Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Ban Religious Disrespect?

Written by johnleemk on 1:30:15 pm Aug 13, 2007.
Categories: ,

One interesting, ostensibly moderate, view about the recent Negarakuku controversy is that social commentary is fine, provided it does not insult Islam. Some moderate people go further and say that no religion ought to be insulted.

Now, I don't think many people would defend the defamation of a religion. I for one see no reason to insult the followers of another faith.

One important thing to keep in mind when discussing freedom, however, is that there is no real absolute yardstick by which we can measure ideas. The rationale for permitting freedom is that you are not sure which ideas are right and which are wrong, so you allow them to be discussed.

Some people have hateful and hurtful ideas. Should they be allowed to express their thoughts? How do we gauge what thought is hateful and hurtful enough to be banned? Remember, ideas cannot be arbitrarily and binarily classified as permissible or inpermissible; you will find they often lie on a spectrum of acceptableness.

In the first place, a novel idea often sounds hateful and hurtful — it is despised because it is so new, so different, so unique. If we ban one kind of unacceptable comment, how do we keep ourselves from sliding down this slippery slope when we already have set a precedent that if some vocal minority or majority finds something offensive, they are allowed to muzzle discussion of the issue?

And what if some criticisms of a religion are well-placed? Should I be banned from criticising adherents of a religion that demands its followers sacrifice a puppy to the Flying Fettucine Freak, or from laughing at members of a cult which requires its supplicants to donate all their worldly possessions to a madman?

Just how do we define criticism or disrespect of a religion anyway? Am I criticising Islam if I say that Muslims are going to hell? Should Martin Luther have been locked up for his criticism of the abuse of indulgences in Roman Catholicism?

Maybe we should ban statements like "We should kill all Jews" or "Let's massacre the Muslims". After all, death threats are never welcome. I suspect many liberal democracies have already done this.

But what about simple criticism of religious doctrine, or of religious beliefs? Should we do away with that? I think not — a public debate is always healthy, provided it steers clear of incitement to actual physical harm.

Okay, let's come back to Namewee and his Negarakuku video. Was it insulting to Islam? His brief comment on the Muslim headdress is obviously insulting, but should we ban it? Does this not make us just a short step away from banning any theological criticism of the doctrine behind the wearing of the tudung? Would we now lock up liberal Muslim scholars?

The other thing he touched on was the morning call to prayer — over a whole stanza is devoted to this issue. Perhaps what he said was excessive — I personally have never been bothered by the morning call to prayer, despite at one point living within walking distance of one mosque and another surau.

But I'm often reminded of the angry stipulation by furious Muslims that non-Muslims should only comment on Muslim issues if they affect non-Muslims. Is this not one such example? Should Namewee be jailed for talking about something which concerns him, which affects him?

This argument that we must ban certain kinds of discourse just because they make us uncomfortable is completely fallacious. We may be able to ban these remarks, but at what cost? We will be silencing criticism which sometimes even we welcome. Civil debate should always be welcomed — and by civil I mean anything which does not attempt to provoke and incite physical harm to others. The right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins, but as long as I do not lay a hand on you, who are you to tell me I have to shut up?

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