Saturday, December 15, 2007

Free Speech and Blasphemy

On my earlier post on Free Speech and Islam, and the importance of being able to offend people to protect the right of free speech, Blue Chi made a good point, 'What about blasphemy then?'

It is true that in some European countries Blasphemy (though you should note, usually only against the Christian faith) is, in theory, illegal, but it is usually because of very old laws that would not be used today and have just never been formally repealed. As you'll detect, I'm more in favour of the USA system, which is more liberal and you can be as blasphemous as you like.

To the question of making blasphemy illegal, my response would be:
1/ Why? I'd have thought that God was big and powerful enough to defend him/her self. What's wrong with good old lightening bolts for christ's sake?
2/ Exactly what is blasphemy? Who decides? You? Some judge? The head Mullah of Iran? Or Sudan? My crazy neighbour? How offensive do you have to be to be officially blasphemous?
3/ Which religions deserve such protection? Just the big 3 of Christianity/Islaam/Judaism? What about Mormons? Hindus? Or Scientologists? Or Moonies? Rastafarianism? Or just the one that is true?
4/ What about the intra-religious schisms? Is a Shiite follower allowed to call a Sunni an apostate and state his religion is total crap and point out the prescribed penalty for being an apostate? What about Protestants who don't agree with the Catholics that the Holy Mass transmogrifies bread into the physical flesh of Christ? Is being atheist a religion?
5/ Is legalising homosexuality blasphemous? Abortion? Sex education? Evolution? What about a really good joke about 'a Priest, A Rabi and an Immam'?
6/ What's the punishment for blasphemy? Death? Fine? Lashing?

It's a total mess of a law and of an idea.

Much better, IMHO, is that people who choose to believe in supernatural beings [or who choose to believe in an absence of supernatural beings] get a thicker skin and have faith that their god (or gods) can look after themselves. The Christians seem to have taken this approach over the past few 100 years, and thus today content themselves with peaceful protest. For example, as the Catholics did over the movie 'The last temptation of Christ' or 'The Life of Brian'. Can you imagine the reponse to a muslim version of the Life of Brian? I’d predict a serious lack of humour.

In fact, maybe it's just the atheists and the Buddhists who need legal protection, as after all, they are the only ones without an activist superpowerful god to protect them. ;-)

Similarly, some European countries make it illegal to 'Deny the Holocaust', mainly as a way of more easily controlling those pesky neo-nazis (who do admittedly have a history of acting in rather problematic ways, like shooting people and taking over the country and invading their neighbours). Again, rather than extending such restrictive laws to such dubious realms as religious protection, I would rather repeal them.

I'll repeat – I do not think that protecting everybody from being offended is a basis for controlling people's speech. And that includes religion. Any religion. Including yours Blue Chi.


  1. There are many actions that society considers a crime (or illegal or immoral) without necessarily having any other actual identifiable individual affected as victims.

    Swearing in public is considered a criminal offence in many countries in the world. Why is it so, who determines which words are offensive, and who decides in which specific contexts are you allowed to swear legally and other not. Society decides, and it might not always makes sense why it does, but it has the right to.

    Each country has its own cultural characteristics that lead to the creation of a unique set of rules in that society.

    Why is kissing in the public acceptable in the west, why is adult material shown on regular tv in some European countries, why is nudity considered offensive in some places and not others.

    Do you think that you have the right to masturbate with your clothes on in the public in the US or the UK?

    Our moral values differ, but we have the right to create our own set of rules that reflect our culture and resemble our identity, if the majority of the members of our society agree that certain actions are offensive to its members then that should be respected. The fact that you come from a different background where your moral values differ does not mean that these are better or worse than ours, and just the same way you have the right to criticize our culture, the least decent thing you can do is respect it.

  2. Blue Chi,

    I think we've started talking at cross-purposes. I'm talking about the philopospical basis of Free Speech in 'The West', and why protecting everybody from being offended by speech - words, ideas, verbal statements - is not compatable with what I consider Free Speech.

    That other societies, like say Oman, may choose to do things differently is fine by me. I just want to point out that laws to stop people being offensive or blasphemous to segments of society is not compatible with that concept of Free Speech.

