What the Libyan Embassy Attack Teaches Us About True Religious Freedom

No matter how strong one's principles of religious freedom are, there is no excuse for violent actions taken by individuals on the grounds of defending their faith from outside criticism.
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The news swept the globe this week of the senseless killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three of his staff members by an angry mob upset with a movie made in America. While we are immensely saddened by this unnecessary loss of life, some recent statements made by government officials apologizing for the movie and condemning those that made it are concerning.

Certainly, people, religious or not, should be treated with respect, but that doesn't mean that religious ideas are immune to criticism or parody. And no matter how strong one's principles of religious freedom are, there is no excuse for violent actions taken by individuals on the grounds of defending their faith from outside criticism.

True religious freedom requires that people are able to believe as they so choose, but it also demands the ability to be free from belief and to question beliefs as one sees fit. Ideally, criticism should be constructive and remain polite and reasoned, but even if the remarks made are vulgar and offensive, the same legal protections regarding free speech and religious freedom must be maintained.

Humanists support the right of others to criticize us and humanism in general, and the religious right in America often takes advantage of that right. But we recognize that whatever is said about us can never be hurtful enough to justify our killing another human being.

Thankfully, not all of the comments made by American government officials were opposed to protecting religious freedom. The following remarks made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding the movie and our freedom to speak about religion are just one example of a positive defense of religious freedom:

"Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior, along with the protest that took place at our embassy in Cairo yesterday, as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. America's commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation, but let me be clear: there is no justification for this. None. Violence like this is no way to honor religion or faith. And as long as there are those who would take innocent life in the name of God, the world will never know a true and lasting peace."

It is particularly during times of heightened fear and potential danger that our basic rights require the most vigorous defense. It is comparatively easy during times of peace and stability to ensure that all citizens are able to speak their minds and practice the beliefs that they hold dear, but it is during times of crisis that these very freedoms are most threatened. We must not appease those that committed these appalling attacks by restricting the right of our own citizens to discuss religion or any other topic that concerns them. It is for this very reason that the legal right to the make and distribute this film must not be abridged in any way.

As Americans, we understand the dual nature of free speech: it serves us by allowing us to share our convictions with others, and it occasionally causes us offense by exposing us to differing perspectives. We must now remember that the right not to be offended isn't enshrined in our Constitution. Even if we abhor statements motivated by hate, the legality of religious critique isn't questionable. That's why we should act swiftly to protect the rights of religious freedom and freedom of speech that are explicitly guaranteed to us. By doing this we might expose ourselves to the forces of hate and terror, but we can't allow fear to rule the day if we hope to maintain our ability to live truly free lives.

This risk was fully understood by Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, whose statement after the horrific Breivik attacks inspired many people around the world to continue fighting for freedom. Faced with a grieving country fearful of being attacked again, Stoltenberg said, "Our answer is more democracy, more openness and more humanity." He understood that in times of violence it is all too easy to sacrifice freedom for security, and by refusing to do so he ensured that the Norwegian people would keep the basic rights and protections that allowed them to live dignified lives.

There is hope that these sorts of violent attacks will become less frequent in the future, as many Libyans came out to condemn the killers and apologize for the attack. Regardless, we must recommit ourselves in the meantime to protecting the most basic components of a democratic society: freedom of speech and religion.

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