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February 22, 2013

Question:  Is it ever OK to satirize religious leaders or beliefs?

With this question, we encounter, not the clash of civilizations, but the clash of values. Those who would defend “freedom of speech” would argue that nothing short of a criminal, i.e. an exclusive legal definition, should be exempted from satire.  But the religious who revere the sacred, would naturally not countenance the satire of their holy figures or cherished beliefs.  By definition, satire is mockery and abasement.  It follows that it is not appropriate to ridicule what another holds dear, be that God, your family, country, race, ethnicity, religious leader, or beliefs.

What other ethical principles should we invoke in order to clarify the answer? The Golden Rule comes to mind, as does that princely virtue, common courtesy. One  adage says “to give no offence.” Another says “to take no offence.” These precepts would clearly exclude the ridicule of religious leaders or beliefs.

Now jokes are appropriate if the joker and the target of his mockery are both laughing. If both parties are laughing, we can conclude that harmless fun and comic relief are at work. Both parties feel comfortable enough to laugh and to be laughed at within the comfortable walls of friendship. But the satire of religious leaders or beliefs can start a raging fire that will prove impossible to extinguish, as recent events have shown.

Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892), the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, revealed: “For the tongue is a smoldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century.”

His son and successor, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1844-1921), emphasized: “Beware! Beware! Lest ye offend any heart! Beware! Beware! Lest ye hurt any soul! Beware! Beware! Lest ye deal unkindly toward any person! Beware! Beware! Lest ye be the cause of hopelessness to any creature! Should one become the cause of grief to any one heart, or of despondency to any one soul, it were better to hide oneself in the lowest depths of the earth than to walk upon the earth.”
-  Jack McLean

Printed in the The Ottawa Citizen February 22, 2013
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