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The UK is not the only secular democracy where freedom of speech is now under attack.

Johann Hari's essay, "Why should I respect these oppressive religions?", originally published in The Independent on 1/28/2009, was republished on 2/5/2009 by The Statesman, a leading English-language periodical based in in Kolkata.

This led to several days of protests, eventually violent, by Muslims who felt that the essay insulted their religion; and on Wednesday, 2/11/2009, Ravindra Kumar and Anand Sinha, the editor and publisher of The Statesman, were arrested and charged under section 295A of the Indian Penal Code which forbids "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings". (See Jerome Taylor, "Editor arrested for 'outraging Muslims'", The Independent, 2/12/2009.)

Hari has responded with another essay, "Despite these riots, I stand by what I wrote: The answer to the problems of free speech is always more free speech", 2/13/2008:

The protestors said I deliberately set out to "offend" them, and I am supposed to say that, no, no offence was intended. But the honest truth is more complicated. Offending fundamentalists isn't my goal – but if it is an inevitable side-effect of defending human rights, so be it. If fanatics who believe Muslim women should be imprisoned in their homes and gay people should be killed are insulted by my arguments, I don't resile from it. Nothing worth saying is inoffensive to everyone.

You do not have a right to be ring-fenced from offence. Every day, I am offended – not least by ancient religious texts filled with hate-speech. But I am glad, because I know that the price of taking offence is that I can give it too, if that is where the facts lead me. But again, the protestors propose a lop-sided world. They do not propose to stop voicing their own heinously offensive views about women's rights or homosexuality, but we have to shut up and take it – or we are the ones being "insulting".

I learned a new word from this: resile, "To draw back from an agreement, contract, statement". The OED says that this is "chiefly in Scottish use", which would explain why I haven't noticed it before. In fact, though Hari's original essay didn't use the word, its theme was that the United Nations has resiled from its Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

The right to criticise religion is being slowly doused in acid. Across the world, the small, incremental gains made by secularism – giving us the space to doubt and question and make up our own minds – are being beaten back by belligerent demands that we "respect" religion. A historic marker has just been passed, showing how far we have been shoved. The UN rapporteur who is supposed to be the global guardian of free speech has had his job rewritten – to put him on the side of the religious censors.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated 60 years ago that "a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief is the highest aspiration of the common people". It was a Magna Carta for mankind – and loathed by every human rights abuser on earth. Today, the Chinese dictatorship calls it "Western", Robert Mugabe calls it "colonialist", and Dick Cheney calls it "outdated". The countries of the world have chronically failed to meet it – but the document has been held up by the United Nations as the ultimate standard against which to check ourselves. Until now.

Starting in 1999, a coalition of Islamist tyrants, led by Saudi Arabia, demanded the rules be rewritten. The demand for everyone to be able to think and speak freely failed to "respect" the "unique sensitivities" of the religious, they decided – so they issued an alternative Islamic Declaration of Human Rights. It insisted that you can only speak within "the limits set by the shariah [law]. It is not permitted to spread falsehood or disseminate that which involves encouraging abomination or forsaking the Islamic community".

In other words, you can say anything you like, as long as it precisely what the reactionary mullahs tell you to say. The declaration makes it clear there is no equality for women, gays, non-Muslims, or apostates. It has been backed by the Vatican and a bevy of Christian fundamentalists.

Incredibly, they are succeeding. The UN's Rapporteur on Human Rights has always been tasked with exposing and shaming those who prevent free speech – including the religious. But the Pakistani delegate recently demanded that his job description be changed so he can seek out and condemn "abuses of free expression" including "defamation of religions and prophets". The council agreed – so the job has been turned on its head. Instead of condemning the people who wanted to murder Salman Rushdie, they will be condemning Salman Rushdie himself.

Anything which can be deemed "religious" is no longer allowed to be a subject of discussion at the UN – and almost everything is deemed religious. Roy Brown of the International Humanist and Ethical Union has tried to raise topics like the stoning of women accused of adultery or child marriage. The Egyptian delegate stood up to announce discussion of shariah "will not happen" and "Islam will not be crucified in this council" – and Brown was ordered to be silent. Of course, the first victims of locking down free speech about Islam with the imprimatur of the UN are ordinary Muslims.

