Friday, 26 March 2021

Freedom to speak, think and draw is crucial all of us


There are two world views on display in Yorkshire at the moment where there are demonstrations because a teacher showed a cartoon of the Muslim prophet. The first view is commonplace in most countries of the world and was common in Britain too until relatively recently. This is the view that the rules of a religion ought to apply to everyone living in society. The second world view developed mainly in Western societies over the past few hundred years is that a person’s religious belief ought to be free, which has the consequence that what I believe cannot compel you to do something.

During the age of the Tudors and Stewarts, what a King or Queen believed affected what everyone else believed. If a Queen was a Protestant, Catholics might be persecuted and vice versa. Gradually over the centuries we moved away from the idea that the various rules of Christianity could be enforced. The ability to think freely was one of the factors that led to scientific discovery and new developments in art, literature and technology.

But most countries in the world had neither a Renaissance, a Reformation nor a scientific revolution. For this reason, they never developed the idea that there was such a thing as freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and freedom of thought. In many countries there is no real distinction between religious belief and the law.

In Britain we accept that the state cannot compel its citizens to hold religious beliefs. It cannot force us to go to Church on Sundays nor to follow the rules of Christianity. But anyone who is a Christian can believe what he pleases and follow whatever rules the Church tells him.

Those Muslims who are complaining about a cartoon of the prophet that was shown in a school have freedom of religion. No one is forcing them to draw cartoons of the prophet. They can follow all the Islamic rules they wish and go to the mosque as often as they want. But this is not enough for them.

In Islam there is a rule forbidding depiction of the prophet and indeed other religious figures such as Jesus, Moses, and Abraham. But clearly while Muslims may forbid Muslims to do any of these things, they cannot reasonably forbid Christians or Hindus from doing them too. If they could then Muslims could shut down all the galleries in Britain that have paintings of Jesus and they could also shut down all of the pubs and butchers selling bacon.

But if Muslims could do these things, we would not have freedom of conscience in Britain rather we would have Muslim rules being applied to other believers and non-believers. This isn’t tolerance, but rather intolerance.

The only way that people following different religions, and none can live together tolerantly is if no one forces anyone else to follow rules based on religion. If any one religion can impose itself on those who don’t believe in it, then we will be returning to the intolerant times of the Tudors and Stewarts.

It may be however that Muslims are not so much complaining about the prophet being depicted but rather about him being shown in an insulting way. In that case what they would want would be for it to be forbidden for anyone in Britain to say or write or draw anything insulting about the prophet.

But would these rules apply to every religious figure? In that case it would be forbidden to say something insulting about Jesus. But what If Christians found it insulting to deny that Jesus existed or that he was the son of God. The problem here is that Muslims deny that Jesus was the son of God and deny that he died on the cross and was resurrected. But Christians might find this just as insulting as a cartoon depicting the prophet.

Part of being able to have freedom of thought and speech is being able to research and study religion. Christians initially found the work of Darwin to be insulting because it questioned the ideas put forward in Genesis. But If we had allowed Christians to stop Darwin writing freely on the ground that they would be insulted, then much of modern science would never have been discovered.

We cannot allow a group of religious believers to have a veto on what other people can say or do. Islam is as worthy a subject for study as Christianity, but it cannot be that everyone in Britain is forbidden to say anything critical about the prophet. If that were the case, then it would be impossible to write about the history of Islam. If it were forbidden to draw cartoons of the prophet, how long before it would be forbidden to criticise the Quran or Islamic law or indeed the actions of Muslims both now an in the past. If today we are to forbid cartoons of the prophet because Muslims are offended by them, who knows what Muslims will be offended by tomorrow. They might find the presence of beer in supermarkets insulting or the smell of sausages at a barbecue offensive.

There must be times when to understand recent history it is necessary to show certain cartoons that explain for instance the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015. But we ought not to seek to offend other people just for the sake of it. I would do my best to avoid offending Muslims, while trying to get across to them the idea that they most of all benefit from freedom of religion in Britain. We must not gratuitously seek to offend anyone, but we must be allowed to depict the truth as we feel it and think it, and this may involve drawing cartoons of the prophet, Jesus or anyone else.

If religious belief is strong, then it can easily withstand scholarship that doubts it and satire that mocks it. Christians initially found it painful when Britain first moved away from Christianity being a religion that was obligatory and became a religion that could be attacked both by science and the theology of Biblical criticism. Fundamentalism was no longer tenable intellectually and few retained the idea that the world was created in six days. Christianity could be mocked and doubted and rejected. But Christians living today are still free to believe what we wish and nearly all would prefer to live in a country with freedom of thought than at a time when you could be burned at the stake or have your head chopped off for disagreeing with a king about religion.

Freedom of religion is vital for all believers and for those who believe in nothing. People with a minority belief should be particularly careful about limiting the rights of other people, to think, or speak or draw. What if a majority in the future should discover aspects of Islam to be offensive or insulting? Who would then defend Muslims right to believe what they pleased? It would be no use relying on freedom of religion if it had already been squandered over a row about cartoons.