30 January 2012

Two talks on blasphemy and free speech

Last Saturday the Centre for Inquiry UK held a conference in London on “the criminalization of religious hatred, defamation, and insult under European human rights, and how this functions as a de facto blasphemy law”. The event, aptly named ‘Blasphemy!’, featured two intellectuals who I admire – writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik, and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. They each gave a speech at the conference, and have posted transcripts on their respective blogs. Their talks focused on different issues (though with some overlap) while showing their distinctive communication styles.

Malik talked about, among other things, the connection between the concept of blasphemy and the retention of power by individuals with a vested interest in taking offense when their beliefs and values are challenged or criticised. He laid out in detail the historical, political and social context in which current controversies surrounding blasphemous cartoons and literature are playing out, and argued his case in his usual measured yet sharply critical way.

Namazie spoke passionately on how charges of blasphemy/offense and ‘Islamophobia’ act as “secular fatwas”, their purpose being to silence dissent and curtail free speech. Her talk also touched on the cartoon controversy, with her fierce criticisms mainly directed at the misplaced political correctness of those who sought to censor the cartoons out of ‘respect’ for Muslims. Namazie is more truculent than Malik in her approach, but her arguments are no less valid for that.

I’m with them both on this. Malik’s deep contextual knowledge and Namazie’s righteous anger make a powerful combination. Those of us who treasure freedom of expression and detest religious tyranny are fortunate to have these two champions batting for our team.


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