Meanwhile, according to the BBC, the editor in question is himself actively resiling (Subir Bhaumik, "Pair held for 'offending Islam'", 2/12/2009:

Mr Kumar has said he has already issued a public apology for reproducing the article.

"Not anticipating the reaction to the story was an error of judgement and we have regretted that, " Mr Kumar told the BBC in an interview.

However, Mohit Joshi's ANI article suggests a more nuanced resilience:

On two separate occasions, Kumar issued statements standing by his decision to publish the article. But he also said he had not meant to cause offence to any religion.

And the brief description of the arrest in The Statesman gives the impression of an event staged to some extent as political theater to defuse the protests:

Upon learning that a case had been registered by Kolkata Police, The Statesman contacted senior officers and offered to assist its investigation, and to aid efforts to defuse tensions in the city. Following this, the arrests were made early today.

The city has been rocked by protests and violence since 7 February. The protesters had demanded the immediate arrest of the Editor.

[Update: It's worth noting that West Bengal, the Indian state where Kolkata is located, is governed by the Left Front Alliance, a parliamentary coalition headed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The Left Front Alliance has been in power for some 30 years, making West Bengal what the Wikipedia article calls "the world's longest-running democratically-elected communist government". I gather that the CPI(M) also dominates Kolkata city politics.  Presumably the CPI(M) is ideologically comfortable with secularism.

Another relevant piece of background is the case of Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi author who fled Bangladesh after being accused of blasphemy, and was forced to leave Kolkata last year after violent riots protesting her presence.  Her offenses include secularism as well as feminism.  It's not clear to me how extensive an overlap there is between the groups protesting Nasreen and Hari, and the political constituency of the CPI(M). ]

In other news from Kolkata,

A group of men and women "from all walks of life" will raise a toast to the spirit of love across city pubs, in a show of defiance to the right-wing threats.

Displaying solidarity with the pink chaddi movement flagged off by the Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women to counter the Sene dictum, the group could be joined by city intellectuals. Starting off at the Gossip bar in south Kolkata, the group plans to move to other joints in the city, in an open challenge to "conservative tyrants who plan to curb the freedom to love and live".

For two hours from 1 pm on Saturday, the group will celebrate the spirit of freedom by downing a few pegs. "Citizens concerned about the shrinking space for women's rights" have been invited to join. "It is time all right-thinking people came together and protest. If we don't act now, the right to freedom of expression will be lost forever," said a spokesperson for the group.

The background is a threat from the Hindu  group Sri Ram Sene to disrupt Valentine's Day activities.  Members of the group have been arrested for assaulting pub-goers; but ironically, the basis for taking  Pramod Muthalik and 356 other Ram Sene activists into custody seems to be, at least in part, the "distribution of pamphlets that allegedly had contents to disturb communal harmony."

Meanwhile, communal harmony is apparently safe from Valentine's Day threats in Saudi Arabia, where all red-colored objects are said to be banned from store shelves during the weeks before Feb. 14, thus elevating the suppression of expression to new levels of symbolic abstraction.


  1. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 7:26 am

    On the use of the word resile, I would suggest that the OED isn't quite up to date in suggesting it's "chiefly in Scottish use". It often seems to be used by English MPs, particularly those with a legal training, I suspect. The Secretary of State for Justice Jack Straw, for example, seems to be particularly fond of the word — as a quick google will confirm.

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 7:40 am

    The LION database finds four uses of resile in poetry. Three of the authors (William Cleland 1661-1689, Edwin Morgan 1920-, and Sir William Mure 1594-1657) have "British/Scottish/European" listed as their nationality; one (E.J. Scovell 1907-1999) is listed as "British/English/European". So from that evidence, "chiefly in Scottish use" seems fair.

    However, a Google search does verify that these days, British politicians of entirely southern-England background seem to have picked this word up. I wonder whether it's possible to use newspaper archives to trace this to its source?

