Blasphemy and Freedom of Speech

The deadly terror attack on French weekly Charlie Hebdo has put the debate over blasphemy back in the spotlight.

Although people across the globe condemn the attack, disagreement persists on whether Charlie Hebdo’s publication of religious caricatures itself was justified.

This disagreement is not alien to the Indonesian public. We had our own debates on blasphemy. The criminalization of Rakyat Merdeka online (2006) and The Jakarta Post (2014) over the publication of certain allegedly religiously offensive cartoons are but a few examples.

In such cases, we deal with the same question over and over again: Does freedom of speech include blasphemy? The answer proposed by some is a simple “No”. Freedom of speech does not include the right to engage in blasphemous activities.

There must be some limit to freedom. As convenient as the answer may be, it cannot withstand logical and practical tests. There are at least two reasons why a more reasonable answer to the question is actually an affirmative one.

Firstly, we cannot cherry-pick which speech acts ought to be free and which not. Something can be offensive only for those who believe in or identify themselves as a part of the entity being offended.

If we have to ban things considered blasphemous because they offend people of a certain religion, then why should other groups, be it religious or secular, not be allowed to demand a ban on things they consider offensive?

To give an example, if we agree to ban cartoons of religious figures because they blaspheme a religion, what would we say if members of a political party ask us to ban unbecoming portrayals of their dear party leaders?

Some might say that comparing prophets to politicians is not justified, but again prophets are prophets only for those who believe they are prophets. For others who do not follow the religion or for those who are atheist altogether, prophets are just humans.

For party fanatics, politicians can even be prophets.

From this perspective, it is clear how the concept of blasphemy forces people to agree on who is beyond reproach and who is not, even if those people actually disagree with the answer.

Second, suppose that by some miracle and hypocrisy the world came to an agreement that anyone but holy figures could be portrayed negatively. In that instance, another question would then arise: how negative is negative?

As a Catholic, I find a poem by poet Joko Pinurbo, Celana Ibu (Mother’s shorts), beautiful as it describes Jesus and Mary’s relationship in a down-to-earth way. Others, however, might find the poem offensive.

How could the most sacred moment in the Christian faith (the resurrection) be reduced to something about Mary giving Jesus shorts to go to heaven? The shorts are not even branded or expensive, just something Mary had sown herself.

The same is the case with caricatures of Islam. Some of my Muslim friends find them simply something done in bad taste whereas others immediately get angry.

I believe the late chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid would have laughed over them, while the late Osama bin Laden perhaps would have issued a death fatwa. Whose standard of “negative” should we use? The most extreme one or the least? Gus Dur’s or Bin Laden’s?

Anyone planning to ban blasphemy must think about who should be given the authority to decide what is blasphemous and what is not. Social constructs, including blasphemy, are in the eye of the beholder.

There is no universally acceptable metric to measure it. People of the same religion might have different opinions of what constitutes a religious transgression. That Taliban believes women going to school is against Islam while other Muslims believe that women have the right to an education; this shows how subjective religious interpretation can be.

“What then?”, one may ask. Should we just let people blaspheme religion whenever they wish? It is sobering to remember what makes seemingly blasphemous cartoons powerful. It is not their artistry, large circulation or strong message. Rather, it is the audience’s reaction.

A reactive audience, inadvertently, makes such cartoons not only widely talked but also look true.

In that sense, we in Indonesia actually already know what to make of the cartoons. We just do not have the maturity yet to practice it.

An old saying goes anjing menggonggong kafilah berlalu or “the dogs bark and the men continue”. In this sense, blasphemy is nothing more than a dog barking. If the men continue and give no attention to the barks, the barks will eventually become quiet.

We know for sure that many offensive cartoons did not make headlines simply because no attention was given to them.

What makes things complicated is if the men, probably because they somehow feel offended by the barks, decide not to continue walking but to bark back at the dogs. That would make an ugly scenery and that, rather than the original barking, is what invites even more barks. –

Published by the Jakarta Post daily:


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