The right to insult all religions is important, and should be cherished

12:10 pm - January 26th 2014

by Sunny Hundal    

      Share on Tumblr

The first time I was invited on to a debate on TV, I was so nervous I couldn’t stop myself shaking. It was partly nerves and partly the topic. It was Christmas 2005, and a theatre in Birmingham had to abandon a play because a large mob of angry Sikhs had gathered in protest outside, and some had broken the windows. All this because they said it insulted their religion.

Of course, the play – Behzti (‘shame’) – didn’t insult Sikhism, it merely depicted rape in a Gurdwara (temple) on stage. Self-appointed community leaders were aghast and spread rumours that the writer, a Sikh woman, was 1) an attention seeker 2) had a black boyfriend and wanted to deliberately insult Sikhs 3) wasn’t really a Sikh. I wrote angry editorials (as editor of the industry journal Asians in Media mag, then) that Behzti should not be shut down and angry Sikhs should learn to live with perceived insults to their faith. The play got shut down because the theatre and the local police were too scared to stand up to fundamentalists.

There have been plenty of controversies since, involving British Hindus and Muslims too.

The latest one involves Maajid Nawaz, a Lib Dem candidate and head of the anti-terrorism think-tank Quilliam Foundation, who tweeted a picture of the Jesus & Mo cartoons, which depicts both figures as stick drawings. Some Muslims are outraged and want Maajid de-selected. One of the instigator, another self-appointed ‘community leader’, boasted that he would inform Islamic countries in the Middle East about Nawaaz. It doesn’t get more comical than this.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt: it’s that most religious Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims in Britain still don’t understand freedom of speech. They pay lip service to free speech, of course, but the minute they feel their religion is being insulted, they want to see it censored. I’m not referring to ordinary people here – I’m referring to the ones who are more religious than normal. They are the ones who go the extra effort of mobilising others to be offended.

Let me be blunt.

If you appreciate the freedom to practice religion, then you should embrace freedom of speech.

If you appreciate the fact that Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims broadly have the same right as Christians, then you should embrace freedom of speech.

If you think people shouldn’t be locked up for expressing fringe and perhaps unpopular opinions, then you should embrace free speech.

And yes, all of these mean you have to accept the right of others to say things you may find hurtful or insulting to your religion. That’s how it works.

You cannot have a relatively free society without the freedom to insult and antagonise religious people. You cannot create a well functioning secular society without the right to insult religion. Otherwise, you end up like Pakistan, which plans to execute a mentally ill British man for being ‘blasphemous’.

I’m not saying Christians understand this fully (the Daily Mail constantly whines about insults to Christian sensibility); neither am I saying that non-religious Brits have this nailed down (people have been harassed for saying offensive things or just making jokes).

I am saying that minorities should be especially pro-free-speech, because when freedom of speech is curtailed, it is used against minorities first. And that freedom speech does and should always include the right to insult religion and religious figures.

You have a right to be offended.

You don’t have a right to censorship. You don’t have the right to shut down a play, close down an exhibition, stop a book being sold, or stop someone from speaking peacefully or holding a demo. And yes, that includes the likes of the EDL.

I’m really sick of some people acting like village thugs and demanding people listen to them because they feel insulted. No. No one cares if you feel hurt, especially if its over your religion. The rest of us don’t care how important it is to you – the right to insult and have free speech is far more important.

At the time of the Behzti play controversy, I was invited to a debate on BBC Asian Network where some Sikh ‘human rights’ organisation claimed they were going to sue the writer (herself a Sikh!) for inciting violence against Sikhs. I kid you not. I laughed in their face, on radio. That is how seriously these people should be taken. Their proposed plan never got anywhere of course.

    Share on Tumblr   submit to reddit  

About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
· Other posts by

Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Media ,Our democracy

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Reader comments

In addition to “You have a right to be offended”, I would add “You don’t have the right to never be offended”.

Absolutely love this! And I would add this quote by Ricky Gervais: “Offence, is never given, its taken. If you’re not offended by something, then there was no offence, it’s as simple as that. If you are offended by something, walk away. I’m offended by things all the time but I haven’t got the right not to be offended, and remember this: just because someone is offended it doesn’t mean they’re right.”

