After two weeks of riots across the Muslim world, ostensibly due to an offensive amateur YouTube video which insults the Prophet Muhammad, many people across the non-Muslim world might agree that the reaction to the offense far exceeds the offense itself. There is a collective sense of deja vu as we recall the Danish cartoon controversy which erupted seven years ago. The difference is that this time, attacking embassies and burning US flags is occurring after the Arab spring, which is morphing into a Islamist winter.
Should criticism of religion be allowed, particularly when it can lead to such violent reactions?
Offense to religious beliefs has been the focus of the "defamations of religion" clause which Pakistan has sought to have added to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This dangerous idea undercuts two other human rights currently protected in the declaration: the freedom of religious belief, and the freedom of expression. Pakistan is home to some of the worst examples of how the rights of individuals are violated in the name of protecting religion.
As part of its Cardus Education Survey report being released today, Cardus explored these issues and others with graduates of Christian schools, religious home schools, Catholic schools, and public schools. The results are instructive and reveal different points of view even between these sectors on questions which are currently front page news.
Asked to agree or disagree with the statement, "People should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups," respondents answered as follows: Catholic students disagreed most strongly, in essence arguing against freedom of speech; independent Catholic and public school students strongly agreed. Evangelical Protestant and home school students were more noncommittal on this question. At the core of this question is the secular balancing act of freedom of expression versus respect of differences.
To the statement, "Religion is a private matter that should be kept out of public debates about social and political issues," the Catholic and public school students agreed, whereas the independent Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, and home school students disagreed. The Catholic student responses on these two questions alone reveal an inner contradiction—on the one hand, they argue against free speech, yet also believe that religion is a private matter.
On the wider questions of tolerance of other faiths, marked differences exist. To the statement, "Society should be more tolerant of non-Christian religions," independent Catholics and public school students were in agreement, while Evangelical Protestant and home school students very strongly disagreed. These students clearly want religion to be respected in the public sphere, but may feel there are already too many public concessions for non-Christian religions.
So even amongst a range of North American students, there are differing views on questions of tolerating other faiths, and public criticism of religion.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the following in a speech after the Benghazi attacks which left four American diplomatic personnel dead.
I so strongly believe that the great religions of the world are stronger than any insults. They have withstood offense for centuries . . . Refraining from violence, then, is not a sign of weakness in one's faith; it is absolutely the opposite, a sign that one's faith is unshakable.
Criticism of religion must be tolerated in order to protect freedom of speech. And as Clinton points out, religion needs no defense against offense. Response to offense is a kind of barometer for social and civil maturity, and a core belief that the individual's right to expression and belief trumps any ideology or religion.
To try to prevent criticism of religion or religious offense is virtually impossible. Ironically, it only serves to unleash greater intolerance and discrimination against those who have created the offense. The recent deaths, damaged embassies, and burning flags are ample evidence of that.