Is appeasing religion more important to society than free speech? A judge in Pennsylvania seemed to think so in dismissing charges against a Muslim man accused of attacking another man (the victim in this case) because, according the attacker, the victim had insulted the prophet Mohammed. At the time of the attack, the victim was marching in a parade dressed as "zombie Mohammed" alongside another man dressed as "zombie Pope". Apparently, this was meant as a humorous protest against organized religion. In America, this form of expression would figure to be protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech, but this is not the way the judge saw it.
Judges often issue stern warnings to defendants who get off easy, but in this case it was the victim who received the admonishment. Accusing the assaulted individual of acting like a "doofus", the judge seemed to imply that he deserved the attack, telling him: "It's unfortunate that some people use the First Amendment to deliberately provoke others. I don't think that's what our forefathers intended".
The Judge also pointed out the victim's behavior would be punishable by death in many countries that operate under sharia (Islamic Law). The judge was certainly right about this. In Pakistan, for example, a person can be sentenced to death for blasphemy, which includes just about any criticism of the prophet Muhammad, the Koran or Islam in general. Few people have actually received the death penalty in such cases, but the law is still commonly exploited by thugs who seek to settle private scores or to threaten and brutalize Christians and other religious minorities in the country. Despite these sorts of abuses, liberalization is certainly not imminent. Recently, in separate incidents, two high ranking members of the Pakistan government who opposed the blasphemy law were murdered by religious extremists. Not surprisingly, few in government dare to voice their opposition now.
Violence over insults or perceived insults to Islam is becoming more common in Muslim countries. Recently, there were deadly riots in Afghanistan over the accidental burning of Korans by U.S. serviceman. Similar violence occurred in several European countries a few years ago over cartoons that satirized Muhammad. Rather than stand up for free speech, many Western counties followed the lead of Islamic states, passing laws that make "insulting religion" a punishable offense. The supposed purpose of such laws is to promote tolerance, but suppressing free speech in favor of religion, which is inherently intolerant, is a dubious means to this end.
In fact, rather than promote tolerance, such laws will almost certainly have the opposite effect. This is because laws of this sort carry an unintended message: "if your religion drives you to become so violently emotional that you riot, burn and kill, then nobody has the right to object". Never mind that your religion inspires hatred of nonbelievers or brutal oppression of women. Anyone who voices an opinion that can be construed as an insult to religion has committed a crime.
So how is this working out in Muslim countries where these sorts of pro-religion laws prevail? Are tolerance, peace and social justice being promoted? Well it's certainly true that people who favor greater freedom or who object to oppressive religious teachings or practices are terrorized into silence. But little or nothing is done to rein in thugs and goons who take the law, or what passed for law, into their own hands. As long as they can claim that they are motivated by religion, they can be as brutal, corrupt and arbitrary as they want. At Punjab University in Pakistan, for example, an Islamic fundamentalist student group is not afraid to use threats and violence to advance its extremist agenda, especially when it comes to enforcing separation between men and women. When a group of philosophy students protested the brutality and intimidation, they were attacked in their dorm rooms at night by fundamentalist students wielding clubs and bicycle chains.
In Iraq, Islamic militias roam the streets of many Shiite neighborhoods looking for anyone exhibiting behavior that could be considered "un-Islamic". Lately, these militias have taken to attacking young people who sport the "emo" look, a style of cloths and haircuts inspired by American and European punk music. At least 14 youths were beaten to death in these attacks, which began after the Iraqi interior minister labeled the emo subculture "Satanism" and called for it to be stamped out. Meanwhile, in Iran, the feared "morality police" can arrest people for violations of the nation's strict dress code. Men and women who associate too closely in public can also be arrested. Once arrested, a person's fate is entirely up to the authorities. He or she may be shortly released, or end up being tortured to death in prison.
Clearly, providing thugs with religious justification for brutalizing others is not the path to justice and tolerance. But Western society should have learned this lesson long ago. During the centuries when Christian governments ruled Europe, people could be arrested on the slightest of pretexts and charged with religious crimes. Employing an inquisition style justice system, the authorities could torture people into confessing to heresy, blasphemy, witchcraft or whatever nonsensical religion crime that could be fabricated by the goons in charge.
Today, European society seems to be forgetting the mistakes of the past with its willingness to suppress freedom of speech and expression just because a bunch of thugs and bullies threatened to become violently emotional over insults to their religion. This is not an example that we should be following here in America. We should not be intimidated by religion or its aggressive proponents. We don't necessarily have to believe that we are all just lowly sinners compared to the greatness of God (as religion teaches) and accept whatever treatment that religious bullies think we deserve. A free society needs people with the courage to stand up to religion with its nonsensical assertions about the subordination of mankind to imaginary gods. So, what do you think? Do you agree or disagree? Any comments?
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