    I am trying to explain why Muslims who either live in the west, or interact with the west, cannot and should not expect to be 'protected' from such vocalised/printed ideas or statements just because they consider them to be offensive or blasphemous. Attempts to do so will, I believe, be counter-productive.

    Most of the examples you raise are 'Acts', and you're right, there are often very different standards applied. And we could engage in a similar debate about what underpins a reasonable philosophy of the regulation of 'Acts' too. For example, Denmark made waves world-wide in the 70s by deciding to allow public nudity, so-called hard-core pornography and even public sexual acts to be not illegal.

    So, back to Free Speech. In Oman, or any other country I choose to be in, yes, I have an obligation to respect the local laws. But I don't have to think they are good laws, or sensible.

    WRT religion, while I personally stand by your right to think what ever you want, and to worship in a way that doesn't adversely impact others, I just wanted to explain that in the secular West you don't have a right for your religion or belief to be respected 'no matter what'.

  3. Interesting thread going on here... I was going to tell you all a story about a friend of mine who's being blackmailed by a terrible driver he flipped the bird to but I cant really be bothered to figure a way of adding it to the conversation. So i just rambled it out here instead :P

    "Free Speech" and "Oman" are two things that do not fit together! (thats the same for many other countries, but we're all here so I used that as an example).

    blue_chi - yes, every nation has the right to create their own set of rules that reflect their culture, but the last time I checked, rap music, souped up Mustang GT's and designer clothes were not a part of Omans national heritage, but its somehow accepted here.

    If Oman wants to join the rest of the developed world and adopt various elements of Western life, then Oman needs to learn to adapt to changing values. Be it freedom of speech or being able to receive an insult without getting so wound up because their 'honour' was insulted. So what if a couple kisses in public - its not your business. Also, to be quite honest, the behaviour of a large majority of Omani men towards my wife is just down-right unacceptable and if I were not afraid of being kicked out of the country for sticking up for ourselves I suspect there would of been a few fights by now. Last time I checked, leering at a persons body as if they were a sex-object was exceptionally rude. but I guess thats ok because no one said anything.

  4. UD,

    I would like to point out that choosing to go out nude, kissing in the public, and broadcasting whatever one desires on TV are all forms of the freedom of expression, just like speech.

    I thought that the topic was about Sudan and the Arab culture, when were talking about what Muslims should expect when they go to the west?


    Yes, we should let people kiss in the public so that we can join the developed world.

  5. blue chi.

    You cant have your cake and eat it. If you want running water from your taps, your sewerage piped away, street lights to work at night, roads to be paved, to drive flashy cars (or any cars for that matter) to use a mobile phone, to use a computer, go on the internet, to buy a plasma tv, to have modern football stadiums and all the rest of things that Oman is fourtunate to have. If you want all of those things, and more, for your country, then you have to accept that Oman as a country is changing its values.

    I totally agree, if a couple make out in public, that is a little uncomfortable, but a peck on the cheek? This is what i'm talking about. People look at us weirdly just for holding hands in public.

    Your argument of wanting to create your own set of rules that reflect your culture and resemble your identity is flawed. It is flawed because I see so many Omani's wearing designer sunglasses, driving huge gas-hungry SUV's, blasting out modern music (Pioneer stickers in back windows anyone?), new bar's opening, old bar's re-furbishing (emphasis on BAR, IE serving ALCOHOL - something I thought Muslims were not allowed to consume). MAC makeup and all the other expensive brands freely available here. Toyota have the biggest car showroom in the world here. Oman's culture already changed, so what are you trying to protect? Your right to copy the western world?

    The fundamental difference is the governing religion. Here it's Muslim, there is Christian. There are plenty of documented examples of free speech in the West. I am struggling to find many for the middle east. Considering that Sharia law is the ruling law here, and it isnt in the West, I cant help but feel that religion plays a large part in the concept of free speech. The Catholic religion had to adapt its methodology to cater to it's audience. For too long has religion been a basis for law. Look at it's track record - untold numbers of deaths over the centuries because 'my God is better than your God'. Business, fundamental concepts of right and wrong and common sense should be the basis of Law. I say again - so what if a couple hold hands in public, so what if they kiss. IT IS NOT YOUR BUSINESS. They may not beleive in the same God as you, they may be agnostic or atheists - my point is that by holding hands or a simple kiss (not a snog!) shouldnt be construed as something that offends you.