  3. Stephen Jones said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 8:14 am

    where all red-colored objects are said to be banned from store shelves during the weeks before Feb. 14

    The rather ridiculous article you refer to doesn't say anything of the sort of course. But then freedom of expression means that we should fight for your right to keep your posts a fact-free zone.

    Yours belligerantly

  4. Stephen Jones said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 8:20 am

    Whoops. I thought I was replying to Pullum. Actually, Mark, one thing I have always admired is your ability to keep things on topic and generally well-sourced. However, I do understand that not getting the Valentine's card from your sultry, Saudi seductress, can cause temporary relapses.

  5. Mark Liberman said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 8:31 am

    @Stephen Jones: I'm well aware that not everything written in wire service stories is true; and in a story like this one, perhaps the presumption should rather be the opposite. But in fact the story does say "fear of the religious police forced the store's owner to strip the shelves of all red items", and "As Feb. 14 approaches, the police begin inspecting gift shops for items that are red or are intended as gifts to mark the holiday".

    Agreed, the story also says that

    Nevertheless, Valentine's Day quietly creeps into the capital, Riyadh: While gift stores don't trumpet their Valentine's wares, they acquire a deep red hue as shelves are stocked with artificial flowers, heart-shaped frames and other knickknacks.

    which more or less directly contradicts the earlier quotes. I interpret all this to mean that there is a struggle, at some level of seriousness, between shopkeepers and the mutaween about what sorts of goods can be displayed and sold in early-to-mid February.

  6. Stephen Jones said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 8:39 am

    The Bengal government has a track record of refusing to defend free speech as the Taslima Nasreen case shows. Here they do seem to have done a pretty good job of protecting the journalists.

    One must remember that the 'Satanic Verses" controversy started in India, and was basically to do with Indian politics.

  7. Stephen Jones said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 8:50 am

    The wire source story is pretty stupid. I wouldn't trust anything else the woman writes.

    Your description actually comes from a summary they put in the article so the worst we can accuse you of is doing a BBC and taking a press release verbatim without reading.

    It is of course no surprise that Saudi religious police start looking for Christmas trees just before Christmas, and Valentine's Day presents just before Valentine's day.

  8. Stephen Jones said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 8:59 am

    The Inernational Herald Tribune seems to have picked up the rubbish. Let's hope nobody posts today to claim how superior conventional news sources are over the internet. My reply would be anything but restrained.

  9. ‘Nothing worth saying is inoffensive to everyone’ | Sharpe's Opinion said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 9:04 am

    […] 'Nothing worth saying is inoffensive to everyone' […]

  10. Mark Liberman said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 9:04 am

    It's not clear where to go for the truth about such things, but that particular wire service story is by no means the only source for the idea that the Saudi police attempt to suppress the color red around Valentine's Day.

    For example, the Pakistani paper The Nation has a story saying that "In Saudi Arabia, the police monitor stores selling roses and other gifts associated with the holiday as per instructions by the government. They even arrest women for wearing red on Valentine’s Day." And the Egyptian paper Al Ahram tells us that "In 2008, Saudi Arabia's religious police banned the sale of all Valentine's Day items, telling shop owners to remove all red items as they consider the Day to be un-Islamic."

    The most extensive coverage that I've seen is an Arab News article, which shows a picture of Valentine's Day flowers and gifts on display in a shop in Jeddah, but suggests that this shop was the exception:

    The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice intensified its vigilance over flower, chocolate and gift shops to confiscate items related to Valentine’s Day, a perennial crackdown on a holiday perceived by many to be both Western and immoral.

    Ahmed Al-Ghamdi, head of the commission’s branch in Makkah province, said the agency has instructions to eliminate any activities aimed at celebrating this event or sell products related to it.

    “This is based on the teachings of Shariah. God ordained Muslims to celebrate their own festivals in place of un-Islamic ones,” he said. “So Muslims are not allowed to celebrate any festivals other than Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha.”

    Arab News toured a number of shops selling flowers, chocolates and assorted gifts. All but one of the stores avoided any hint in their displays of merchandise that Valetine’s Day is tomorrow. […]

    The religious authorities tend to look out for red items sold in these stores, viewed as an attempt by merchants to market the holiday.

