Free Speech vs. Religion: An Interview with Onkar Ghate

Je Suis Charlie

Dr. Onkar Ghate is a senior fellow and the Chief Content Officer at the Ayn Rand Institute. He has written and lectured extensively on philosophy and serves as Dean for the Institute’s Objectivist Academic Center in Irvine, CA. The Undercurrent’s Jon Glatfelter had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Ghate regarding the recent shooting at the “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, as well as religion and free speech more broadly.

The Undercurrent: Many of the major U.S. media players, including CNN and FOX, still have not published the cartoon contest’s winning piece. Why do you think that is?

Dr. Ghate: I haven’t kept tabs on which outlets have and have not published that cartoon, but there were similar responses in regard to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and, before that, the Danish cartoons in 2005-2006. Sometimes a media outlet would try to explain why it is not showing its audience a crucial element of the news story, and I think these explanations have revealed a mixture of motives at work.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list: fear, cowardice, appeasement, sympathy. Let me say a word on each. Some media outlets are afraid of violent reprisals and of the ongoing security costs that would be necessary to protect staff. And because the U.S. government refuses to take an unequivocal stand in defense of the right to free speech, the totalitarians are emboldened, which makes violent reprisals more likely. So that’s one reason. But despite this legitimate fear, I do think there is often an element of cowardice. The likelihood of an attack can be overstated, and of course if more news outlets publish the cartoons, it is more and more difficult to intimidate and attack them all, and less and less likely that a particular organization will be singled out. Here there is strength in numbers. A third motive is the appeaser’s false hope that if he gives in and doesn’t publish the cartoons, he will have satisfied the attackers and no further threats or demands will follow. Finally, many are sympathetic: out of deference to the non-rational, faith-based emotions of Muslims, they don’t publish the cartoons, even though those cartoons are news. They view the cartoonists and publishers as the troublemakers and villains. (The roots of this sympathy I think are complex and often ugly.)

The Undercurrent: Some have condemned the contest’s organizer, Pamela Geller, and the winning artist, Bosch Fawstin. They say there’s a world of difference between good-natured free expression and malicious speech intended solely to antagonize. What do you think?

Dr. Ghate: I disagree with many things that I’ve heard Pamela Gellar say but I refuse to discuss her real or alleged flaws when totalitarians are trying to kill her, as though those flaws, even if real, justify or mitigate the actions of the aspiring killers. The New York Times editorial to which you link is a disgrace. After a sanctimonious paragraph saying that we all have the right to publish offensive material and that no matter how offensive that material may be, it does not justify murder, the rest of the editorial goes on to criticize the victim of attempted murder. As my colleague and others have noted, this is like denouncing a rape victim instead of her rapists.

And notice what the editorial glosses over: in the first paragraph stating that offensive material does not justify murder, it concludes with the seemingly innocuous point that “it is incumbent on leaders of all religious faiths to make this clear to their followers.”

This is the actual issue. Why don’t you similarly have to tell a group of biochemists or historians, when they disagree about a theory, that their disagreements don’t justify murdering each other? The answers lies in the difference between reason and faith, as I’m sure we’ll discuss, a difference the editorial dares not discuss.

But contra the editorial, the Garland event had a serious purpose. Look at the winning cartoon: it makes a serious point.


You Can't Drawn Me


Whether we will admit it or not, there exists today a growing number of totalitarians who seek to impose their version of Islam on the world and to dictate what we in the West can and cannot say. A precedent-setting episode was the fatwah against Salman Rushdie. A foreign leader openly calls for the assassination of a Western author and those involved in the publishing of his book, The Satanic Verses, and the U.S. and other Western governments do virtually nothing in response, sometimes worse than nothing.

Fast forward a few years and should it be surprising that there exists a climate of self-censorship with respect to Islam? Western writers, artists and cartoonists are afraid to publish things that might be deemed blasphemous by Muslims. To investigate the extent of the self-censorship in regard to illustrations of Muhammad, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten runs a cartoon contest in 2005. Worldwide riots and outrage ensue, death threats proliferate, cartoonists and newspaper editors go into hiding, some are later attacked, and the official Western response to all this is again mostly pathetic.

To me this is a serious problem. There are many other episodes that could be mentioned to drive home the extent of the problem, but a simple way to appreciate its extent is to ask yourself whether you can imagine that instead of the sacrilegious Book of Mormon winning over audiences and critics on Broadway, it is the equally sacrilegious musical The Koran. Right now, this isn’t even in the realm of the possible. Remember what happened when, in the face of the Danish cartoon crisis, Trey Parker and Matt Stone tried to depict Muhammad on South Park?