    Oman is unique in the GCC because lets face it, Oman is a beautiful place. There are mountains, beaches, valleys, wadi's, deserts, forts and many more great things. Oman has these things in abundance, and is, I firmly beleive, going to become a primary vacation destination for those wanting to get out of europe.

    Did you know that earlier this year a German woman, visiting Salalah was gang raped and murdered? Apparently she was 'asking for it' because she was on the beach in a bikini. I'm betting you didnt know, because that news was censored (another example of how free speech doesnt exist here).

    Oman WILL become more popular with tourists, and as an Omani you WILL have to learn how to accept that people WILL publicly display their affection for one another, and as long as Oman promotes tourism then this will be an ever growing issue.

  6. Anon [can you give yourself a nickname? You'll still be anonymous!] and Blue Chi. Again, thanks for the comments.

    Anon - I'm not convinced aspects of the western lifestyle demand western values, but the tourist aspect is a potential problem. Do you have a link to any data/info behind your German Tourist 'fact'?

    Blue Chi, the West doesn't agree with the teddy bear thing at all. Same with the response to the Danish Cartoons. They think its crazy, and Free Speech is a reason for the vehement reaction on Amjad's blog.

    Freedom of Expression is a lot more than Free Speech, and I agree all societies place larger restrictions on it. However, anon has a point - a lot of us Expats in Oman think the penalty for flipping someone the bird [min. 3 weeks in prison apparently] is ridiculous.

    And Oman is a v. strange country in its complete absence of court reporting or crime reporting, don't you think?

  7. Thanks guys for your comments, I feel really privileged to find a place where I can hear the honest opinions of expats living in the country. Even for those of us who speak English, you never really hear the honest opinion of people you know because they do not usually want to offend you.

    But anyway, back to topic, I strongly disagree with Anon, why do you find making out as too much but anything less of that okay? This is your very personal opinion and you think that everyone should have the same. Our culture considers a kiss on the lips a very intimate action that will offend the majority, should we change our moral values because everybody else is fine with it otherwise?

    I don't understand why you are very surprised by people staring at you and your wife when you walk around, you're skin colour, hair, eyes, and face features are different from everybody else, it is very natural for people to stare at you. A blond woman walking in trousers and short sleeves will obviously be an amusing sight for many men and women. The majority of people will stare at you because you are different, not necessarily because they are offended or sexually aroused by you.

    How many western women do you know personally that were harassed in public in Oman? Probably not.

    I am not going to lie and say that I think Oman is a perfect country, it is not. However, I don't think that our problem is that we don't share the same moral values as the west.

    I don't think that the reason behind not having proper court reporting is political, we don't have it because those who SHOULD be responsible for it do not know what it is, do not think its important, and could probably be too lazy to do it, or have no incentive for doing it. The majority of court proceedings in Oman are public, you can walk in and sit during trials.

    I can't say the same about crime reporting though.

  8. Anonymous is how I will stay on this topic.... paranoia and I are old friends.

    blue chi yes- ok you have valid points on the kissing issue, I accept them and comprehend the implications of a kiss in public. I beleive that if we revist this topic in 10 years, you may not feel so strongly about it, because I beleive that Oman is rapidly changing, and with it, so are its values.

    UD - I havent seen anything in print, but I've got friends in two embassies here, and they have both mentioned it to me, independently. I beleive the embassies have their own internal news network that issues bulletins. It's highly unlikely that these types of news will ever be made public because of the desire not to upset the Omani hosts. Perhaps if you read German there might be an article in a German paper. The incident happened in August.

    Back to blue chi - I will put my hand on my heart and tell you that almost every Western (including South Africa) expat woman I meet (below 35 years old), tells me the same stories. Random car's stopping in the street, people staring at them with their mouths open, quite frequently Omani men will grab their crotches whilst looking at them. I have yet to meet anyone who will get into a taxi on their own.

    I was at a Christmas/Eid party last night, and met 3 more women with my wife and we talked about this very blog and they all told me stories of harrassment. One of them had been here no more than 4 days!

