No, I’m not going to tell a religious joke here on the blog, but I will staunchly defend anyone’s right to poke fun or criticize religion (or anything else) on the pretext of free speech. Defending religious sensibility, however, has become the latest front in a war pursued by diverse politicians to curtail free speech.
There has been much attention, for example, on efforts by leaders of Muslim states—from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai—to outlaw Islamophobia which, despite its name, has less to do with “fear” of Islam and more to do with constraining an internal debate about some of its more noxious interpretations.
It would be wrong to single out leaders of majority-Muslim states for seeking to muzzle criticism and parody of religion at the expense of free speech or open debate. According to Russia’s Channel One (as translated by the Open Source Center), Russian parliamentarians have again approved a ramped-up anti-blasphemy law:
If the bill makes it through both houses of parliament and is then signed into law by Putin, those suspected of breaching its provisions will be liable to criminal prosecution. Those found guilty of “behavior in public that shows clear disrespect for society and is aimed at offending religious feelings” will face a fine of up to R3,000 (just under 100 dollars) or up to one year in prison. If the offense occurs in a place of worship, the maximum penalty will be a fine of R5,000 (just over 150 dollars) or up to three years in prison.”
It was an earlier iteration of this blasphemy law that Russian President Vladimir Putin used to send members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot to prison. Pussy Riot’s performance might not be my cup of tea—and their staging it impromptu in a cathedral certainly demonstrates bad taste—but bad taste is often a characteristic of youth.
The assault on free speech is not simply an Islamist problem, but now goes much deeper. It is simply the latest tactic for autocrats to achieve their desired result of muzzling speech and individual liberty. The fact that the erosion of rights is conducted in the name of tolerance and other buzzwords of the human rights community shows both how cynical autocrats have become and how politicized the human rights community is today. The tyranny of political correctness is far from defeated.