3. Dissident 101

Offend and be offended. What matters the most is been truthful

It’s sometimes difficult to see past the noisy, self-righteous and aggressive, to the (robably) much larger number of decent intelligent people, of any faith or ethnic group.
Offending the self-righteous is practically a civic duty, IMO.

As usual this writer brings up the odd case of Sikhs being outraged and equates it to the general intolerance and fanaticism of Islam and its followers all round the world in order to sound fair and balanced. 99% of religious intolerance and the danger to free speech comes from the ‘followers of the religion of peace’.
I suggest this writer grows a pair (and a backbone while he’s at it) and addresses the danger to this world of Islamic beliefs . Never once have i seen him criticize the medieval islamic belief of chopping peoples hands or legs off or stoning women to death – that’d compromize his contract with Al Jazeera i suppose

Agreement. There is a false equivalence working here. Of course there ate mad Hindus and Sikhs but they pale in insignifance when compared to those of the Islamic failth.

Behzti play was 10 years ago, for pete’s sake, but he keeps bringing that up every chance he gets as that’s all he’s got as an example

It is a difficult situation but he is doing a good job. He makes it clear: no one has the right to special treatment. Good job Sunny!

I just had this argument with somebody after signing the petition to give full support to Maajid and tweeted about it, I was accused of disrespect but the only disrespect came from the other side, he called me an a*hole (my censorship).

Here is the conversation:

The interesting thing is his twitter profile says “S’all about #SaveGaza #FreePalestine #SaveSyria.” all causes I fully support and in my mind freedom of speech are at the heart of these issues.

Thank you for writing this, I think this needs to be made clear to these people who don’t understand where their freedom to practice their religion comes from and the fact that it comes from the same place as my freedom for not to practice a religion.

PS petition here:

With the right of free speech comes the right of response, so those who want to protest loudly about any perceived insult to their religion are free to do so. That’s how liberalism and free speech works.

Of course they are, but death threat and attack to private property are forms of aggression, not of speech.

The right to respond is a right in kind: you get to speak back, not threaten or kill.

13. Steve Dalton
14. Jonathan Burrard

It is free speech to say “I think the beliefs of religion X are foolish”. It is not free speech to say “I think the beliefs of religion X are stupid and therefore we should attack anyone who believes in religion X”. That is racism. Many racists whose intention is to stir up hatred of other groups try to disguise their motives by claiming that they are simply exercising their right to free speech. You cannot claim to believe in free speech for yourself and deny it to others.

That’s not racism. It’s incitement to violence. Still wrong, but not racism.

Jonathan Burrard’s argument is the classic argument used by leftie fascists who want to silence anyone they don’t agree with. Burrard may well be right to say that in some cases “racists whose intention is to stir up hatred of other groups try to disguise their motives by claiming that they are simply exercising their right to free speech.” But one could attribute exactly the same violent motives to Muslims exercising their right to free speech, and use that argument to silence Muslims. And given the Muslim tendency to blow up churches Africa and gouge out the eyes of innocent civilians in Keynan shopping malls and elsewhere, the suggestion that Muslims are into hatred and violence is not unreasonable.

In short, trying to silence anyone simply by attributing to them a desire to “stir up hatred” is just no acceptable in a civilised society.

It is not free speech to say “I think the beliefs of religion X are stupid and therefore we should attack anyone who believes in religion X”. That is racism.

It is free speech – and it would still be free speech if it were actually racist.

You might want to look up the distinction between race and religion before you make a dick out of yourself.

18. What'sa matter

Belief systems nor their followers constitue a race of people to equate even attacks on subscribers to a belief system, whether it calls itself a religion, or not, is a idiousy practiced by only the most malignant or cretinous.

19. Steven Clarke

“No. No one cares if you feel hurt”

I think we should care when people feel hurt over certain things, including their religion, even if we don’t think people have a right to be protected by law from being hurt.

By all means count me in for freedom of speech. I want a mature, thick-skinned society that can take a few insults – but not a mean spirited one.

There was nothing offensive or mean spirited about the cartoon.

