Max du Preez

'Turn the other cheek'

2009-03-04 09:00

Max du Preez

The blade of the sword called Freedom of Speech has two very sharp edges. It is not something to be brandished about without a full realisation of the risks.

I have yet to meet a South African who is against our constitution's strong guarantee of our freedom to express our opinions and distribute information. Even right wing freaks rely on it to peddle their odious, racist nonsense.

But it appears too many people believe that freedom of speech is only a good thing if they use it. If others whose opinions they find objectionable exercise this freedom, they object.

Christians and Muslims, for instance, feel it is their right to insult, vilify and condemn to eternal damnation those who are not also Christians or Muslims. "Heathens" and "infidels" are loathsome beings.

In fact, most Christians and most Muslims actually offend and malign gay people as sickos and deviants who are not worthy of being members of their congregations and mosques.

But if someone should dare to say something disrespectful about them or their beliefs, Christians and Muslims are quick to react, to protest and to threaten.

Ironically, adherents of these two religions also accuse each other of being inspired by Satan, but as long as that's done inside the walls of the church or the mosque or on the pages of their internal publications, they don't complain too much.

Sax Appeal

Occasionally they club together, the infidels and the heathens. Just last week the Muslim Judicial Council issued a statement demanding "an immediate and unequivocal apology" from the editor of UCT's rag magazine, Sax Appeal, because it was perceived to have insulted Christians and blasphemed against the Christian God.

We have robust, vigorous political, social and cultural debates in South Africa, on talk radio stations, in letters to newspapers and websites and face to face in the work place or on campuses and public platforms. Almost anything goes.

But don't question any aspect of any religion or their right to prescribe what we should believe and say or how we should behave, because then you will be accused of being disrespectful, irresponsible and insulting. A disgraceful human being.

What kind of a god or divine being do these people pray to that is so thin-skinned, self-doubting, insecure and vengeful that he/she would want to crush anyone questioning or criticising him/her?

Wasn't religion really supposed to be about love, caring and tolerance? Turning the other cheek?

The Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Max Price, has done that proud institution a major injustice by unreservedly apologising to some of the fundamentalist Christians who threatened the university after the publication of Sax Appeal.

It is the same knee-jerk reaction showed some time ago by the editor of Rapport who fired a columnist who became a target of intolerant Christians after he asked some uncomfortable questions about religious freedom.

When in doubt...

Engage the complainants in serious face-to-face discussions, yes, explain the issues and listen to the objections, absolutely. But don't compromise yourself and your institution simply out of fear of alienating donors or of a vendetta against the university.

All these intolerant religious people should do themselves a huge favour and go and see the American satirist and comedian Bill Maher's documentary Religulous. It would give them a valuable insight into how people from outside their own religion view what they believe in.

But mostly Religulous makes one point very strongly, a point I believe in: next to all the so-called faith communities there are also other communities. Like the Doubters. And the Agnostics. And the Atheists.

These people have as much right to question the dogma the Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, New Ageists, Pagans and whoever dish up as these religions have to spread their dogma.

I think it is quite alright for religious people to condemn non-believers. As I think it is the right of non-believers to criticise organised religions - and sometimes poke fun with them.

Send your comments to Max.

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