  11. Stephen Jones said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    There are few idiocies I wouldn't attribute to the muttaween but banning the color red is one of them.

    I can assure you that my local Saudi supermarket was still selling red packets of detergent up until Feb 5th when I left for Lanka. Admittedly not the most romantic of Valentine's day presents but one has to be pragmatic these days.

  12. Stephen Jones said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 9:48 am

    My objection is to the internal consistencies in the AP story, not to the claim that the Saudi authorities, rather unsuccessfully, try to crack down on Valentine Day presents.

  13. More kinds of protests and censorship « Karela Fry said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

    […] a comment » From Language Log: The UK is not the only secular democracy where freedom of speech is now under […]

  14. Aaron Davies said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    "resile" rhymes nicely with "pour the canaille, faut la mitraille", which is what generally comes to (my) mind when i read about such protestors.

    i should really avoid such news, i'm sure it's bad for my blood pressure.

  15. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

    I wonder if resilience is the appropriate verbal noun for resile. It's true that -ientia is appropriate in Latin for 4th-conjugation verbs (such as resilire), but in English we have, for example, impedance, not *impedience for impede (from impedire). English nouns with -ience (including, of course, the already existing resilience) come, as a rule, from preexisting Latin nouns with -ientia, often with an adjective in -ient involved. How about resilement (comparable to defile -> defilement)?

    Aaron Davies: In what language does resile rhyme with canaille or mitraille?

  16. Tim said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 5:19 pm

    This resile is not a different word from the one related to "the already existing resilience". It's just a different sense of the same word. Presumably, both senses would have the same noun form?

  17. The Volokh Conspiracy said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 2:24 am

    Editor Arrested in India for Publishing Essay "Outraging Muslims":…

    So reports The Independent (U.K.). The essay is apparently this …

  18. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 6:51 am

    We seem to have the makings of an irregular verb here: *I resile [does not occur: correct is I do not resile], you renege, he/she reneges

  19. Dan T. said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

    Maybe a Marxist/Communist government is "ideologically comfortable with secularism", but it's not likely to be ideologically comfortable with free speech or individual liberty. Such far-left ideologies occasionally make common cause with far-right ideologies to suppress dangerous individualism.

  20. Jon Roland said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    The essence of the issue was well stated by Ali A. Mohamed, Al Qaeda spy now in U.S. custody (from an interview on National Geographic Channel documentary):
    "Islam without political dominance cannot survive."

    Intolerance is indicative of those who have been taught to identify with a religion, but who don't really believe it, and don't have confidence it can survive or prevail in a competitive marketplace of ideas. It is not the true believers, but the nonbelievers pretending or deceiving themselves that they are believers. That is a problem of social pathology more than of religion proper.

    We need to adopt proper labels for the sides in the clash. It is not the various traditional sects, or secularism vs. religious fanaticism. On the one side is constitutionalism, a belief in a rule of law, and particularly in a superior law from which all ordinary laws are derived, which embraces and protects any body of belief that teaches love, tolerance, and civic virtue. Constitutionalism is also a kind of religion, a civic religion as the political philosopher Montesquieu recommended, but a metareligion — a religion about religions.

    It is opposed by what? We have given many names to the opposition to constitutionalism: tyranny, fascism, totalitarianism, hate, intolerance, vice, barbarism, evil. But there is a danger in this, and a weakness that constitutionalists bring into the debate: We must avoid adopting the ways of the opposition, or we become them and they win. We also have the weakness that it is much easier to destroy than to create. Constitutionalism is about creation. But a single madman can destroy it all with the tools of modern technology.

    We must gain control over the upbringing of all of our children. If we do not civilize them we will have barbarians in our midst, and civilization will fall.

  21. Aaron Davies said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

    @Coby Lubliner: ok, ok, it's an eye rhyme.

  22. TruePath said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 9:34 pm

    Jon Roland,

    We can put whatever gloss you want over it but ultimately this comes down to a simple question of who is right and who is wrong.