That’s the point Nawaz was making: that he wasn’t offended and that many other Muslims would not be offended either – but the BBC assumed they would be.

21. What'sa matter

You are just another speech code cheerleader.

Freedom of speech includes the right to offend. You/I are entitled to our opinions but you/I have NO right to censor.

We need to learn from history. The Thirty Years War in Europe from 1618 to 1648 – fought mainly over territories we came to regard as Germany in the late 19th century when the German states were unified under Prussian hegemony – was about the armies of one or another sovereign state trying to install the “correct” brand of Christianity on a neighbouring soverign territory so as to save the souls of its citizens from eternal damnation.

I’ve posted before about the many lunchtime conversations I used to have in the early 1970s with my Indian colleague and friend – he was a lapsed Hindu Brahmin while I was a lapsed Methodist.

Anyway, he predicted then that Muslim countries would face great difficulties in making transitions to multiparty democracies because Islam is a monotheistic theocratic religion which does not tolerate pluralism – hence the continuing conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shias.

He contrasted that with Hinduism, a polytheistic religion with rivalrous deities which makes the notion of a multiparty democracy fairly easy to understand so India since independence has continued to have governments which change through elections and not by military coups or insurrections.

Anyway, he predicted then that Muslim countries would face great difficulties in making transitions to multiparty democracies because Islam is a monotheistic theocratic religion which does not tolerate pluralism – hence the continuing conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shias.

You could make the same argument about Christianity.

25. What'sa matter


That arguement could have been made against the vast majority christians…200 hundred years ago.

In the news:

“NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Discrimination faced by lower-caste communities has not only left millions of people across the world more vulnerable to disasters, but has also resulted in many receiving less aid when a natural calamity strikes, according to a report launched on Tuesday.”

27. Stephen Buckley

Religious War is never about religion. It is propagated by wolves in sheep’s clothing who use religion as a cloak for evil aggression. I am a rational scientist who happens to follow a religion called Unificationism. I believe that there is a first cause to the universe and the motive for that creation was true love. This means all humankind are one family, regardless of race, colour, sexuality or creed. TO MURDER ANOTHER OF GODS CHILDREN IN THE NAME OF FAITH IS AN ABOMINATION. Imagine the Prophet, Imagine Jesus, Imagine the founder of every faith shedding tears due to the bloodshed committed in his name and these unholy wars would cease. Imagine if God himself felt the pain of ever mother, father or child suffering in grief and loss of a loved one. How can you as a believer bring pain to the heart of Allah? Has this world known a single year of peace in the last 100 years? Life is given to us as a miracle, even if we understand its process through science. we have no right to take it from another human being , not through war, not by taking the name of God in vain to justify our crimes, not through abortion for selective gender, not through capitalistic greed that causes half of Africa to starve. The tender morals of the world great religions awaken compassion within the human heart, I am not insulted by the atheist nor the believer of a different creed. I am insulted, nay appalled by mans inhumanity to man.

Imagine if God himself felt the pain of ever mother, father or child suffering in grief and loss of a loved one.

He probably wouldn’t have invented cancer.

This is a comment on your just-broadcasted call for military intervention on the BBC. (There doesn’t seem to be a pertinent, recent blog item on the subject)
I completely disagree with your analysis and campaigned in the blogs and comments and to my MP on this when the vote came to a head last year.
The miserable situation in Syria is not because of lack of intervention, rather this whole situation is entirely because of our wicked intervention, in which the UK has cooperated.
What started out as peaceful protests was quickly usurped into a classic American regime change operation with a blueprint that is little different to their south american adventures in the 50s & 60s.
Create disorder, Send in teams to attack both sides, stir up hatred create chaos and overrun the Govt with a puppet of your choice.
CIA, Saudi Arabia General Intelligence, the Israelis and Qataris in conjunction with support from elements in the Turkish , Jordanian governments as well as our own MI6 and the contractors and our SIGINT base in Cyprus have all created and sustained these atrocities.
They probably expected a quick result and therefore less casualties and if not for internal support for the Assad Govt. Diplomatic and military help from Iran, Russia and China, they might have acheived it.

