Do Buddhists believe in free speech?

Facebook, Google and several other Internet companies are “battling a criminal case in New Delhi filed against them by journalist Vinay Rai. He accuses them of violating India’s criminal code by hosting material on their sites that could disrupt public order and incite communal passions. If the firms are found guilty, punishment could include several years’ jail time for executives and hefty fines. The companies are appealing to quash the case in arguments at Delhi High Court.” (Wall Street Journal) ‘Google and Facebook have removed content from some Indian websites after [the] court warned that India would crack down “like China” if they did not take steps to protect religious sensibilities.’ (Guardian)

This leaves me wondering what I think, as a Buddhist, about free speech. Should it be a principle that overrides all others, as so often advocated in the West? Or should free speech be curtailed in the interests of harmony and cohesion between diverse communities, as is being debated in Delhi High Court?

Part of my interest in this area comes from receiving comments on Journal East posts. I love receiving comments – please comment! One of my reasons for starting the site is to stimulate debate and to bring a Buddhist voice to the live issues we face in society. In doing so, though, should I have an ‘anything goes’ policy on what finds its way here, even when some of the comments might be harsh and cause offence to others? Personally, I’m trying to live by the four speech precepts I was given at my ordination – avoiding false, slanderous, frivolous, harsh speech, and trying to engage in truthful, kindly, meaningful, harmonious speech. But should I expect others – Buddhist and non-Buddhist – to do the same? Am I responsible, in any significant way, for comments posted here? Am I just be shying away from controversy through fear, in blocking certain comments from this site? Comments please! (I promise to publish all of them…for now.)

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15 Responses to “Do Buddhists believe in free speech?”

  1. Chintamani says:

    It seems to me that the answer to this is quite straightforward. The fact is that, for many Muslims (and certainly for Islamic doctrine and Shari’ah) ANY criticism of Islam or the character of Mohammed would be considered offensive and grounds for ‘public disorder’. Thus, if is, as Buddhists, we were, from a considered position – i.e. from the point of view of what we believe – to criticize Islam or the character of Mohammed, we should, according to Rai’s interpretation of Indian Law, be liable to prosecution. The fact is that some religions find the very existence of other accounts of reality offensive – and, in some cases, are deeply committed to overthrowing and, indeed, silencing them. Thus, if we were to agree to curtail freedom of speech – in this case, our speech – for sake of ‘public order’ we would, in effect, be legitimizing our own subjugation at the hands of what we would consider to be unskillful and erroneous views. Do we want this? Don’t we, as Buddhists, consider that being offended is the responsibility of the person who feels offended (which is, of course, why there is no such thing as blasphemy in Buddhism)? It seems plain to me that ‘fear of public disorder’ is a very vague and mutable yardstick for what can be expressed in public. In many cases, this could amount to giving license to what in effect would be emotional blackmail.

  2. Chintamani says:

    Further to my posting, if free speech were to be curtailed by fear of public disorder, this highly informative video would be banned:-

  3. catherine says:

    I think what I aim to do is cultivate an attitude of tolerance and try always to understand where people are coming from and how they got there in the first place, however appalling to me their views are. In the metta bhavana the least favoured people are recognised as equally human. Attitudes stem from emotions, often fear of ‘the other’, he who is different from me.

    Good friends of mine hold very different views to me. My parents’ neighbours in the ’60s were at each others’ throats politically, and sometimes literally. Now, in their eighties, they knock on each others’ doors to make sure they’re OK and offer to do each others’ shopping.

    I suppose what I’m saying is speech is an expression of our emotional selves, and our humanity lies behind this. Any suppression of free speech creates a false harmony. Most extremists incriminate themselves by the palpable hatred behind their words, but if we stifle their speech the hatred will only become more powerful. Their motivation is obvious and unpalatable to all but a few. It is sometimes hard to be tolerant. I think the basis of all moral action is an ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes, and if we live like that we can chip away at suspicion and prejudice. Subjection to views of all kinds helps us define our own points of view and keeps us alive to difference and working to understand others.

  4. Mike says:

    The scary thing about the internet is the lack of boundaries….religious sensitivities are not the only things that can be trampled over….as a Buddhist father the ethical precepts I hold close to my heart and try to share with my family do little of and by themselves to control the preponderance of violence and pornography that is accessible online…surely freedom of speech should do more than create a moral vaccuum but provide us the means to moderate our thoughts and feelings?

