This should not need saying. Where did anyone get the idea that they have the right to "respect" for their religion?
The right to religious freedom is the right to have and express beliefs and to worship as believe your religion demands. But there is no right to be free from criticism or ridicule for what you believe. Nor is there any right to require others to share your superstitions, or behave as if they did.
If you want to believe that wine turns into blood, that it is wrong to turn on a light on Saturday, that it is immoral to draw pictures of prophets, that virgins give birth, or that Taurus should not marry Pisces, that is fine by me. Gather on hillsides waiting for the second coming, get together and sing songs, or throw salt over your shoulder if you want. Such are your rights.
But do not think that, just because you hold those beliefs dearly, that they are immune from criticism or ridicule. You do not have the right to expect others to respect your beliefs, even if you label them as your religion. You may be insulted by the knowledge that other people do not share your beliefs, or by their behaviour; but that is their right. You do not have the right not to be insulted.
I am offended when the Pope argues against using condoms in Africa, even though they would help to prevent the spread of AIDS. I am offended by the treatment of women by Christian and Islamic religious traditions. I am offended by the way that Judaism treats homosexuals. But just because I am offended by these things does not give me the right to prevent others from believing them, or to try to stop them from acting in accordance with their beliefs.
The limitation on free speech is that there is no right to incite violence against you. This limitation protects you if you have religious views, or if you have none. It follows from respect for you as a person, not respect for your beliefs.
So what was Jack Straw thinking of when he said this?
Let me say this about these cartoons. I make no comment about their
original publication, that is a matter for the Danish public,
parliament and Danish law. But there is freedom of speech, we all
respect that, but there is not an obligation to insult or to be
gratuitously inflammatory, and I believe that the re-publication of
these cartoons has been unnecessary, it has been insensitive, it has
been disrespectful and it has been wrong. And if I may say so, I place
on record my regard for the British media who have shown considerable
responsibility and sensitivity in this regard.
What we also have to remember is that there are taboos in every
religion. It is not the case that there is open season in respect of
all aspects of Christian rights and rituals in the name of free speech,
nor is it the case that there is open season in respect of the rights
and rituals for the Jewish religion, the Hindu religion, the Sikh
religion, and it should not be the case in respect of the Islamic
religion either. So we have to be very careful about showing proper
respect in this situation.
It would be ludicrous to say that there is an obligation to insult or be gratuitously inflammatory. But there is a right to insult or be gratuitously inflammatory.
Straw’s metaphor of "open season" is unfortunate. Open season is a hunting term denoting a time of year when it is lawful to hunt or trap. It is never right to harm people, whether religious or not. But as far as I am concerned, it is always "open season" if that means being able to criticize or ridicule rituals and superstitions, whether they are Christianity, witchcraft, Moonies, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, astrology, belief in Santa Claus, or faith in homeopathic medicines. I feel no tinge of regret about insulting people who hold these superstitions.
People who have been offended by the publication of cartoons have every right to boycott whatever products they like. They do not have the right to call for violence against those who have published them.
I think it is a pity that the British newspapers have not reproduced the cartoons. There is a charming myth that when the Nazi authorities instructed that Danish jews should wear a Star of David armband, the King of Denmmark appeared the next day wearing a Star of David himself, in solidarity. I hope that every newspaper that believes in free expression of ideas will publish the cartoons, and that we challenge those who are offended by that to boycott products from every one of those countries.
Update: The US State Department has joined the debate:
We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression but it
must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds
in this manner is not acceptable.
So much for our allies in the fight for freedom.