Your call is to up the Ante and finish the job. This would, I contend result in hundreds of thousands more casualties and, even if the Russians and Iranians let it happen, a chaotic, weak govt with continued guerrilla unrest for years to come (Like Iraq) and more brutality and misery (like Libya) .
Your rational to go in to ensure the extreme jihadists are defeated is ironic and laughable. We shipped many of them in and our allies continue to facilitate arming and financing them. They are now, the only chance to defeat Assad since they hold the military power, have the brutal mindset, the arms and the money. The guys who showed up in Montreux are over. NATO? NATO is a de facto subsiduary of the Pentagon. It and its massive intelligence and Black Ops resources are at the heart of what has gone on so far. Wake up!

Here is my alternative solution: Back channel discussions with Assad to help him a) consolidate power (since he is not as in charge as the media depict)
b) Help him eradicate the Jihadists in return for a promise for fair and free elections when security is returned.

But that wont happen because the forces arrayed have different ambitions. They give nothing for democracy or for causalities for that matter. Each has their different ambitions. e.g. The knocking back of burgeoning Shia up-swell in Iraq and Syria, connecting to Iran. The economic control of gas and oil distribution in the region. The removal of an organized sovereign force with claims on the Golan heights.
This conflict will go on for decades, just remember who started it.

intp1, hats off to you! I would also like to add the example of Afghanistan in the Cold War era, lest we forget the havoc wreaked by US/British backing of the mujahideen then.
It is unfortunate that we live in an age when those who shout the loudest are the only ones heard. It is my contention that religious intolerance is just as destructive as the demand for censorship.
To those who jump at the chance to criticise Islam, you could benefit from a little research before rushing to make a comment. The Orientalist echoes of your comments are embarrassing to say the least.

31. the a&e charge nurse

‘The right to insult all religions is important, and should be cherished’ – indeed, but a right that can only be maintained in any meaningful sense once there are enough secular liberals to protect it.

For example imagine a gay person criticising muslims in a Nigerian sharia court.

Poor old Maajid Nawaz has a lot of explaining to do if he drinks from the same intellectual well as these intolerant bigots.

“I believe that there is a first cause to the universe and the motive for that creation was true love.”

Does that account for all the misery inflicted by earthquakes, tsunamis, pandemics and totalitarian regimes?

Compare this from Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. ” (New Testament: Matthew 5:5) with this by John Kay in Wednesday’s FT: “The world’s rich stay rich while the poor struggle to prosper”

Never mind: Thy will be done.

Why was the allegations of blasphemy , embarrassing

35. the a&e charge nurse

I see the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) have published a statement saying the images were “extremely offensive to believers” of the two faiths and “potentially inflammatory,” and urged the website’s operators to take down the comics at once.
According to the MAB the depiction of the two prophets was “as insulting as those published in Denmark,” reference to the 12 editorial cartoons depicting Prophet Mohamed printed in a Danish newspaper in 2005, sparking widespread anger and protests, and murder.

Yes, liberals like Maajid certainly have their work cut out dealing with cartoon killers.
On a separate note is there any chance a religious scholar might finally pronounce on the correct interpretation of islam, or do we just have to accept that it can mean all things to all people?

36. Churm Rincewind

Er, no, there is no chance that a single scholar can pronounce with finality on the “correct” interpretation of Islam, any more than any single religious scholar can pronounce on the “correct” interpretation of Christianity (otherwise Catholicism and Protestantism could not co-exist) or of Judaism (otherwise Orthodox teaching could not co-exist with Reform Judaism).

A diversity of views and interpretations is common to all world religions. It does not therefore follow that they “can mean all things to all people”. Rather, they can mean different things to different people.

I really don’t care whether the priests and clergy of the churches are inclined to be gay so long as they confine themselves to other consenting adults:

The head of the Anglican Church in Uganda has given a critical response to a letter from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York warning that gays and lesbians should not be victimised.Archbishop Stanley Ntagali responded that “homosexual practice is incompatible with Scripture”.

