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Freedom to burn

On October 16th, 1555, Protestant reformers Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burned at the stake on the order of the Catholic Queen Mary.

On October 16th, 1555, Protestant reformers Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burned at the stake on the order of the Catholic Queen Mary.

As the flames were ignited around his feet, Bishop Latimer turned to his friend and called out the words, “Be of good cheer Master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by God’s grace shall never be put out.”

The candles Latimer and thousands of others lit with the grease of their own bodies illumined the path to the religious freedom we enjoy today, including the freedom to practice no religion at all, to be governed by secular states, and to speak freely about gods and churches, even to the point of mockery. One of the great achievements of centuries of reform is that in modern civilizations, sacrilege is not a criminal offence.

Last week, newspapers in Europe took a stand for that hard-won freedom. Five centuries of history stood behind Jacques Lefranc, editor of France Soir, when, in defiance of warnings from Muslim prelates, he republished controversial Danish cartoons bearing offensive images of the prophet Mohammed. The paper’s owner, an Egyptian businessman, stood elsewhere: Lefranc was fired the next day.

On Friday and Saturday after prayers there was rioting in most of the Muslim world. Mobs burned the Danish flag and brandished placards bearing — tellingly — anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans. In Britain, Muslim demonstrators demanded, “Massacre those who insult Islam,” and “Behead those who insult Islam”.

As Middle East expert Nadim Shehadi said, “Forget about the cartoons. The atmosphere is tense because of what is happening in Iran, Iraq, Palestine and it is an excuse to express anger at those wider issues.”

For decades, people’s lives in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine have been torn by war, much of it driven by Western greed. What passes for peace and stability in Saudi Arabia is really oppression at the hands of an American-backed oligarchy. People in these countries have every reason to hate the West. They have every right to demand justice. But they have no right to censor European newspapers, and we have no right to capitulate one inch on dearly bought democratic freedoms. To apologize for the exercise of free speech sends the worst possible message. It says quite simply, “Your beliefs are sacred and deeply felt, while ours are cheap, and of no consequence.”

To any humanist who values liberty and understands history, freedom of expression is non-negotiable. To those Muslims who declare that we secular Westerners simply don’t appreciate the weight of the insult to Islam in the Danish cartoons we must respond, perhaps it’s you who don’t understand. The triumph of our civilization is that churches and mobs are not allowed to dictate public policy. This idea is as profound an element of our culture as the beliefs you hold sacred are in yours.

We have been where Muslim nations are today. There was a time in Denmark when priests could have you executed for what they considered an insult to their god. Once, in England, France and Germany, mobs could demand that unbelievers be massacred and beheaded, and then go on to carry out that sentence with impunity.

Thanks to Latimer, Ridley, and countless other heroes, should the Muslim mobs of England attempt to go beyond threats, they will have to face a civilian police force which answers to the democratic parliament of a free and secular society.

Muslims in European and North American countries have the right to demonstrate against any publication they find offensive. That right is as fundamental to our society as the right to publish the offending materials in the first place. When we capitulate to those demonstrations, when we apologize for the exercise of free speech, we speed the day when both our freedom and theirs will be lost.

Cartoons often offend. During the recent federal election I was offended by cartoons in the Yukon News, where this column appears weekly, which depicted both of the incumbent’s rivals as ranting idiots. I considered them personally offensive as well as blatant electioneering on the part of the cartoonist, but his right to draw those cartoons and the paper’s right to publish them is as important to me as my right to criticize. Abandon this, and we abandon our history.

British foreign minister Jack Straw declared on Friday, “I believe that the republication of these cartoons has been insulting, it has been insensitive, it has been disrespectful and it has been wrong. There are taboos in every religion. It is not the case that there is open season in respect of all aspects of Christian rites and rituals in the name of free speech.”

Straw is wrong. Between insensitivity and repression, there is no choice. In the name of free speech, there is always open season on religious rites and rituals, as much as on political ones. On the day that this is no longer the case, the parliament in which Straw serves will have lost all its meaning, and all its authority, and mobs and churches will rule England once more. Latimer and Ridley didn’t burn at the stake for the right to say sensitive, inoffensive, respectful things about the church.

They burned for freedom.