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Mediation Perspectives: Preventing Clashes over Religion and Free Speech

Protest March in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
A protest march organized by the Nabaviyyah Islamic Youth Organization in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 24 September 2012. Photo: Vikalpa | Ground Views | CPA/flickr.

September marks the first anniversary of Muslim outrage over the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims. The furor over the crude video clip depicting Muhammad as a womanizing buffoon was the latest installment in a series of disputes over Western depictions of the Prophet. As some liberal secularists think that Muslims who are reluctant to accept the principle of free speech are best dealt with by habituation – constantly exposing them to (possibly offensive) free speech -, further explosive incidences of giving and taking offence can be expected.

Irreconcilable Differences?

The problem of giving and taking offence is probably best illuminated by the ongoing struggle over blasphemy and hate speech in the legal arena. For over a decade, members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation have attempted to introduce binding legislation against the defamation of religions at the United Nations, only to be blocked by Western states. Muslims in Western countries have frequently lodged complaints against offenders under hate-speech or blasphemy laws, but have rarely scored a legal victory. The reason for their respective failures boils down to one major factor – competing values of free speech and respect for religion.