Religion: Sample our intellectual buffet. Or make your own meal.

Timothy Garton Ash introduces a sample tour of the content on our site.

Religion has always been a problem for free speech and free speech for religion. By its nature, religion tends to define an area of the sacred, and demanding special respect for it. Our principle – respect for the believer, but not necessarily for the content of the belief – attempts to get at the way in which people of all faiths, and none, can live together both freely and peacefully. We must be free both to express our religious faiths, and to question those of others, without coming to blows.

We want to introduce you to a selection of the content we have on the site on this issue. All printable items can be downloaded as an automated PDF. Alternatively, you can simply display it live from the internet, and play video and audio. Obviously, you can pick and choose to suit your own interest, or those of the group you are working with. Note that almost all this content is available in a number of our 13 languages – and some of it in all of them. To choose your language, click on the language button at the top of the screen.


You might want to start by looking at my Introduction. This spells out many of the issues that have arisen, and explains the thinking behind our principle in more detail.

It could be interesting then to turn to a few specific cases, showing how religion and free speech is an issue in many different places and contexts, some of them unexpected.

Some interesting cases

Here for example, is the Polish pop star who was charged with “offending religious feelings” after she said she did not believe in the stories told in the Bible.

The famous case of Pussy Riot and their anti-Putin performance in a Russian Orthodox Church.

The question whether Jerry Springer: The Opera should have been shown on the BBC.

Hilary Clinton and many others attended the ‘Book of Mormon’ musical. The church that it satirizes responded to the musical with exemplary restraint. Should not all religions follow their example.

Compare this to the “Innocence of Muslims” YouTube video and the response it received.

Just offensive?

What about members of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church congregation, protesting at the funerals of soldiers?

Here as elsewhere, there is a question about where the line is to be drawn between what is simply offensive, and what should be blocked or punished by law. Consider, for example, the case of a group, Jews for Jesus, who published a video depicting Jesus as a victim of the Holocaust.

Do countries like India face special challenges?

Religious faith is expressed not just through language and images, but through architecture and ritual. The management of India’s temples is an issue about freedom of expression.

It is not just words, and images, that can become an issue where religion and free speech rub up against each other. In India, the question of whether beef or pork is served in particular contexts is such an issue.

At the 2013 Jaipur Festival, I took part in a very interesting conversation with Ian Buruma, Reza Aslan, Ahdaf Souief and Shoma Chaudhury about the relationship between religion and politics and how to deal with religious threats to free speech.

Salman Rushdie on the land of his birth 

Salman Rushdie describes how sectarianism and taking offence trumps free speech in India and  worries about the brave new world of Narendra Modi.


In a remarkable number of European countries, blasphemy is still an offence. French scholar Alain Bouldoires calls for a ‘right to blaspheme’.

Consider also the case of the Pakistani Christian woman accused of blasphemy, and condemned to death.

Hate speech

There is always a question where criticism of a particular faith (e.g., Islam, Judaism) shades into attacks on a particular group identified by that faith. The trial of an anti-Islamic populist Dutch politician highlighted some of these issues.

Iranian cleric Mohsen Kadivar explains why he believes that insults to religion should be recognised as a crime.

In the liberal tradition, the classic answer to hateful speech is counter-speech. A remarkable, entirely spontaneous, example of online counter-speech was offered by a British Muslim in response to the highly offensive YouTube video “The Innocence of Muslims”.

In and after the Arab Spring

One place where the relationship between religion and free speech continues to be a major issue is the Middle East after the Arab Spring. Rory McCarthy looks at one country, Tunisia, where free speech seemed in 2014 still to be winning.

In Egypt, al-Azhar, one of the most venerable institutions of Islamic learning, produced a Bill of Rights in 2012. This made a strong endorsement of freedom of expression, although suggesting a full equality of respect only to adherents of the three Abrahamic faiths.

And the danger of tweeting: The trial of an Egyptian media baron for a Tweet.

Charles Taylor and Martha Nussbaum

If you want to stretch your mind, here are two leading philosophers addressing exclusion on the basis of religion. Here is Charles Taylor talking about Quebec. And here is Martha Nussbaum talking about freedom and diversity, with special reference to religion.


If you wanted a structured debate in this area, our partners at lay out these three:

This House believes freedom of expression is more important than religious sensitivities”.

This House would penalise religious hate speech”.

This House believes Christians should be allowed to wear the cross at work”.

We hope you find this useful and interesting. Do please give us your feedback, either by posting comments on the site or by emailing

Enjoy your own debate.

Timothy Garton Ash, on behalf of the Free Speech Debate team.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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