Q: What is the obligation of a Western, democratic government to protect individual freedoms in light of a realistic terrorist threat? Are the producers of South Park right to forfeit their freedom of expression in the interests of protecting their employees? Are the governments of Europe right to ban burqas in the interest of fostering a more open society?
There are several related issues here, including freedom of individual expression and the responsibility of democratic governments to protect their citizens’ rights to practice their religions. First of all, democratically oriented governments should place central importance on the support and protection of individual freedom of expression. All the major power players in such countries, from the military to the media, should have this among their top priorities. When people have the freedom to express themselves without fear of retaliation, only then can the creative potential of the individual and the society blossom. Obviously, there will be some misuse of that freedom, but that is a small price for having freedom.
On the other hand, when governments or religions restrict expression either out of fear or out of the desire for centralized control in the hands of the powerful, then oppression can be the only result. Those who restrict the freedom of expression are not supporting democracy, they are diminishing it. A nanny state is not a free one. From time to time, I ask my foreign born students who have immigrated to the U.S. why they decided to do so. The answer I most often hear is “freedom.”
Add to this the fact that one of the central elements of the major religious traditions is freedom, although it is understood differently in each. In Judaism, freedom from bondage and oppression has been pivotal; in Christianity, the goal is freedom from sin and subsequent damnation. In the Dharma Traditions, Buddhism seeks freedom from attachment, while Hinduism promotes the concept of freedom from ignorance and illusion.
Thus, freedom for individuals to believe and practice as they choose is important, but freedom for others to criticize those beliefs and practices must go hand in hand. For years in America, people have publically criticized Christianity in various writings and in multiple art forms, such as the photography of Andres Serrano (“Piss Christ”) or Renee Cox, or pieces such as Chris Ofili’s rendition of Virgin Mary with elephant dung on it. While such presentations stimulated outrage and complaints, the government took no action against the artists, many people supported their actions as expressions of free speech, and violence rarely resulted. That is democracy in action.
While it is from within the ranks of Islam and Christianity that the loudest complaints are heard today when someone is critical of these belief systems, Muslims and Christians have themselves been the largest practitioners of religious intolerance throughout their histories. They have regularly criticized, denigrated, oppressed, and even destroyed the beliefs, practices, and followers of other religious traditions in their midst. It is this type of hypocritical behavior that cuts at the very foundation of freedom of expression, and this is what governments should fight against.
Unfortunately, in recent decades, many supposedly democratic governments seem to react to religious intolerance by radicals with fear instead of strength and resolve. They allow themselves to be intimidated. When intimidation and threats of violence are successful as tools to suppress others, then those who use them are emboldened. As they do so, truth and morality are their first victims, with freedom of expression soon to follow.
Elridge Cleaver, leading member of the Black Panther Party, popularized a statement written years before by Sydney J. Harris and which has as much relevance today, “If you are not a part of the solution, then you are a part of the problem.” If we as individuals and as societies do not work to diminish the effectiveness of fear and intimidation as tools of the narrow-minded and the violent, then we are helping to further their usage.
Violence and intolerance are pathologies that cannot be cured by fear any more than AIDS or cancer can be cured by fear. They must be confronted and fought with whatever tools or medicines work. Mahatma Gandhi based much of his social and religious beliefs and actions on two concepts that have ancient roots in the Hindu tradition, truth and non-violence. He saw them both as being rooted in strength and was clear in distinguishing non-violence from cowardice, which he considered as worse than violence. He utilized a non-violent strength in his approach to dealing with all the hatred and intolerance that he encountered. He called fear a disease that kills the soul, and he adamantly asserted, “There would be no one to frighten you if you refuse to be afraid.” If democratic governments showed the kind of strength that Gandhi lived, the situation today would be very different.
One of the reasons that various western countries are now considering burqa bans of one sort or another is a direct result of fear of Muslims. Although this fear comes from the increasing violence caused by a fringe and radical minority, the violence is becoming, in the minds of more and more westerners, associated with the religion itself. Many see their respective governments as being intimidated by the violence and threats thereof and reacting out of fear rather than strength and resolve. As a consequence, many people are looking for other ways to assuage their own fears and frustrations. Since banning Islam would not only be a terrible thing to do, it would also be impossible due to individual rights laws in those countries. Instead and unfortunately, people are pushing their legislators to enact restrictive laws, and these are being directed at the most visible representation of Islam, burqa-clad women.
When countries begin to address issues of violence with both rationality and resolve instead of intimidation and fear, I believe such misdirected laws will fade away, as they must if real freedom is to exist. The balancing act for governments will be between freedom of expression and protection of religious rights. This is not easy, but western governments must stop being afraid and address the situation with both strength and fairness, not cowardice.