What strikes me as so curious about all these many pastoral concerns about gays is that no one is invoking the clear scriptural proscriptions against adultery for which the divinely prescribed punishment is death:

“If a man be found lying with a woman married to a husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel” [Deuteronomy 22:22]

Mind you, I can understand why the ecclesiastical hierarchies stay schtum about that. The death penalty for adultery? Think what that would do to Hollywood and to political professionals on both sides of the Atlantic.

And of course there is the future head of the CoE.

Great lets teach kids to start insulting everybody starting in preschool why not its freedom right!

if you are not going to respect peoples beliefs you are asking for trouble.

‘if you are not going to respect peoples beliefs you are asking for trouble’

I tend to agree with you, it appears that the default position for many liberals is based on a negative attitude to a person’s religious beliefs and a right to insult rather than the right of respect. Despite the emphasis on ‘freedom’, liberalism isn’t short of its intellectual fascists.

There’s no doubt that there have been terrible acts committed in the name of religion, there’s also been terrible acts committed in the name of political beliefs (including liberalism).

A neutral approach is best and judgement should be made about the actions of individuals, this is the basis of liberalism, rather than an often loose interpretations of a particular religion.

“And of course there is the future head of the CoE.”

It is probably fortunate that hanging, drawing and quartering is no longer an approved judicial punishment for making treasonable comments about the sovereign. But to return to the main topic, what is deemed heretical or blasphemous tends to change from time to time.

According to respected, mainstream history texts, during the reign of Mary Tudor (1553-58), at least 287 people were burned at the stake for refusing to accept Catholicism, the religion of the sovereign which she was determined to enforce upon her subjects. It was that, I suggest, which turned most people here against the Catholic church.

The attempted invasion of England in 1588 by an Armada from Spain, endowed with a Papal Commission to re-establish the Catholic religion in England, very likely contributed to the popular aversion to that Christian sect. And those sentiments were probably further reinforced by the failed attempt of Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators to blow up Parliament at the State Opening on 5 November 1605.

“Guy Fawkes could have changed the face of London if his 1605 plot had not been foiled, explosion experts have said.”

We are familiar with terrorism. As suggested: we need to learn from history.

‘We are familiar with terrorism. As suggested: we need to learn from history.’

This is a naïve comment from you, just as the interpretation of what is heretical and blasphemous changes over time, so too is the interpretation of what is ‘terrorism’. The State of Israel is often described as being founded upon terrorism but the French Republic is not, and the terror and death committed in the name of liberty during the revolution far eclipsed that in Israel. What we need to learn is how to objectively interpret history leaving out our own particular beliefs.

“What we need to learn is how to objectively interpret history leaving out our own particular beliefs.”

The only way of being sure to do that is to limit ‘history’ to reciting only documented events, which would need to include what Henry VIII had for breakfast on the days he decided to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and then to have Anne Boleyn, whom he married in her place, executed.

Of course, France’s first Republic was started by popular insurrection starting in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille, which may help to explain why France started on its Fifth Republic in 1958. But perhaps better that flexibility than being stuck with the dysfunctional rigidities of a constitutional document originally adopted in 1787 as the US is. We can agree that social preferences evolve and change, which is why adultery is rather more fashionable than it used to be.

David Cameron is a direct descendant of William IV, the son of George III and Queen Victoria’s immediate predecessor as monarch. George III was afflicted by bouts of madness. William IV was survived by eight of the ten illegitimate children he had by the actress, Mrs Jordan, which is how Victoria, his niece, came to be the next monarch in 1837.

That said, even documented historical events are challenged – witness how Stalin had images of Trotsky standing close to Lenin in October 1917 airbrushed from photographs.

Whether we choose to label Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators “terrorists” for their failed attempt to blow up Parliament at the State Opening in November 1605 , after this recent report by the UN, much gratitude is due to our ancestors for preventing Britain from becoming a Catholic country:

“The UN has said that the Vatican should ‘immediately remove’ all clergy who are known or suspected child abusers.

“The UN watchdog for children’s rights denounced the Holy See for adopting policies which allowed priests to sexually abuse thousands of children.

“In a report, it also criticised Vatican attitudes towards homosexuality, contraception and abortion.

“The Vatican responded by saying it would examine the report, but also accused its authors of interference.”

