Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Defending the "Right to Offend"

If the supporters of a new bill in the British parliament get their way, the Iranians will no longer have to issue fatwas against "blasphemous" Western authors; they will simply be able to prosecute them in court for the crime of criticizing Islam. Rowan Atkinson (of Mr. Bean and Blackadder fame) is getting a lot of press for opposing the bill, though the most serious argument is offered by a Christian group, which points out that the effect of the law will be to quash criticism of the brutal practices of Muslims.

"Atkinson Defends Right to Offend," Toby Helm, Daily Telegraph, December 7

"There was a 'fundamental difference' between cracking a joke about someone's religion and being offensive about their race which was, rightly, already an offence, he said. 'To criticise a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous but to criticise their religion--that is a right. That is a freedom,' he said. 'The freedom to criticise ideas--any ideas even if they are sincerely held beliefs--is one of the fundamental freedoms of society. And the law which attempts to say you can criticise or ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed. It all points to the promotion of the idea that there should be a right not to be offended. But in my view the right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended. The right to ridicule is far more important to society than any right not to be ridiculed because one in my view represents openness--and the other
represents oppression.' He was joined by the newspaper columnist Joan Smith, officials from Christian groups, the Barnabas Fund, the Lawyer's Christian Fellowship and politicians from the three main parties. Paul Cook, the advocate manager of the Barnabas Fund, said: 'There is a real danger that this law could be used by extremists to silence organisations like ourselves from highlighting the persecution of Christians and other human rights abuses which occur within some religious communities.' "