    My wife and I shop at LULU's occasionaly, and the last time we were there (saturday night) we split up - I went to get eggs and she went to get milk. We met back-up and she told me 2 men had approached her in the 30 seconds we were apart. 2!! in 30 seconds!!

    So anyway, you said you were happy to hear some of our true feelings about living in this country. I like reading these blogs for the exact opposite, to see what Omani's think of all of us. I will never voice these feelings to an Omani in person because I simply do not want to offend them, and you will find this is the case with many, many of us. We're too scared of being kicked out of the country.

    And as a final little story, I'll tell you about the Sohar middle finger incident that my friend recently endured.

    He returned from a meeting and was driving down the motorway, at about 130. Next thing he knows there is a small little Yaris right on his bumper (he drives a 4x4) flashing its lights, honking its horn, 'pushing' him (this is where you tail-gate, then back off, then go real close again). He had no-where to go, the other lane was full of trucks, and he was already going at 130, 10 over the limit anyway, so figured he'd just make the guy wait till there was space in the other lane rather than try and cut in between two trucks. So finally the space comes available, but before he can even move over at a safe distance, the little yaris undertakes him and drives past him, then draws level with him and matches his speed. Finally my friend flips and gives him the middle finger, because the twat deserved it. Next thing the guys trying to ram him off the road and insisting he stops. My friend doesnt know this no-middle-finger-rule and is like fuck that... im going home. A week later the ROP calls him and tells him he must report to Sohar police station because he is being charged with insulting someone. I advised him to take a translator with him, and thankfully he did. The Omani guy was saying that he was driving at 40 KM/h on the motorway, swerving all over the road and that he tried to ram the yaris off the road!! The lies! the lies! He also claimed to have 6 witnesses, plus himself. That is 7 people. In a 2 door Yaris. Pure bullshit. So anyway, after much posturing and moaning, the Omani guy finally accepts a payment of 1000 rials to drop the charges (so my friend could get his passport back and return home for Christmas). In what way or form is this fair? If we had free speech we could report these types of incidents and get something done about it, but no, we cant, and so must continue to pay these exhorbitant fines or face jail time, which means we'll loose all our vacation for a year (in a best case scenario) and possibly our jobs too.

  9. Anonymous: I'm very sorry to hear about your friend's incident. And yes, I do think that local newspapers should freely report such incidents! I'm not sure if they're not allowed to - I assume they ARE allowed to - but perhaps they just fear reporting such incidents. It's really sad.

  10. No, Amjad - they are not allowed to. Anything that appears in any paper in Oman has been cleared through channels, and it's no coincidence that not a whole lot of it could by any stretch possibly be construed as negative.

    I know of at least one more case in which an expat decided to leave the country while he still held his passport when presented with one of these tailgater/extortionists.

    Oman is a fabulous, beautiful, wonderful country - with a lot of issues still to be dealt with as it joins the Great Wide World. At least online we're allowed to talk about them. For the moment.

  11. Blue Chi, I'm really glad you see how useful the idea of free debate can be. One of the great hopes I have for this wonderful country is that the youth of today will continue to mature the attitudes of Oman wrt these things, and believe that a freer press is something to be demaned because it is good for the country and not something to be feared.

    Anon, maybe your wife is blond and really hot? ;-) Seriously, I think we all have similar stories. A friend (conservatively dressed) told me how she was followed around Sabco Center by a man staring at her and obviously masturbating beneath his dishdash. My wife has also been subject to harrassment on the motorway with cars of young Omani guys making obscene gestures. It is really reallu common Blue Chi. Sorry, but it is, and it is nothing to do with inappropriate dress. Eventually its something our wifes and daughters learn to put up with as a nasty side effect of living here.

    Amjad, the flipping the finger thing is a really weird thing about Oman. I heard of a woman riding a bike who was run off the road by a bus driver. After raising a reflex finger of anger at almost being killed by the idiot, she was arrested and only just avoided prison. Totally bizarre. No punishment for almost killing someone through dangerous driving, naturally.

    Different Anon. Mostly (in fact almost totally) the press censor themselves by choice to make sure they at all costs (and in their own opinion) don't offend someone in Government or important. So nothing ever gets published to test where the boundary actually is, and the Gov does not provide any guidance.


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