Is it right to ban religiously offensive material from the media? I was thinking about this the other day, especially with regards to when, two years ago, the Muslim world exploded in uproar over the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammed. In South Africa, which has a sizeable Muslim community, the Johannesburg High Court at the time banned newspapers in the country from publishing the cartoons, arguing that the sketches impinged on the constitutional rights of the Muslim community to dignity. This in turn set off a debate about the freedom of press in this country.
I understand how offensive the cartoons were, and still are, and I can understand the pain that some Muslims feel about the tasteless depiction of someone who they respect and admire, but after much thought, I now believe it was incorrect for the High Court to ban the cartoons from the press. The reason is this: through the ban, the High Court removed the ability for me to make my own decision on whether the cartoons were offensive or not. The Court – in response to the Muslim Judicial Council, who applied for the interdict – in affect forced a Muslim point of view on thousands of non-Muslims in South Africa. It was as if the entire population, irrespective of religious belief, were forced to live – in terms of deciding about the cartoons – by the Muslim code. In a strange way, as a non-Muslim, I felt cheated by this decision.
But thank goodness for the internet. The cartoons were displayed on thousands of blogs and websites, and after surfing the internet, looking at the cartoons, reading different points of view, I came to the decision that the sketches are indeed offensive in nature. But the important thing was that, through the use of the internet, I had arrived at this decision without any help from the Muslim Judicial Council, or the High Court. I had made up my own mind on the issue.
Not only does general banning of religiously offensive material forcibly remove from others the freedom to choose for themselves, but it also has a negative consequence for the group who calls for the ban. If someone bans offensive material, then they miss out on the opportunity to educate broader society on what offensive material actually looks like. The Muslim Judicial Council would have been a lot more progressive in their approach if they had allowed the printing of the cartoons, but at the same time write a piece, appearing next to each printed cartoon, explaining why such material is offensive to Islam. This would have raised general awareness of, and sensitivity to, Islam through public debate, and would have reduced the chances that someone else in the future, acting out of ignorance, might produce something just as offensive.
So we should tread carefully when there is a call to ban offensive material, because censorship stifles both intellectual autonomy and healthy public debate.