Bread. October 2007
Ake Green and the freedom to monger hate
Recently, Derek Hong, a pastor with the Church of our Saviour, well known
to be one of the most virulently anti-gay churches in Singapore, told
his audience that gays and lesbians "want to silence all parties,
especially ... religious institutions."
He said, "the gay activists, the gay activist lobby is actually being used by Satan to undermine the gospel and the word of God, the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and the word of God."
"Recently in Hong Kong -- some of you may have come across this and of course some time back in Canada -- some people wanted the Bible to be banned as hate literature because of the passages that condemns homosexual practice."
I was a little disappointed that he didn't mention the celebrated case from Sweden where things went further than "some people want", where a clergyman was in fact prosecuted in court. Wouldn't that be a far better example to rouse good Christian folks with?
After all, isn't Scandinavia well known for its radical liberalism?
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It was no ordinary sermon, for he contacted the media beforehand in the hope of getting them to cover it. The prosecution would later argue that this showed that his intent went beyond preaching a religion to inflaming popular opinion against a target group.
Despite Green's efforts, the media didn't show up. As he himself complained aloud to the congregation that Sunday morning:
Undaunted, he sent the text to the local newspaper, where a local gay organisation saw it and made an official complaint to the police. Green was asked for a recording of the sermon which somehow he had, and was then indicted. 
Let me provide you some choice quotes. There is this part where he blamed gay people for Aids:
Then this part where he connected gay people with bestiality:
And then blamed gay people for leading the way to paedophilia:
Homosexual orientation is chosen, he asserted:
And this one sounds awfully like Derek Hong, where Ake Green said gay people are irredeemably gripped by evil.
Ake Green was charged for instigating hate against a group of people under a law that had recently been passed by the Swedish parliament. The relevant section of the law (BRB 16:6 para.8) said:
On 29 June 2004, the Lower Court in Kalmar found him guilty and sentenced him to one month in jail. However, the prosecutor felt the sentence was inadequate and appealed it.
The appeals court, however, overturned the conviction on 11 February 2005, citing Green's right to freedom of speech and religion. Naturally, the chief prosecutor was even less satisfied. In his view, he told reporters, Green's comments did amount to hate speech, and so he sought a review by the Supreme Court.
Thus this became one of the most celebrated cases pitting freedom of expression against well-intentioned laws that seek to act against hate speech.
The Supreme Court delivered its verdict on 29 November 2005. It concluded that the defendant had indeed breached the law. The court's decision said,
However, the court also had to consider whether the law was valid in the first place in relation to the Swedish constitution and to the European Convention on Human Rights.
In effect, the Supreme Court said that while Swedish law is clearcut, and Ake Green was in violation of it, European law requires an assessment of proportionality and context. Hence it would be "probable" that the European Court of Human Rights would not uphold the conviction.
Hans Ytterberg, Sweden's Ombudsman against discrimination with respect to sexual orientation, wrote a paper for the country's law journal pointing out that the final twist was strange. "Probable" does not connote any certainty. If the Supreme Court could not be certain how the European Court of Human Rights would rule on such a case, then they should have found Ake Green guilty under Swedish law and let Green appeal to the European Court to try to reverse it. That way, a definitive judgement would be obtained from the European Court.
He was gratified that in a subsequent case in which a restaurant manager verbally abused and threw out 2 lesbians from their table, the court stood its ground and found the manager guilty. Ytterberg believes the court has taken his criticism to heart.
* * * * *
Throughout the crisis, the European governments (with the possible exception of British) stood by the principle of free speech.
It is therefore worth noting that the principle of free speech cuts both ways: while religionists gain the freedom to attack their targets, so others have the same freedom to insult and parody a religion. Both rely on the same principle.
It would be inconsistent to say that insulting religious feelings is to be banned, but those with religious conviction can go about insulting other groups. To do so, would be to make a claim of special immunity for any speech that is religiously-based. But why should religion have any special immunity?
Singapore's laws in fact show precisely this kind of double-standard. In the newly revised Penal Code, special protection is given to "religious or racial feelings".
A preacher in a mosque, or even outside it, can make all sorts of offensive allegations about women and their "immorality", a pastor in a church can say all sorts of outrageous things about gays and lesbians, but are you allowed to shout back?
The Singapore government has said that the Prophet Mohammed cartoons would not be allowed into Singapore. This would include the one -- there were 12 cartoons -- that showed Muhammad with a crescent moon behind his head. The middle part of the crescent is obscured, revealing only the ends which resemble a devil's horns. But would it be an offence to caricature gays and lesbians as "agents of Satan", say, in a church newsletter?
Another cartoon has the prophet with a bomb in his turban, with a lit fuse and the Islamic creed written on the bomb, thereby linking Islam with violent extremism. This too is banned. But what if someone linked gay men with paedophilia? Or Aids, or bestiality -- take your pick.
Why does our state make this distinction between offending race and religion and other types of offence? Well, what comes to mind immediately is the risk of violence. It is much more likely for people to take to the streets and run amok when they feel their religious and ethnic identity has been violated, much less likely for gays and lesbians to do so. Does this mean that if any group wants legal protection, they should first demonstrate their propensity to riot? Is that what Singapore law encourages?
© Yawning Bread