    If there really is a wrathful god up there who will punish us all for eternity because we attended the wrong church or didn't follow his random prohibitions then 'intolerance', theocracy and authoritarian bans on material that might lead to conversion away from the true faith or sinful behavior are fully justified. Eternity in hell is for all practical purposes an infinitely bad outcome. So long as you decrease the number of infidels by a single person you've reduced the total suffering no matter how many people you've killed. Or, since you wouldn't even believe reducing suffering is the ultimate moral end, if you believe god cares more about faith and religious strictures than torture, war and authoritarianism it follows from your faith that you should support these practices if they brought more believers to the true faith.

    On the other hand if you are either a secularist who believes all this religious stuff is poppycock or someone who believes in a god who cares more about alleviating suffering and forgiveness than punishment for blasphemy, heresy and other religious infractions then you should oppose authoritarian attempts to force the true religion or it's prohibitions down people's throats. Either we are right and liberty, freedom and all that are more important than correct religious belief or they are right and correct religious belief is more important. One side is right and the other wrong and fancy terminology can't change that fact.

    Of course, I think the 'fundamentalists' actually have a much more intellectually coherent position than the religious 'moderates' (bad terms). They have an easier answer to the problem of evil (reducing suffering isn't even the appropriate moral end) while the 'moderates' have a much more difficult time answering this point (no, free will isn't sufficent). Also it's hard for the moderates to resolve the tension between their obvious belief that faith in their religion is important and will be rewarded (often by a better shot at salvation) and their belief in religious freedom. However, since everyone must think everyone whose beliefs conflict with their own must be wrong it's kinda pointless to argue about which incorrect belief is more intellectually coherent.

    Now it would be very comforting to say that it's just the people who aren't confident about their religious beliefs who support this barbaric suppression of religious and personal freedom but it's simply not true. The populations most likely to support these awful policies aren't usually European social democracies where doubt or even disbelief is an accepted part of the culture. Nor are they the cultures where the explanatory power of science is widely acknowledged and reasons to question religious belief widely published. Just the opposite. They are the populations where religious faith is taken for granted the way we might take for granted the fact that objects fall.

    Indeed, when you think about it this makes sense. I mean if you weren't sure that god really wanted you to stone a women to death for some minor offense wouldn't that make you hesitate? I agree that the firebrands in these cultures are often the ones who are uncertain of their religious virtue and therefore loudly overcompensate but that doesn't mean they are less sure of their beliefs than those of us in the west.

    In short I think your comment is misguided for the much the same reason the terminology of 'moderates' and 'fundamentalists' is misguided. It's an attempt to pretend that we are doing something other than brutly asserting the 'fundamentalist' have incorrect religious beliefs, particularly with respect to moral. We can't have a religion of religions or any other meta-structure that somehow sidesteps this basic disagreement as that very notion is in conflict with the fundamentalist's religious beliefs and thus still requires us to simply insist that we are right and they are wrong.

    Of course, they are wrong and we are right.

  23. dr pepper said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 12:49 am

    If only would could advance the proposition that there are moral standards that even God is not allowed to violate.

  24. D said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

    The politics of the situation is intricate, though quite recognizable. The CPI(M) is a socially liberal party, opposed in particular to rightwing Hindu nationalism. Hindu fundamentalists don't like Muslims. So the CPI(M) soft-pedals secularism at times, when necessary.

  25. Merri said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 7:26 am

    I don’t understand your horror on seeing a high diplomat (who didn’t earn his descriptive) arrested for having said that ‘Jews should be wiped from the surface of the Earth’.
    Surely this is a call for (pursuing) genocide.

    Freedom of speech isn't absolute.

    Surely you know Article 30 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights :

    "Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein. "

    As an application : Article 19 (freedom of speech) doesn’t allow you to call for mistreatment on a group of persons based on their origin, which would mean calling for suppression of Articles 2 and 3.

    I fully agree with the idea that calling for the killing of other people, either individually or collectively, should be severely punished, in full accordance with Article 30.

    Sorry for having posted here ; the former post's answer section has been closed.

  26. ajay said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

    The only time I've seen "resile" used is by Iain Banks ("Feersum Endjinn") who describes the cult of Resilers, who believe that the world should retreat from the use of advanced technology. And he's Scottish, of course…

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