  5. Chintamani says:

    Here’s a story from, presumably, the Pali canon, which reveals the Buddha’s attitude towards taking offence (unfortunately I don’t have the reference). There are a number of others in which the same point is made:-

    Once an angry man insulted the Buddha. The Buddha simply asked the man if people ever visited him in his home. Surprised at the change of topic, the man answered yes.
    The Buddha then asked if his visitors ever brought gifts. When the man replied yes again, the Buddha asked what would happen if he refused to accept the gifts? Who would the gifts belong to then? The man said that, of course, they would still belong to those who brought them.
    The Buddha then calmly and kindly said, “In the same way, since I do not accept your insults, they remain with you.”

  6. Chintamani says:

    The question of the ‘protection’ of religious sensibilities is fraught with problems from top to bottom. As Sangharakshita has pointed out in his “Buddhism and Blasphemy”, Hinduism and Islam blaspheme against one another’s principles through (at the least!) some of their annual customs. Christianity blasphemes against Judaism through claiming that Jesus was the Messiah. Judaism blasphemes against Christianity through denying that Jesus was not the Messiah and, furthermore, for having crucified him (thus accounting for centuries of anti-Semitism). Both Judaism and Christianity blaspheme against Islam for refusing to accept that Mohammed is the last prophet (for which, under Shar’iah law, they must pay a special ‘head tax’), whilst Islam blasphemes against Judaism and Christianity for believing that Mohammed was a prophet at all. Buddhism, of course, blasphemes against all the monotheistic religions for (apparently) worshiping idols, and for raising up a man as a replacement for God; and secular atheists are (as we have seen) deeply offensive to theists. These are not light matters. Wars have been fought over these issues, and, arguably, it is only the rise of secular humanism that has kept the whole sorry mess in check and allowed people to believe in what they want to believe so long as it does not harm or oppress anyone else (putting aside, that is, the French Revolution, the Third Reich, Soviet Russia etc.). For this we should be very grateful that we live in the society that we do. However, it is abundantly clear that, even now, the matter is far from being solved. So what to do? Perhaps we need to vigourously promote the Buddha’s own approach to taking offence, as it could actually be applied to all religions. However, even if we were to do this, it would not made the slightest difference to some. The fact is that some founders of religions themselves had those who offended them tortured and killed – and these men are to be regarded as exemplars by their followers. In the end, I think, all we as Buddhists can do is to practice what the Buddha taught in this regard, and try to inspire others to do likewise. As to our own comments on other religions/beliefs, we should, of course, abide by the speech precepts – whilst remembering that one of them concerns truthful speech. Perhaps, when we are in dialogue with other religions, it would also be prudent to, if possible, only point out our disagreements with their beliefs after we have established what we have in common. If, in so doing, we can function in society, then all well and good. If not, if, despite us observing our own Precepts, we are restricted in what we can say, then that is a matter of our own ‘religious freedom’ being curtailed.

  7. Chintamani says:

    Further to my last post I must apologize for an inaccuracy: I actually know of only one founder of a religion who sanctioned violence against those who offended him, and so in ignorance of the wider facts, it was wrong of me to suggest that there might be others (although regardless of the characters of their founders, many established religions have indeed behaved very harshly towards those whom they considered offensive). One thing seems sadly sure – that this issue is a Gordian knot, and, on an institutional level, it might therefore be very tempting to opt for the quick ‘sword’ solution of imposing one, clear cut morality to which everyone has to adhere. However, I was reminded of the particular ‘poison’ of the human realm on the Wheel of Life, namely pride. This is the pride of believing that simply by rearranging the human realm – i.e. by instituting this or that political/legal system – ‘heaven on earth’ can be attained. By contrast, the Buddha of the human realm holds up the emblems of the Going Forth, suggesting that hope for such ‘heaven’ can only lie in renunciation of the worldly – on an individual level. Which brings us back to the Buddha’s example in dealing with insults. In the end we cannot force the world to be as we would like it, and, regardless of our ideals, we will surely always have to face the expression of views that violate those ideals – whether in terms of certain kinds of religious zealotry on the one hand, or amoral libertarianism on the other. We may try to institute certain restrictions in the public sphere in order to ‘keep the peace’ – but in the end our only protection against all the vicissitudes of life is the state of our own heart/mind – which, surely, is why we Go for Refuge to the Three Jewels. No-one said it was going to be easy!

  8. Manjusiha says:

    Thanks for the comments. Please keep them coming! It seems that there is a lot to reflect on in this area.

  9. Manjuvajra says:

    It seems to me that for the individual Buddhist the question of Free Speech is a non-question. The question is whether Speech is according to the precepts, i.e. is it honest, kindly, gracious, helpful and harmonious. There is often a conflict between these precepts. For example honest speech may well not be received as kindly, or harmonious. This is the tension within which the indivudial Buddhist practices to develop his/her skill.
    As for Free Speech as a value in society, perhaps the Buddhist view would be to encourage the wide spread application of Buddhist speech precepts – a labour worthy of Herclues – or the encouragement of the practice of Buddhism generally. Repression is an evil, unrestrained indulgence is an evil. The balance requires personal responsibility. There will always be forces at loose in the world that support craving and hatred, forces like pornography and religious bigotry, advertising and politics, Buddhism offers ways of protecting ourselves from these demons – whether they are in the mind, our out in the world.