Now in the face of a totalitarian movement that commands us not to utter blasphemous thoughts and threatens us with death if we do, coupled with our own governments’ appeasing responses, I think it becomes the responsibility of any self-respecting citizen to refuse to cower and for us as a culture to refuse to collapse into self-censorship. Instead, proudly and defiantly utter the blasphemous thoughts. I think a worthy project during the Rushdie years would have been to raise a fund to make his life in hiding easier, purchase the rights to his book for a generous sum, and then publish and distribute millions of copies for free. Similarly with the Charlie Hebdo assassinations, I argued that the forbidden cartoons should be plastered all over the Internet. Let it be seen that the attempt to ban these works achieves the opposite. Make it clear that the totalitarian’s goal requires killing us all. Declare that I, too, am Spartacus.

I view the Fawstin cartoon as in this same spirit and thus as making a serious, needed point.


Charlie Hebdo Cartoons


The Undercurrent: I have friends who want to stand up for free speech but are worried about being labeled “intolerant” by their friends and acquaintances. How do you think everyday citizens should act?

Dr. Ghate: I’ve already indicated part of my answer. The totalitarians’ goal is to silence us and make us obey. The current tactic is assassination of those who dare speak. The hope is that these attacks will create enough fear to produce widespread self-censorship. Unfortunately, that hope is materializing. Defy them. Put up on your Facebook or Instagram pages the forbidden cartoons and explain that you are purposely doing so in the name of free speech and in order to combat the climate of self-censorship. Or put up links to places that do this, such as ARI.

More generally, among some of the best people today in the West, there is a frightening lack of understanding of the right to free speech, why it is vital, who its enemies are at home and abroad, past and present. Educate yourself about this crucial right and its history, and then try to convince your friends and acquaintances of the importance of the issue.

If you get called names in the process, try to use this as a conversation starter and don’t become defensive. Ask the person what he means by “intolerance” and if he can state his actual position. Is his view that we should obey every religious taboo? Many Hindus regard cows as sacred and find it offensive that we eat beef. Should we stop eating beef out of tolerance or respect? Or should we stop doing so only if a group of organized Hindus starts assassinating chefs at steakhouses? Won’t this encourage religionists to use violence? Or perhaps his view is that we should not criticize religion? Why not? And does he apply this to all religions, or just Islam? If just Islam, why does it warrant special status?

So my advice is that if you are truly talking about friends and acquaintances with whom you have a positive relationship, treat them as open to persuasion even if they begin by dismissing or belittling your position, politely stand your ground, and discuss and argue.

But of course this presupposes that you have some understanding of the issues involved.

The Undercurrent: In a recent panel with Flemming Rose, author of The Tyranny of Silence, you said that an individual’s right to free speech is one application of a more fundamental right: their right to think. Could you explain that?

Dr. Ghate: The great battle for freedom in the West was a battle for freedom of thought, including everything this freedom presupposes and everything it leads to. The right to freedom of thought is the right to think for yourself, which means the right to engage in a reasoning process: to gather evidence, logically analyze and weigh it, entertain different arguments, form and follow hypotheses, perform experiments, pursue various lines of questioning, etc., etc. A reasoning process can have no master other than facts and logic. It cannot be subordinate to the approval of a king, pope, president, or fellow citizen, no matter how much they disagree or are offended by what you think. An aspect of this process is to be able to freely discuss and debate ideas with others, and to then present your views and conclusions in an effort to persuade others. Freedom of thought and freedom of speech go together.

Historically, the opponents of freedom of thought and freedom of speech are political authorities operating with the sanction of religion (or some other mystical dogma, like Marxism or Nazism) and religious leaders wielding political power.

The Undercurrent: If you view faith and force as intimately linked phenomena, do you see reason and freedom as linked? If so, how has the United States, with its largely Judeo-Christian culture, remained arguably more free than less religious parts of Europe?

Dr. Ghate: Yes, the connection between faith and force and between reason and freedom is a philosophical issue that some thinkers in the Enlightenment made great strides in identifying and that I think Ayn Rand fully explains.

Very briefly, to extol faith is to extol, in thought and action, blind submission and obedience. As a natural consequence, force will be seen as a means of achieving the good: you can make someone blindly submit and obey by threatening to burn him at the stake or to chop his head off.

