somehow apply to non-Muslims. I disagree.

al-Hasan’s letter was no doubt prompted by the recent “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” day which prompted death threats to cartoonists around the world. The cartoon I suspect he refers to, by Zapiro and published in the Mail and Guardian, portrays Muhammad on a psychiatrist’s couch complaining that “Other prophets have followers with a sense of humour!” Already Zapiro has received the inevitable death threats.

I am not a Muslim or indeed a Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist or Rastafarian so I don’t consider myself bound by the rules within each of those religions. I eat pork and beef, I consume alcohol, I have been known to use what some people would consider rude words and I often work on a Sunday. The internal rules of religions I don’t belong to don’t apply to me, nor do they apply to any other non-members of those religions. The rules that apply to me, that govern my conduct, are the laws of the country I live in. Of course I also acknowledge that in addition to the basic laws there are certain community values so I have learned to moderate my behaviour when necessary, that’s just simple courtesy. I don’t swear loudly in public, I wouldn’t blaspheme in a religious gathering and I wouldn’t demand beef from a Hindu host or a bacon sandwich from a Jew.

But outside of those situations I am free to express myself. So long as I do not encourage violence, I am not constrained from expressing my views. To put it simply, I am entitled to draw a picture of Muhammad, just as I can draw a picture of Jesus, Buddha or Haile Selassie. What’s more I firmly believe that I have a right to challenge other people’s beliefs, just as they have a right to challenge mine. Muslims and members of any other religion are free to evangelise. They can advertise, broadcast religious programs on the radio and TV and post me letters and emails trying to persuade me of their beliefs. That’s the wonder of living in a democracy, the range of divergent beliefs that surround us. It’s also what makes a democracy so irritating sometimes. Often the beliefs of your neighbours are annoying, sometimes infuriating. As an atheist, I dislike being told by people like al-Hasan that I don’t respect other people’s beliefs, am a worshipper of Shaytaan (Satan) or that I “rape and kill Muslim women and children”. However I’m sufficiently grown-up to see stupid allegations as nonsense and to ignore them.

I also think that at a time when Islam is being used, obviously by a tiny, psychopathic minority, to terrorise the world and to drag us back to the Middle Ages, people like al-Hasan would do better to show their more moderate, tolerant and understanding side and not threaten the rest of us with eternal (and immediate) punishment for expressing ourselves.

My feelings about free speech are simple but are best expressed by a ruling by Lord Justice Sedley in the UK on the freedom to evangelise who said:
“Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”