If I had to choose one thing that I love most about Berkeley, it would be its commitment to freedom of speech.
Coming from a society that is extremely conservative and rigid, I don’t take this freedom for granted. In Pakistan, my views regarding religion were considered controversial and unorthodox. I asked too many questions. I didn’t accept things at face value. I challenged the sexism that I perceived within the religion. And for this, I was repeatedly told to shut up — sometimes before I even got a chance to say anything.
But here in Berkeley, I know that my voice won’t be censored. I have this soapbox from which I can speak out about my views. When I first started writing the summer blog on Islam, a lot of people I knew advised me not to. They didn’t mind my views — they were just concerned about my safety, and they had good reason to be worried: Speaking about Islam when one’s views go against the accepted beliefs is not encouraged. And for a while, I considered shutting up. I contemplated changing my theme, sticking to something safer and silencing my voice completely.
While panicking and second guessing my blog theme, I came across The Daily Californian’s Free Speech Movement issue. Reading about Berkeley’s history of free speech made me realize that I’m meant to be here. That was all it took to convince me that what I was doing was right for me. I know that my views are not always accepted, but for once I have an opportunity to speak up, and I’m not going to silence myself just because some people are offended.
Religion is granted impunity: It is immune from criticism, and that is dangerous. People who want to have an honest and open dialogue about religion are often condemned and even murdered in conservative societies. This is especially true for Islam; most Muslims don’t want to acknowledge the need for reform and shy away from addressing issues within the religion.
I don’t understand why some religious people perceive any form of dissent as a threat against their religion. If their faith is strong enough, then my questions or differing views should do nothing to shake it. In fact, it might be beneficial to both sides to have a discussion about religion to better understand the matter.
When it comes to speaking about religion, people are too scared about offending others. Even in Berkeley, the center of the Free Speech Movement, most people are so concerned about being politically correct that they end up stifling open discussion. But that is not what freedom of speech is about. Freedom of speech does not mean that no one should be offended or hurt. And it also does not guarantee that the speaker is protected from ridicule or criticism.
But because of the desire to be politically correct and not appear like a bigot, people shy away from making controversial comments. Bill Maher put it best when he asked, “Whoever told you you only had to hear what didn’t upset you?” When freedom of speech gets limited to speaking about issues that are completely mild and upset no one, it isn’t freedom of speech anymore.
Although I don’t always agree with him, I love Maher and his courage to openly address issues that other people are too scared to address. Sure, he can be very direct, but he has the right to say whatever he wants. In turn, people have the right to criticize and argue with him — though it would be a lot better if people actually made valid arguments instead of simply feeling offended. When Muslim students tried to prevent Maher from speaking at commencement, it was uncalled for. But staying true to its free speech legacy, UC Berkeley maintained its decision and didn’t silence a voice just because it was seen as offensive by some people.
When speaking about religion, people shouldn’t have to worry about offending others. Religion is just like any other ideology that should be subject to scrutiny and discussion.
It is always preferable for people to get their facts right before speaking up about a topic. When figures such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an ex-Muslim atheist, and Richard Dawkins speak about Islam, their views are often Islamophobic and misrepresentative of the religion. For example, when Hirsi Ali, whose experience growing up in a Muslim country was traumatic, speaks about Islam, she generalizes her experience to be representative of the entire religion, which is misleading. But even then, these writers have the right to say whatever they want.
Some people like to ridicule religion just for the sake of it, and although it is not respectful or even beneficial, it is still a part of freedom of speech. Stupid people irritate me, but I acknowledge their right to speak, even in their ignorance.
I’m no stranger to criticism. I’m used to getting a lot of backlash for my views, but that is expected because I am speaking about religion. I don’t mind it, though. In fact, I appreciate it when people take the time to understand my arguments and leave insightful and logically sound counter-arguments instead of just getting mad and telling me that I’m going to hell.
Freedom of speech should be extended to everyone, not just to those with whom you agree. For me, free speech is what Berkeley represents, and for that, I am forever grateful.
Shanzeh Khurram writes the Friday blog on feminism and religion. You can contact her at [email protected].