But what you cannot achieve by the instruments of terror is rational understanding, knowledge, enlightenment. These require that a person himself initiate and direct a process of reason. And this means that if the goal is rational understanding and knowledge, the individual must have the freedom to think and speak. This is why the Age of Enlightenment became the champion of these freedoms.

To answer the second part of the question, the U.S. is not a Judeo-Christian nation. It is the first nation to consciously separate church from state. It is the last, great accomplishment of the Age of Enlightenment and is built on the Greek-Roman achievements that began to be rediscovered during the Renaissance. Nor is it true that Europe is less faith-based than is America. Yes, Americans are overall more overtly religious, but the faith-based doctrines of nationalism, fascism, socialism and communism swept across Europe in a way that they never did in the U.S. Since the time of the American Revolution and its grounding in the Age of Enlightenment, culturally both Europe and America have moved in the direction of mysticism, but Europe has been more mystical than the U.S. and consequently less free.

For a fuller discussion of these issues, you can watch my talks Religion vs. Freedom and The Morality of Freedom.

The Undercurrent: In his recent interview with The Undercurrent, Bosch Fawstin labeled himself “anti-Islam.” He described Islam as a fundamentally “totalitarian ideology.” Is it different from other religions in this respect?

Dr. Ghate: There is in essence no difference. Any mystical, faith-based doctrine whose leaders are trying to usurp the role of a rational philosophy in human life—as Christians did during the Greek-Roman period, as socialist-Marxists and fascist-Nazis did during the 19th and 20th centuries, and as Islamists are trying to do today—is dictatorial and becomes totalitarian.

Each of these movements is seeking blind submission and obedience to a comprehensive worldview. It should come as no surprise that the daily submission and obedience they desire will eventually be enforced at gunpoint.

This is true of ISIS, of the theocrats in Iran and Saudi Arabia, of the Taliban, of the communists in Russia and China, of Protestants like Calvin and Martin Luther, and of leaders of the Catholic Church.

The Undercurrent: A widely held view is that Islam, to say nothing of the world’s other major religions, is peaceful. In fact, immediately post-9/11, President George W. Bush described Islam as a religion “of peace” that has been “hijacked.” Do you agree?

Dr. Ghate: Like much of what comes out of George W. Bush’s mouth, this is the opposite of the truth. As I’ve already indicated, the essence of religion, namely faith, sanctions the use of force. If blind submission and obedience are the goals, coercion is an effective means. A worldview accepted on faith encourages not peace but war. Centuries of religious conflict and warfare are not some inexplicable accident.

Also no accident is that the greatest of America’s founding fathers, Jefferson and Madison, deliberately separated church from state. They did so partly in the name of peace. Let us live under principles and laws whose origin is reason, not blind faith, and we can all rationally agree to them and live peacefully together.

The Undercurrent: It seems that free expression is under assault on a number of fronts today. What does this issue of free speech mean to you personally? Why have you chosen to dedicate a significant portion of your scholarship to defending it?

Dr. Ghate: Because of their viewpoints, many of the Enlightenment’s thinkers were on the run from the political and religious authorities. But they eventually won and put an end to such arbitrary power. It is an enormous accomplishment and an enormous gift, not to be surrendered.

I’m an intellectual. My entire career revolves around the reasoned investigation and communication of philosophical ideas and theories, ideas and theories that others often find offensive. If I won’t stand up for my right to freedom of thought and speech, and fight for these, I have no business calling myself an intellectual. And I have no business professing admiration for Locke, Jefferson, Madison and other heroes of freedom, if I stand idly by as people try to smash their achievements.

The Undercurrent: Do you have any recommendations for those who want to explore the topics of free speech and religion in more depth? Can we expect any future projects or events on these issues from you or the Institute?

Dr. Ghate: I’ve already mentioned a few things of mine and of others at ARI that people can read and watch. Flemming Rose’s book, to which you linked, is also definitely worth reading. For those who don’t know, he was the editor who published the Danish cartoons; I admire his benevolence and courage.

In a few weeks I will be speaking at OCON, where I will address some of these issues in more detail, including some issues that we did not have time to touch on today. The talk’s titled “Charlie Hebdo, the West and the Need to Ridicule Religion.” I hope to see some of your readers there!

And of course in the months and years to come, look to ARI to continue to uphold and defend the individual’s right to freedom of thought and speech.

The Undercurrent is happy to offer interviewees a platform for their ideas. Their responses do not necessarily represent the views of the publication at large.

Creative commons-licensed image courtesy of Flickr user Valentina Calà

Charlie Hebdo image from November 3, 2011 cover

Add Your Comments