Four Anglican bishops serving in northeastern Africa and Cyprus have written the United Nations asking that “an international declaration be negotiated that outlaws the intentional and deliberate insulting or defamation of persons (such as prophets), symbols, texts and constructs of belief deemed holy by people of faith.” They make this proposal in response to the recent movie on Muhammad and “similar offensive incidents [which] have occurred in some European countries” and ”evoked massive and violent responses worldwide.”
It is a bad idea, a very bad idea, on many levels. For one thing, such a law would violate the Western ideal of free speech we should not give up. For another, it would quickly be used to suppress not only “deliberate insulting or defamation” but reasonable criticism and disagreement. One man’s well- and kindly-argued belief that another man is in error can be to that other man insult and defamation, especially if he has no natural appreciation for the free exchange of ideas.
What if, for example, someone pursuing higher critical studies of the Koran decides that much of it is made up, the way for two centuries now many people have argued that much of the gospel story is made up? What about the basic Christian proclamation of the uniqueness of Christ as the Savior of the world, which, however nuanced and with however great an understanding of the value of other religions (as described in Nostra Aetate, for example), still declares that other religions are deeply mistaken? Would not those ideas be taken by the followers of the religions criticized as insult and defamation?
And why should only the beliefs of the religious be protected? Shouldn’t the “constructs of belief” of secular people be equally protected? If they believe that, say, the practice of homosexuality is a human good, shouldn’t they be protected from the insult and defamation of those who insist it isn’t?
Restrictions on free speech only expand. Nearly everyone, understandably, wants his ideas protected and freed from public evaluation. A proposal that begins with the hope that people will stop insulting Mohammad will grow to include limits on all sorts of ideas the proposers never intended. Except, of course, in the West, limits on attacks on Christianity. We will not see the solicitude extending to Islam and even to secular commitments extended, or extended very often or very far, to Christianity.
It is significant that the bishops, one of whom is a former colleague of mine, write solely about incidents of Muslims reacting violently to ideas or works they don’t like. We don’t see Christians, or Jews, or Buddhists, or Sikhs, or anyone else responding to ideas by rioting, much less by rioting against and killing people who don’t have anything to do with the ideas they dislike. There’s a reason many people are making jokes like “Remember the time we stormed the British embassy when The Life of Brian came out, and pulled down their flag and beat up all those guys working there? That’ll teach them not to insult our faith. It was gre . . . oh wait, we didn’t do that.”
It is a bad thing when violence and the constant threat of violence lead people to concede unilaterally an important part of their culture and law to placate those who do not think like that. That tells the world, and the violent themselves, nothing good.