IEET > Rights > Contributors > Leo Igwe > FreeThought
Freedom of Speech and Religious Offence
Leo Igwe   Sep 22, 2012   Ethical Technology  

The ‘anti-Islam film’ which led to protests, attacks and killings across Middle East, Asia and Africa has sparked debates over religious offense, particularly how to balance freedom of speech/expression and freedom of religion globally.

This debate has put to test the understanding and commitment of states, institutions and individuals to upholding these basic human values. It has raised serious concerns and questions about states’ obligations to protecting these basic freedoms particularly when a religion, in this case, Islam, is involved.

The controversy over the ‘anti-Islam film’ has portrayed how far we have yet to go in promoting and protecting equal rights of all human beings in the world. Due to the violence that has trailed this controversial film and other publications which in recent times were considered religiously offensive, some people are arguing that freedom of speech be curtailed. They claim that free speech ends where freedom of religion begins. In fact they maintain that freedom of expression should be sacrificed on the altar of Religious offense.

But I totally disagree. Freedom of expression includes freedom to say, write and publish things that could offend or provoke. In fact there is no true freedom of expression in a society where people cannot write, say or publish things that could offend others. For me the right to offend - or to feel offended - is a human right. This right is embedded in freedom of expression, thought and conscience. Freedom of religion should not be used to limit freedom of speech. Both rights are interdependent and reinforce each other. Religions spread - and continue to do so - because people exercise their freedom of expression.

Certain expressions of a religion offend people who profess other religions or beliefs and vice versa. Some religious teachings - including Islamic and Koranic injunctions - are insulting, or can be interpreted to be insulting - to other or older religions or prophets. What should those who profess these religions do? Should they start attacking the embassies or killing diplomats and citizens of Saudi Arabia and other countries in North Africa and the Middle East? 

Many religious dogmas are insulting to human intelligence and common sense. And the way to address this is not to limit freedom of speech but to enhance it, to promote and protect free and unfettered expressions both religious and secular. The solution is not less free speech, but more. 

Meanwhile, I must draw a distinction between causing religious offence and inciting hatred and violence against people of a particular religion. The right to freedom of religion or expression does not include the right to incite hatred and violence. Obviously this controversial film offended some Muslims across the world - I consider it critical and caricatural - not incitful. Just as so many Islamic publications and postings offend non-Muslims around the globe.

The issue is not whether Muslims were, as in this case, offended or whether they felt the publication insulted their religion or prophet. The issue is how they reacted to the publication, and the message they sent to people across the world as to how they should react when they feel offended or when their religion or prophet is insulted.

In spite of how jittery, nervous and fearful people may now feel about criticizing religions, Islam in particular, or of trying to shine the light on the moral shortcomings of prophet Muhammad or the Quran and the Hadith, we should not equate such expressions to inciting hatred and violence. We should not encourage or endorse violent reactions to religious offense or provocation. We should not call for the restriction or criminalization of freedom of expression. Criticizing religion is a moral duty. It is a civilized way of highlighting the limitations and imperfections of these faiths that sometimes darken and destroy the lives of many people.

Religions are not perfect, are they? Religious doctrines are ancient and out-dated. Many religious claims are false and harmful. Religious prophets have their shortcomings and lived in ways that could be considered immoral and criminal by contemporary standards. Highlighting these shortcomings is a way of exercising one’s right to freedom of expression, and contributing to human civilization and enlightenment. Criticizing religion including Islam should therefore be encouraged and not discouraged, promoted not penalized. Those who react violently to expressions that are critical of their faiths or prophets should be treated as enemies of open and free society, and the Arab Spring.

We should not be cowed or intimidated into limiting freedom of speech or expression because of the violent reactions. We should ensure that the full human rights to freedom of speech and conscience are respected and upheld. Those who are inciting hatred and violence are generally attacking embassies and killing western citizens and diplomats who have nothing to do with the publications.

Muslims across the world should learn to tolerate offensive publications or to react in civilized ways to any publication which they deem an insult to Islam or prophet Mohammad. Muslims should not expect to live in a world where nobody would offend their religious sensibilities. That is not possible. They should not expect to live in a society where nobody would write or publish anything which could be deemed an insult to Islam or its prophet. And we should not limit freedom of speech and expression because of violent reactions of fanatics and fundamentalists to religious offence.

In conclusion, here is an insightful quotation from Ed Husain, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies, US Council on Foreign Relations, and author of The Islamist. Reacting to the recent riots and protests, he said:

“My fellow Muslims… We cannot trample on the very freedoms that allow us to thrive as Muslims. Yes, it hurts when the Prophet is insulted. From Shakespeare to Thomas Paine, Western literature is full of negative references to Muslims as Moors, Turks, and followers of Mahomet. Similarly, classical Arabic and Persian writings are replete with anti-Semitism and denial of Christ’s divinity as the son of God. Yet, it is a remarkable feat that we in the West have accommodated all faiths and no faith. This achievement cannot be reversed.”

And to that, I have no other thing to say or add but an unequivocal “Amen”.

Leo Igwe, as a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has bravely worked for human rights in West Africa. He is presently enrolled in a three year research programme on “Witchcraft accusations in Africa” at the University of Bayreuth, in Germany.


Well spoken. It is refreshing to see the distinction between “causing offense” to people within a religious group versus “inciting violence” against them.

In discussing the reaction to this film, let us remember that the (small but highly publicized) Anti-USA protests were largest and most vitriolic in regions where the United States has strong ties to state-sanctioned violence (eg Egypt). The film was just the tipping point: religious offense was just the rationalization and rallying point for legitimate rage against the USA.

The idea of balancing freedom of to criticize religion and freedom of
religion is absurd because the two do not conflict.  On the contrary,
they go together: the freedom to believe and the freedom to criticize
are both part of freedom of expression.

Where the freedom to criticize Islam is limited, religious freedom is
limited too: people who were formerly Muslims are denied the freedom
to practice any other religion or to become Atheists.  Both of these
freedoms call for defense, and the first step is to reject the idea
that we can’t fully have both.

I agree with the spirit of what you write, but technically speaking there is more to religion than just what you believe. It also involves practice, and if one’s religion involves, for example, stabbing someone to death because he was “loitering in a park” with a woman wh wasn’t his wife, then one should not be free to practise it. Similarly, if one’s religion involves limiting the free speech of others through violence or the threat of violence, then it is reasonable to propose that one’s freedom to practise it needs to be “balanced” with the freedom of others to criticise, or even stupidly caricature, one’s religion.

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