    • Suyen says:

      I really like this comment. It reminded me that the middle way isn’t really about compromise and average, rather it’s about going beyond preferences and transcending duality.Thanks for the wisdom, Manjuvajra.

  10. Manjusiha says:

    Delhi court dismisses case against Microsoft India:

  11. f says:

    in response to Manjuvajra statement,
    ‘Repression is an evil, unrestrained indulgence is an evil. The balance requires personal responsibility.’
    if personal responsibility is removed ?

    Penalizing Criticism of Islam Threatens Free Speech
    and Reforms

    Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the eminent Turkish Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) was recently welcomed in Europe, the U.S. and Australia.

    However, this organization has an agenda to criminalize criticism of Islam, which threatens to strangle dissent and reform.

    Established in 1969 and based in Saudi Arabia, the OIC represents 57 member states with sizeable Muslim populations, and wields considerable influence in the U.N.

    Professor Ihsanoglu believes “no one has the right to insult another for their beliefs” but does it follow that insults should be criminalized?

    Although the OIC does not define offensive speech, the policies and practices of member states are instructive. Muslims wishing to give up Islam are branded apostates, often with dire penalties. Ahmadis and Baha’is are persecuted as “insulters” of Islam. Saudi journalist Najeeb Kashgari was recently charged with apostasy following three tweets considered heretical by Saudi clerics. He fled the country, but was arrested in Malaysia on the way to New Zealand and extradited. Christian Egyptian Naguib Sawiris faces trial for insulting Islam, after tweeting images of a bearded Mickey Mouse and veiled Minnie Mouse.

    In 2007, Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer was jailed for articles criticizing Al-Azhar university and calling then president Hosni Mubarak a dictator. He was sentenced to three years in prison for “contempt of religion” and one year for “defaming the President of Egypt.” Liberal Egyptian theology professor Nasr Abu Zayd was declared an apostate and ordered to divorce his Muslim wife. Both fled to the Netherlands.

    Since President Zia-ul-Haq instigated the death penalty for blasphemy in 1986, more than a thousand cases were registered in Pakistan. There were no authorized executions but Islamist vigilantes killed some of the accused. In January 2011, Salmaan Taseer, the Muslim governor of Punjab, was murdered by his bodyguard for opposing capital punishment for insulting Islam and also defending Christian Pakistani woman Asia Bibi against a blasphemy charge. Taseer’s killer received widespread support. Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minorities Minister and a Christian, was killed in March 2011 for opposing the blasphemy laws.

    Earlier attacks on free speech have included the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and the bloody riots associated with the Cartoon Intifada in 2005.

    Since 1999, resolutions on defamation of religions have been introduced repeatedly on behalf of the OIC in the UN Human Rights Council, and from 2005, in the UN General Assembly. These were aimed at making criticism of Islam an international crime. Limitations on freedom of speech were already manifest in 1990, when the OIC adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which declared, in Article 22, that everyone had the right to free speech as long as it was not contrary to sharia (Islamic law).

    The European Centre for Law and Justice and Women Living Under Muslim Laws have asserted that defamation of religion is an invalid concept according to international standards that protect individuals rather than religions and beliefs.

    The concept is also contrary to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

    In October 2008, The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe determined that the offence of blasphemy be eliminated, and insult to religious feelings not criminalized without incitement to hatred as an essential component.

    Defamation was reworked as incitement to discrimination, at the U.N. World Conference against Racism (Durban II) in April 2009. In their 4th Annual Report on Islamophobia in April 2011, the OIC defined incitement by applying the “test of consequences,” so that criminal liability only fell on the instigators and not on the responders. In this way, any perceived provocation, insult or “defamation” could be penalized on the grounds that it led to incitement.

    The circular argument was ignored in December 2011, when a State department conference entitled “The Istanbul Process” adopted Resolution 16/18 of March 2011. The resolution, which combated discrimination and incitement to violence against individuals based on religion, was still compatible with the OIC’s aim to criminalize criticism of Islam. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described it as a breakthrough for free expression and religious tolerance. The endorsement might have been instrumental in giving the Director General of the OIC a stamp of approval for a noncontroversial tour of the West, and the platform to launch a campaign against Islamophobia linked to criticism of Islam.

