Free speech the ultimate tolerance

The complaints from Middle East countries that depictions of Islam by those in the West are intolerant is a prime example of a group wanting every other group held to a standard to which it steadfastly refuses to hold itself.

The Obama administration is meeting over the next few days with representatives of more than two dozen governments to address religious intolerance around the world, including some Muslim governments that want mockery of their religion to be flatly illegal.

First, we believe that a religion should always be a matter for the individual to decide, regardless of what faith -- or lack of faith -- that individual professes. Given the tenets of the various religious beliefs throughout the world, the environment is always ripe for friction. Unfortunately, far too many people have been all too willing over the millennia to let those differences fester and boil over into outright acts of violence and war.

That is one of the great aspects of the U.S. Constitution. Regardless of what your religious beliefs are, the U.S. government is powerless to require you to abandon them and adopt a state-sanctioned religion. Quite frankly, that is how it should be. You, as an American citizen, should be free to worship openly and freely as you see fit.

There has been backlash against Islam in the United States over the past decade, primarily because of the devastating attacks that will forever be known as 9/11. There is no getting around the fact that those murders were conducted by Muslim extremists and that many Americans have held the entire religion accountable for the actions of those murderers and their confederates.

On the other hand, there is never a shortage of horror stories out of nations headed by Muslim governments about attacks on Christians and others who practice other faiths. The only religious tolerance in those nations is tolerance for the religion that the state endorses, and that is a violation of what should be a universal human right.

And a second, equally important universal human right should be the right to speak your mind on an issue, whether it is political, social or religious. That includes the right to criticize what you see as wrong and to utilize methods such as satire to get your point across.

Millions of Americans were outraged in 1989 when artist Andres Serrano exhibited a 1987 photograph he created that depicted a plastic crucifix submerged in what Serrano said was his own urine. The $15,000 that Serrano received for his work came partially from the National Endowment for the Arts, which came under political fire here for its association with an image that drew the ire of Christians. The image was an affront to many, but Serrano's decision to create the piece was constitutionally protected.

Islam is no different. Those who practice the religion have every right to be angry if a European cartoonist creates a satirical drawing of Muhammad or if a novelist like Salmon Rushdie writes a novel with Muhammad as a character, but issuing assassination orders against the "offenders" is not justice. It is state-sanctioned attempted murder.

If we have learned nothing else in mankind's time on this planet, we should have learned by now that arguments about religion should be won with debate and reasoning, not with bombs and guns. However popular or unpopular Islam is in the United States, it is still practiced freely. Non-Muslims can't say that in places like Egypt, Syria and Iran.

This is a case of where a peculiar form of tolerance is being demanded by decidedly intolerant governments. Whatever the result of this conference, the United States should stand against any move for an international law against blasphemy. Religion should be practiced freely, but it should never be used as tool to quash free thought and speech.

-- The Albany Herald Editorial Board