Freedom of Speech and Criticism of Religion: What are the Limits?

eLaw Journal, Vol. 14, No. 94, 2007

28 Pages Posted: 30 Nov 2010

See all articles by Ben Clarke

Ben Clarke

University of Notre Dame Australia

Date Written: May 29, 2007


This paper examines the challenges that confront the international community in seeking to harmonize fundamentally different world views. It explores antimonies that arise when freedom of expression and freedom of religion collide. A number of relevant controversies are noted. These include those surrounding: Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses; the Danish cartoons; the Dutch film Submission Part I; and the banning of head scarves in public institutions in some European States (5) but not others. (6) An expansive literature on these topics has already emerged. (7) Simultaneously, a number of ‘atheist manifestos’ have been published. Many of these books directly criticize world religions. (8) Some single out religion as the primary cause of sectarian hatred and violence. (9) Somewhat surprisingly, many recent books of this kind have not triggered the level of protest that has followed earlier criticisms of monotheistic faiths. Nonetheless they feed into the growing debate over the role of religion in contemporary societies, (10) and whether freedom of expression must be exercised with sensitivity and respect for the religious beliefs of others. The core question to be explored here is: Does freedom of speech include the right to publicly ridicule the religious beliefs of others? This question is addressed by reference to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) (hereinafter ‘the Covenant’), General Comments of the Human Rights Committee, jurisprudence of international and domestic courts, and the writings of legal commentators.

The paper concludes with observations about the phenomena of extremism and religious violence. It highlights the role democracy and human rights can play in building ideologies that encourage religious moderation, tolerance, human security and protection of minority rights. These observations are made with the knowledge that the Islamic world has always belonged to the human rights movement. This is evident from the adoption by Muslim States of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (1948) and the Covenant. Significantly, no country has ever voted against the UDHR. Moreover, almost all States (including the vast majority of Muslim States) have now ratified the Covenant.

Keywords: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, hate speech, international human rights law, Islamic law, apostasy, crimes against religion

Suggested Citation

Clarke, Ben, Freedom of Speech and Criticism of Religion: What are the Limits? (May 29, 2007). eLaw Journal, Vol. 14, No. 94, 2007, Available at SSRN:

Ben Clarke (Contact Author)

University of Notre Dame Australia ( email )

29 Shepherd St. Level 1
Sydney, New South Wales 2008
+61 8 94330607 (Phone)


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