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Freedom of Speech in the Age of Religious Intolerance

“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

¬Salman Rushdie

Lately, when I turn on the television set, all the news channels have been engrossed with the reporting of a Muslim boy beaten by the rabble, and  who eventually succumb to the injuries.  It has been said that the attack was directly related to the objectionable picture of Hindu deity being uploaded on a social website. But, this is not the first case, where somebody was being targeted due to their action or statement  referred to the religious faith of a community. In 2011, Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer was assassinated due to his comment in an interview about the country’s blasphemy law. Whenever any statement or action taken, which touches on the religious belief of a community, people tends to seem so intolerant that they are even ready to kill someone, just because that person holds an opinion, which is not similar to their religious belief.

In today’s world, most of the states, including the most liberal ones are facing the issue of conflicting rights of religion and freedom of speech. The right to freedom of speech and religious rights stood at extreme ends at several instances, such as the Mohammed cartoon crisis or attacks on Taslima Nasrin due to her statement on the Quran. Other sources could be banning books like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verse, Gerhard Haderer’s cartoon book The Life of Jesus (though revived later), Aubrey Menen’s The Ramayana;and moviessuch as Noah (2014), Vishwaroopam (2013), Innocence of Muslim (2012), Da Vinci Code (2006), etc. Another  instance could be banning the painting of the great Indian artist M. F. Hussien and controversy regarding the video game Hitman 2. On one hand, the creators of these controversial works argue that any law seeking to restrict their work amounts to a violation of the sacrosanct right of freedom of expression, which is the bedrock of any democratic society. While on the other hand, religious communities feel outraged that their religious beliefs and sacred symbols are mocked or insulted.

Have we ever wondered how many people support this religious intolerance, which calls out for banning the works or killing someone? In fact, half of the people aren’t even aware of the objectionable content that led to a whole chaotic situation. They just blindly follow the minority of radicals without using their own rationale to analyse the situation and to come to a conclusion. It would be worth noting that some of the books remained in shelf for years until it grabs attention of someone. Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History was published in 2010 by Penguin India, but banned in 2014. From 2010 to 2014 it remained in the market without any huge controversy until a case was filed  against it by an RSS member. So, why is that a book which was available in the market for so long, suddenly began to hurt the religious sentiment? The answer lies in the  latent role of political parties or religious groups,  which use communal politics to aggravate the situation.

Thus, to make the world more democratic, do we need to completely proscribed the scrutiny of the statements or any work?  No, I certainly don’t mean that. The creator or orator has to realize that they are two kinds of actions: self-regarding and other-regarding. And, when their acts are other regarding, then the opinion must be represented in a more intellectual way and action must be conducted with a certain measure of responsibility. But, at the same time people should provide a place for fresh interpretation and ideas to fill in the loopholes of one’s faith. There is a high possibility that due to our great emotional outlook to our religious belief, we might end up scraping up a valid argument. Thus, we must realize that a fact remains a fact only until it is proven wrong.

About the Author

picLoveleena Sharma has completed her graduation in Political Science from Delhi College of Arts and Commerce. And, with her ardent interest in International Relations, is now pursuing her Masters in International Relations from the South Asian University. She is interested in subjects like Foreign Policy, Conflict Transformation and Peace Building, South Asian studies, etc. She has earlier interned at DLSA (Delhi Legal State Authority). She has also volunteered at Amaani, for the education of the underprivileged children. She has an inclination towards theatre, and has performed in various competitions during her graduation. She is currently pursuing her internship with Alexis Centre for Public Policy and International Relations.

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