I’ll just say what’s on my mind.
There have been a variety of mixed reactions to Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee’s recent actions, where they made a Ramadan greeting poster of them eating pork (Bak Kut Teh to be exact), which is forbidden in Islam. And I respect that everyone has their own personal opinion on it. Some may find it amusing, some may find it horrible. The general sentiment of late has been anger, resentment and hatred. Disgust, even. I personally find their actions to be quite crass, although not to the extent of anger, and especially not to the extent that I have to bundle an innocent man up and scrawl ‘Hina Islam’ on his body. As a believer in discourse and debate to enrich our society, I feel that the constructive criticism of religion should be encouraged. Let’s not bastardize the word ‘criticism’ and accept that it is a necessary part of intellectual discussion and the growth of knowledge.
According to the Collins English Dictionary,
criticism [ˈkrɪtɪˌsɪzəm] n
- the act or an instance of making an unfavourable or severe judgment, comment, etc
- (Fine Arts & Visual Arts / Art Terms) (Literary & Literary Critical Terms) the analysis or evaluation of a work of art, literature, etc.
- (Fine Arts & Visual Arts / Art Terms) (Literary & Literary Critical Terms) the occupation of a critic
- (Literary & Literary Critical Terms) a work that sets out to evaluate or analyse
- (Literary & Literary Critical Terms) Also called textual criticism the investigation of a particular text, with related material, in order to establish an authentic text
Criticising religion does not seem so much like a bad thing after all. I think the main focus is on the first definition: ‘making an unfavourable or severe judgment, comment, etc’. What is unfavourable? What can be unfavourable for a Jehovah’s Witness may not be favourable to a Roman Catholic. What can be unfavourable to me might be just alright with my friend.
If we recall Irshad Manji’s bold, intriguing book, ‘Allah, Liberty and Love’, which was somehow construed as an attack on Islam in Malaysian society (how can that pretty little lady hurt a fly?), there is a certain sense of insecurity and prejudice when one says ‘let’s not criticise other religions’, for we often forget that the world is made up of millions of belief systems that often conflict with each other in day-to-day affairs, which should not be simply ignored, but talked about, discussed, the concepts embraced, the differences acknowledged and the similarities cherished together. Debates on whether ‘Christianity or Islam is better’ should happen, but in a self-respecting (e.g. NOT hurling personal attacks at each other) and scholarly manner. Debates on whether Christianisation is rampant in the US, or Islamisation encroaches on the beliefs of non-Muslims in Malaysia, must always be allowed, and not silenced by a simple ‘let’s jail everyone who criticises religion’.
What about those who insult religion? It is not easy to divorce criticism from insult, as we will see later.
Offence and hurt
We have been taught, since a very tender age, that we should not disparage other religions and we have to respect each other. I am completely fine with that. But what do we do when someone does disparage someone’s religion? Do we hit the person? Do we tell the police? Do we jail the offender? Do we tell the State to execute all of those who offends the sentiments of the faithful? The answers to these questions were, unfortunately, not provided to us in our Moral and Civic textbooks, so we naturally look to the majority consensus to figure out how we must deal with the offenders. The question is, how right are they? In some countries, blasphemy is a crime punishable by death. So technically if I say ‘god does not exist’ in those places, I would be either shot dead by an angry mob or hanged by the State. That does not seem very fair, because my non-belief should be just as respected as any other belief, so long that I do not impose my expectations on others.
The problem is, it is difficult to decide what types of criticisms or insults of religion should be punishable by the State, and what criticisms of religion should be encouraged to contribute to intellectual discourse. If we lose the ability to critically view religion, we lose everything else, for there are religious teachings (whether or not they are true) that have harmed innocent people (Malala Yousafzai) and stifle progress.
Besides that, who will be the ones responsible to choose which religious criticisms are important to intellectual thought and which ones are not? With all the offence and hurt that can arise from hearing that one’s religious convictions are wrong, one must keep calm and stay rational about it, because that is the only righteous way.
Once upon a time, I used to think that all forms of hate speech should be banned. That sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic slurs should be banished from the community and they should be punished for what they have said (note: nothing to do with their physical actions).
Then one day, I realised that it would be a severe impediment to progress if we do so. For who will draw the line between the constructive and the destructive? A picture can be offensive to 10 but not offensive to 100. Do we then hide the picture, to be banished for all eternity? What if those who are responsible for drawing the line, are corruptible and biased? What do we do then? If we lock up those who “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against” the government or engender “feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races, what if the powerful use it as a tool to lock up innocent people, or political dissenters? How about those who oppose government policies that deal with sensitive racial matters – do we lock them up too? With such wide discretionary powers given by vaguely worded phrases that have severe implications, I daresay laws such as the Sedition Act 1948 put our democracy (well, what’s left of it) at stake.
Freedom of speech includes freedom to make hateful, negative remarks
With that said, criticising or insulting religion does not merit jail time, because as I have repeated time and time again, everyone has a different level of tolerance or sensitivity. Some Muslims may find the depiction of Muhammad insulting, other Muslims may not. Some Christians will be hurt if you tell them that Jesus is a symbol, but other Christians may actually believe so. A joke that tells women to return to their kitchens may make a woman furious, and another woman may not think it is such a big deal. Again, I ask – who will decide what is insulting and what is not? Surely we can’t go with the majority. The majority view may be tyrannical or unfair, just like how I would be executed (by the State, no less) for airing my non-belief in Iran.
SO, what do we do with the Alvivis and Ibrahim Alis if there are no laws to silence them?
DROWN THEM WITH LOVE.
Compassion. If you are offended/insulted by what they say, then talk about it. Talk about the issues. Chastise them if you want to, chastise them hard, but do not involve the State and do not harm them. Do not stoop to their level. That’s how you fight, not with archaic laws that stifle people and oppress honest opinions. We should realise that religious opinions, like political views, can be construed in different ways by different people. Being offended does not make you a victim of a crime. What crime? Maybe in moral terms it is a crime, but legally speaking, it is not so easy to punish those who, for lack of a better phrase, piss you off. Too much is at stake when you make too much leeway for the authorities to persecute people.
Furthermore, let us not forget what the Sedition Act 1948 has done to many good men and women. In recent events, PKR vice-president Tian Chua, PAS leader Tamrin Ghafar, activists Haris Ibrahim, Hishamuddin Rais and Safwan Anang were charged with uttering seditious words during a May 13 forum. I have seen many who, during the time of their arrest, were so abhorred by the Sedition Act. Now that the exact same tool is used against people they don’t particularly like, they suddenly leap to support the move. It is very tempting to say that it could be a ploy to make the people forget about the controversial aspect of silencing political dissent.
I am not an apologetic of Alvivi, but nevertheless, they should not be punished for their speech. Freedom of speech also gives the freedom to insult and offend, for the reasons stated above. It doesn’t matter who you are and what you say, but I will defend your freedom to express yourself without being censored by the powerful.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” -Evelyn Beatrice Hall (yes, not Voltaire)
And as lawyer Syahredzan Johan once said,
”I’m sorry, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with being offended. It is human nature to take offence. But to forgive when offence has been taken, even when that offence goes to your very core, that is divine.
You may be offended, and no one should tell you you should not be offended. But do not drag the State into it. It should not be the State’s business to punish those who offended you.“