    Pressure to criminalize criticism of Islam was observed in the U.K., with attempts, particularly by the Muslim Council of Britain, to include a clause on Incitement to Religious Hatred in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, 2001, and again in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, 2005. Both were dropped after opposition in the House of Lords. The law would have made criticism or jokes about Islam illegal. The government reintroduced the clause as the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, 2005. This was amended in the Lords, opposed by the government in the Commons, but in January 2006, the amended clause was passed by one vote.

    Several European countries, including France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands, have implemented laws to prosecute people for “vilifying” Islam. In a recent case, Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, an Austrian activist, presented three lectures considered critical of Islam and was convicted of “denigrating religious symbols of a recognized religious group.”

    Restrictions to free speech could seriously impact Islamic reformers who campaign against gender discrimination. Secular feminist activists, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan and Taslima Nasreen, and practising Muslims like Shirin Ebadi and Raheel Raza have already suffered abuse and death threats.

    In the Islamist sweep of the Arab Spring, the Middle East provides fertile ground for restrictions on free speech. Turkey is also becoming Islamized and journalists have experienced increasing intimidation and imprisonment for criticizing the government. Recently the European Court of Human Rights ruled against a Turkish court that had sentenced journalist Erbil Tusalp to pay compensation to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Tusalp had written two satirical articles deemed critical of the Prime Minister.

    If the OIC were serious about combating discrimination based on religion, they could start with opposition to male guardianship of women, unilateral divorce, a woman’s testimony counting for half that of a man’s, stoning to death for adultery, lashing sentences for homosexuality and sex outside marriage, and growing persecution of Christian minorities in the Middle East.

    A version of this article was originally published in The Australian.

  12. f says:

    Not knowing where else to post this. I felt this was as good a place as any.

    Thailand July, 2012: 16 bombs, 6 dead, 38 wounded

    There is another week left to go to the end of July, but already Islamist terrorists in Thailand’s south have killed 6 and wounded 38 (some severely) in 16 separate bombings.

    Can you imagine the public reaction if, in only three weeks, Muslim terrorists detonated 16 separate bombs and killed and injured almost 50 people in cities across the United Kingdom?

    Thailand has a population of about 70 million

    (Chronology of attacks in July 2012 to date included in the following Nation news article.)

    Pick-up bomb kills five policemen in Yala

    The Nation July 26, 2012 1:00 am (Bangkok time) July 25, 2012 2pm (New York time)

    Five police were killed yesterday and another wounded by a car bomb attack in Yala’s Raman district.

    The sixman squad from Tha Thong Police Station, which was assigned to escort teachers at U Poh Shool, was on a mobile patrol before arriving near a bridge where a silver Isuzu pickup truck with hidden explosives was parked. The truck exploded, hitting the police vehicle.

    A manhunt was ordered on suspicion that wanted insurgent Kaman Chaichana, who has been active in the district, was also behind this ambush.

    The detonation method, such a remotely by wire, mobile phone or twoway radio, and the types and quantities of explosives were not yet identified.

    The relief force and bomb disposal team dispatched to the scene were delayed by road spikes scattered by insurgents, who also made off with six assault rifles issued to the six patrol officers.

    The five dead victims were squad leader Pol Captain Sutham Onthong, Pol Sr Sgt Major Waeuseng Waedeng and Pol Sergeants Natthaphong Bunkomol, Prasert Rodkul and Wichanont Namphakdee.

    Pol Corporal Jakkrit Chasalee was hospitalised, but no details of his wounds were available.

    Chronology of attacks :

    JULY 3: A homemade bomb hidden in a bicycle’s front basket goes off and injures five soldiers in Yala’s Muang district.

    JULY 4: Three homemade bombs planted in Narathiwat’s Rusoh district detonate simultaneously, wounding 12 policemen and villagers.

    JULY 9: A roadside bomb wounds two soldiers on foot patrol in Pattani’s Thung Yang Daeng district.

    JULY 13: Homemade bombs planted at four ATM units in Yala’s Bannang Sata district and an M79 grenade attack on a security outpost wound one civilian and one policeman.

    JULY 19: A bomb explodes at a shop in downtown Pattani, but nobody is hurt. A bomb in Yala’s Than To district kills a villagers and wounds another. A bomb is found after an ambush on villagers is carried out to draw security officials in Narathiwat’s Si Sakhon district

    JULY 20: On the first day of Ramadan, a 50kilogram bomb hits a military vehicle on patrol in Narathiwat’s Rangae district and wounds seven military rangers. A car bomb goes off in downtown Sungai Kolok in Narathiwat, burning down four shophouses and wounding eight people

    JULY 25: A bomb hidden inside a parked pickup truck goes off in Yala’s Raman district and hits a vehicle carrying policemen escorting teachers. Five of the occupants are killed and one wounded.

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