For centuries now, free speech and the protection of religious sensibilities have been warring enemies. Both need protection from each other but they also need protection from censorship by other forces.
The debate between the forces that embrace artistic expression and the advocates of religious protection has been ongoing in many arenas, among them, social media. One of the most recent controversies has involved America’s beloved pop music star Katy Perry.
Known for theatrical excesses in her videos, some critics argued, Perry this time had run afoul with members in the worldwide Muslim community with her new video for the song “Dark Horse.” As a bejeweled Cleopatra, her accusers say Perry has egregiously violated the most revered edict of Sharia blasphemy restriction laws — killing Allah.
In the video, Perry appearing as a queen-warrior shoots a laser zapping a pharaoh wearing two pendants, one of which says “Allah,” meaning God in Arabic. And in the twinkling of an eye, the pharaoh disintegrates into sand, and his pendant disappears with him.
Depending on what side of the debate you are on — free speech versus protecting religious sensibilities — Perry was either being her usual artistic no holds barred creative self or she was just simply culturally unaware.
But for Shazad Iqbal of Bradford of West Yorkshire it didn’t matter what the reason was. And he demonstrated his outrage by drumming up more than 65,000 signatures, with an online petition on Change.org demanding that Perry’s video “Dark Horse” be removed immediately; his argument was that Perry does not have the freedom to insult or blaspheme people’s deities under the protection of free speech.
“Blasphemy is clearly conveyed in the video, since Katy Perry (who appears to be representing an opposition of God) engulfs the believer and the word God in flames,” reads the petition. “This is the reason for lodging the petition so that people from different walks of life, different religions and from different parts of the world, agree that the video promotes blasphemy, using the name of God in an irrelevant and distasteful manner would be considered inappropriate by any religion.”
While clearly Perry is no enemy of Islam her new video was seen nonetheless as giving a black eye to the faith.
And unlike notorious public offenders of the Muslim faith — Iranian novelist Salman Rushdie, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, Somali-born writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, to name a few- there were no effigies of Katy Perry burning in Cairo or Karachi. No fatwa issued to have her hunted down, stoned or put to death.
However, the question of Perry’s freedom of expression versus Iqbal’s religious sensibilities rages on even after Perry excised the offending footage. And proponents of free speech argue that since 9/11 their rights are more easily violated or put on lockdown for fear of inciting violence or committing blasphemy.
But people on the other side of this debate like Iqbal argue that restrictions on religious expression have risen rapidly since 9/11. The Pew Research Center corroborates Iqbal’s assertion revealing that 75 percent of the world’s population where religious restrictions are already in place have indeed imposed hasher laws. And countries that never had religious restrictions in the 21st Century, like France, now do, banning Muslim women from wearing the niqab.
The debate between Perry’s freedom of expression versus Iqbal’s religious sensibilities reminds us that we all now reside in a more interconnected and religiously pluralistic world.
But in so doing, I cannot help but wonder are we really becoming more culturally sensitive or merely thin-skinned.
Rev. Irene Monroe