As I’ve already said, liberalism is about the individual, you cannot judge every catholic by the example of priests who abuse or the way the Vatican deals with reports of abuse. Most serial killers in the UK are white and male, does this then mean that they are representative of all white males (rhetorical question only)

From my limited understanding of Catholicism, sexually abusing children isn’t part of the creed.

46. Churm Rincewind

No, freedom of speech does not include an untramelled right to offend. We do not, for example, allow explicit pornography to be freely displayed in shop windows and the mass media. We do not allow racial hatred to be freely expressed in the social media. We do not allow films to display what some may consider cruelty to animals.

Why? Because they offend.

Fifty years ago the people of Britain were outraged by explicit sexual references but had no problem with outright racism. These day we’re not so much bothered by sexual matters, but have moved to curtail the expression of racist views. I have yet to see supporters of free speech standing up to argue for, say, the BNP’s and the EDL’s right to be heard on, say, the BBC.

Sunny Hundal: free speech warrior or total hypocrite?

”The right to insult all religions is important, and should be cherished”

Unless it is the the modern west’s current ‘religion’ the Holocaust

”Holocaust denial is currently a crime in almost 20 countries, most of which are EU members, led by France and Germany. The UK parliament has so far rejected attempts to make Holocaust denial a specific crime – though the plethora of UK laws against hate speech and offensive language make it easy enough for the British authorities to outlaw Holocaust deniers in practice, as with the ban they imposed this week on the anti-Semitic French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala.
Why were all these measures outlawing Holocaust denial imposed in the first place? The fact that most countries did not have such laws until the 1990s suggests the motivation had more to do with contemporary politics than historical events. Amid the uncertainties of the post-Cold War era, striking ‘Never Again’ poses against dead Nazis and a handful of Holocaust deniers gave European politicians an opportunity to make a rare stand for the forces of Good against a clear-cut Evil.”

49. the a&e charge nurse

Salman Rushdie criticised religion and had to go on the run for years to avoid the hit put out in him by Iranian clerics.
To their eternal shame establishment figures in this country sided with those bleating about offence rather than the actual the henchmen who went round wiping out those associated with Rushdie’s book.
(from 0:40)

“From my limited understanding of Catholicism, sexually abusing children isn’t part of the creed.”

Never mind the Creed, what of the practice? Why has the Catholic church in America been paying out billions in compensation to victims? How come the findings of the commissions of inquiry in Belgium and in Ireland?

‘Never mind the Creed,what of the Practice?’

What is being debated here is the right to insult all religions not the practice of those religions. There are so many examples of both individuals and groups using both religions and political ideologies to justify actions that have nothing to do with said religions and ideologies. What you are doing is confusing the two, and that is not very liberal, indeed it is very much akin to the old Catholic notion of punishment of the group for the action of one or a few particular group members.

The Catholic church should pay out compensation to victims, who themselves were probably Catholic. Those victims should not be judged by the actions of their abusers.

In the news:

Witnesses say a mob attacked and killed a Muslim man who was trying to flee from the Central African Republic (CAR), while a Christian was fatally beaten by Muslims in a separate incident.

Both attacks took place in the capital, Bangui, on Friday, the same day an International Criminal Court prosecutor announced she had opened a preliminary probe into alleged “atrocities” in the CAR.

Muslim communities in many towns in the Central African Republic are threatened
from reprisal attacks on civilians, a medical charity has warned.

Medecins Sans Frontieres said violence has reached intolerable and unprecedented levels.

Many thousands of the minority Muslim population have already fled to Chad or Cameroon. [BBC website 7 February 2014]

Freedom to insult religion… but not-so-much when it comes to sacred cows and special causes of the neo-liberal establishment. Or at least go ahead and insult or merely criticize too loudly and risk loss of reputation, loss of friends and possible loss of employment. Just witness the list of penitents on Twitter shamed into apologies for some slightly colorful adjective or other that has drawn outrage from the offended.

People who are cavalier about the right to insult religion… are often less expansive when it comes to groups/people who have acquired a sort of special immunity.

Reactions: Twitter, blogs

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.