The Killing Joke

Are we seriously considering risking the loss of an individual’s liberty, freedom and in some cases their life, because they may offend someone and their beliefs?

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    “A Christian, a Jew and a Muslim walk into a bar…….”

    September 11th 2012. The US Embassy in Benghazi is stormed by a mob of militia, leading to the deaths of the US ambassador and three others. Other violent protests break out in over 20 other countries. The catalyst for these events? The uploading of a video to YouTube. The video lasting 13 minutes and 15 seconds did not show human rights abuses or drone attacks nor did it offer an insight into an overtly robust US middle eastern policy. It showed a tasteless, amateur, badly dubbed and poorly made film entitled “The Innocence of Muslims”. The “film” childishly parodied the Prophet Muhammed in attempt to gain notoriety and illicit a reaction. As the video also led to the minister for Railways in Pakistan offering a bounty of £61,600 for the death of the video’s creator, we can safely assume its creators achieved their goal.

    Are we seriously considering risking the loss of an individual’s liberty, freedom and in some cases their life, because they may offend someone and their beliefs?

    It is well known that for many muslims the portrayal of the Prophet Muhammed is considered blasphemy, and this would be a short article indeed if I was just to state the obvious and say this was an epic overreaction. However, in the aftermath of these events there have been calls for the introduction of a global blasphemy law. For me this is the most worrying aspect of the whole incident, because what we are left with are calls for worldwide limits to be placed on our freedoms of expression.

    In Pakistan, where some of the most fervent protests took place, they already have strict blasphemy laws. These laws in the last two years alone have led to, among others; a mother of five being sentenced to death in 2010, the murder of two politicians opposed to the laws, and let us not forget the recent news of a 14 year old girl with learning difficulties currently facing trial for allegedly burning the Koran.

    Despite this catalogue of injustice, when pressed on the subject the secretary general of the U.N Ban Ki Moon recently told reporters that there should be “limits to the freedom of speech”. Not only is this a direct contradiction of article 19 on the U.N’s universal charter on human rights but it leaves me asking the question; Are we seriously considering risking the loss of an individual’s liberty, freedom and in some cases their life, because they may offend someone and their beliefs?

    A protestor holding an unintentionally ironic placard (Image by sgrah via Flickr)

    At the bottom of this very page (with the comments section) is a quote attributed to Voltaire:

    “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

    It is a sentiment I share, but my argument is that we need not defend it with our lives, we simply need to fight words with more words. This is after all how freedom of speech is supposed to work.

    It would be naivety of the highest order for me to sit here and say that the freedom of speech is not abused. From the lunatics of the Westboro Baptist Church to the attention seeking creators of the aforementioned video, the abuse is frequent and widespread. But how would the introduction of an archaic law stop crackpots, zealots, extremists and narcissists from holding court?

    Unfortunately, due to the poisonous anger and the clamour for law change, the examples of peaceful protests, calls for calm and sensible dialogue have largely been ignored by the mainstream media as they don’t fit in to the stereotype that has been cultivated, of violent tub-thumping and vitriolic fury.

    … examples of peaceful protests, calls for calm and sensible dialogue have largely been ignored by the mainstream media as they don’t fit in to the stereotype that has been cultivated, of violent tub-thumping and vitriolic fury

    This was a stereotype that US publication Newsweek jumped onto with both feet when it published a deliberately provocative article on the protests, entitled “Muslim Rage” (in some would argue a deliberate attempt to increase dwindling sales). This article understandably did not sit well with muslims who saw it as an attempt to stereotype 1.2 billion muslims as violent extremists. But instead of conforming to the stereotype they took to the twittersphere and ridiculed the piece.

    What this ridicule achieved was more than any amount of flag burning or death threats ever could. Its good humour and measured reaction rendered the original piece impotent. The subsequent publicity generated for the piece as a result was redundant because it only went to highlight the fallacy that led to its creation. It also went to show the importance of humour and satire as a powerful political weapon.

    For example, I would be perfectly comfortable allowing the latest hate bringer to verbalise their misguided brain farts in public on the proviso that we continue to allow somebody an equal platform to counter or mock their invective. Imagine for a moment how blunted a message spreading hatred and violence would become if we had somebody copying it directly afterwards through a loud speaker after inhaling helium.

    By banning or demonising something that we disagree with instead of engaging in discourse, we push it to the fringes, inadvertently fuelling the rhetoric and ultimately, give it the kudos that it would not receive or in most cases deserve. The fact that I and millions of others watched the “Innocence of Muslims” as a result of the furore is testament to this.

    Its time we as a society instead of concentrating on restricting our expression, we focused on turning these expressions into a positive, constructive force for good. Only then will we truly see that the pen (on indeed the pun) is mightier than the sword.