Zakir Naik and Amos Yee: Complicated Questions About Free Speech

Or: An Examination of My Inability to Come Up With Catchy Blog Post Titles

Note: Quoted profanity and descriptions of somewhat disturbing acts are contained in this post. Also, this is gonna be a long post. If you have a problem with that, then, y’know, don’t read so much of it at once.

Happy Sunday! I really do wish I could post more often, but between my job, other commitments, crippling laziness, and amazing procrastination powers, it seems like I only get to write stuff when I’ve decided on a good day to shirk my other responsibilities. Anyway, I hope you guys have been doing well.

You know the news lah. Zakir Naik, Indian Islamic evangelist and self-proclaimed expert on comparative religion came down to Malaysia to give a series of talks, and I believe they’ve just concluded a few days ago. Around the same time frame, Amos Yee returned to YouTube after a four-month hiatus with a video titled “Response to the Common Bullshit of Christians” (his previous video was titled “MASS COMM STUDENTS ARE RETARDED!!”)

These two people are interesting, because they make extremely inflammatory statements about religion, are easy to be offended by (and who doesn’t love being offended? I for one am addicted to that feeling of righteous anger when you see some plebeian on the internet say something silly) and they really push the boundaries of what we generally consider to be the acceptable limits of free speech.

Now, guys, you know my biases as a Malaysian and someone attempting to be a devout Christian, and if you didn’t before, I guess you do now. But before we get into questions about free speech, I have to tell you my opinion of the two people themselves, because that informs a lot of my world-view and I think it’s intellectually honest to put it all out there. Intellectual honesty is pretty important to me, and you’ll probably agree, especially if you’ve actually listened to these two.

Zakir Naik

I don’t know how much of an expert he is on Islam, but I’ve seen him talk about Christianity and goodness gracious is he mistaken. He uses really fuzzy logic and spouts verse after verse as an attempt to prove his point, paying little attention to the context of the verses themselves. He tries to make the case that even the Bible does not support the idea of Jesus Christ’s divinity (plot twist: it does).

Zakir Naik attempts to woo unbelievers to his faith not by espousing its strengths or virtues, but by painting a ridiculous picture of other faiths to make fun of. He misrepresents and lies about other religions to make his more palatable, which is not only completely unnecessary but also really harmful, because like, y’know, people might actually listen to him and believe the crazy stuff he says about Christians and Hindus.

He also supports the death penalty for homosexuals and apostates who speak out against Islam, both of which I am diametrically opposed to, so yeah la. I don’t think anyone should ever advocate the death of another human being, especially not on the grounds of religious belief or sexuality. Doesn’t seem like a wholly unreasonable thing to me to not want someone to die just because of things like that.

Amos Yee

Man, this guy is a piece of work. He is a petulant child who thinks that swearing somehow lends credence to his arguments. He is six months away from being a legal adult but still talks like a 12-year-old (or at least, like me when I was a 12-year-old. I know, I was a pretty shitty 12-year-old).

I don’t even know where to begin. Amos’ largest problem, in my opinion, is the belief that he is a lot smarter than he actually is. We all get that, I know, but in him it’s like his brain doesn’t have that switch that most of us have, the one that occasionally reminds him that he’s not a genius. As an example, in his latest video, he says of Christian beliefs: “I will fuck them up with the clarity and sting that you revere of yours truly.”

Like, seriously dude? Come on, that was so arrogant and self-centred and pretentious, I think I may have become physically ill from the cringe that line induced.

He then paints this incredibly stupid view of Christians and religious people by talking about some of the ‘bullshit arguments’ that they supposedly espouse, ignoring that there are tonnes of different types of Christians in the world and they all have very different opinions. Y’know, like people tend to have.

Add to that a few salt-and-pepper shakes of intentionally offensive behaviour (humping a cross, ripping pages out a Bible, and exclaiming “Now, let’s strap these Christian scum to the ground and fuck them in the ass!” followed by grunting noises) and you pretty much have the complete package.

The boy is just, well, boring. I really hope the arrogance and pretentiousness is some kind of act. It wouldn’t help his case a lot, but it would at least sort of distinguish him from the millions of teenagers who are euphoric in their own intellectual enlightenment and rebelling against those evil religious people. It’s such a used and tired narrative, that of the fedora-wearing, neckbeard sporting atheist who just has to tell the religious people how wrong they are.

Gosh, I mean, I know he’s doing it for the attention, but goodness me, couldn’t he do something a little more entertaining to watch? Amos is not a dumb person, but he’s not the fount of wit and knowledge that he thinks he is.

Okay, now for the actual stuff that I wanted to talk about

Heh, sorry about the extremely long prefaces, but yeah, kinda necessary for what we’re gonna talk about. Both Zakir and Amos have faced issues with governments wanting to control or restrict what they say. Zakir with the PDRM calling up a ban on his coming here (a ban that was quickly reversed after he agreed to change the topic of the lecture) and Amos with, well, that fiasco after he published a video criticizing Lee Kuan Yew.

They both bring up this really really interesting question; how far should the government go in restricting free speech?

We have to acknowledge, first of all, that limitations to free speech are necessary, and all governments do it. You can’t use your freedom of speech to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, for example, or tell someone you’re a Nigerian prince who needs a small payment of a few thousand dollars to unlock your vast bank account. The limitations of freedom of speech lies in the harm principle; that governments should only intervene if someone’s actions risk causing considerable harm to others.

The question then becomes “Are Zakir Naik and Amos Yee propagating hate speech?” It’s an interesting argument that can be made. Zakir calls for the death of homosexuals. Amos rips up Bibles and jokes about raping religious people.

Now we gotta ask, “What is hate speech?” The most common definition is speech that directly incites violence against a particular ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or national and religious group, but lots of countries have extensions to that. For example, it’s illegal to deny that the Holocaust happened under German law. Malaysia has the (rather controversial) Sedition Act. These are all laws designed to keep public order, to prevent sectarian divisions from creating civil unrest.

Is Malaysian society ready for an extremely high degree of free speech? I don’t know, we certainly have incredibly high racial and religions tensions that are made all the worse when people like Zakir Naik misrepresent other religions. But then again, are we willing to take the risk of allowing the government to dictate what ‘bannable speech’ is? Corruption and abuse of power by authority figures are very real fears in the Malaysian psyche. It’s entirely possible that a government perverts its mandate and starts going after anyone who speaks ill of the current ruling party. That’s something that quite a few critics already believe has happened, and who can blame them?

Now, every time freedom of speech appears in conversation, there’s always that one guy who recites the quote so often misattributed to Voltaire:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

That’s very noble and all, but how many of us really believe that? As an apostate, it takes phenomenal strength of character to literally be willing to die for the belief that Zakir Naik has the right to say that you should die. Similarly so if you’re a Christian fighting for Amos Yee’s right to hump and defile your holy symbols. Where do we draw the line?

Yes, I’m aware that I’m asking many more questions than I’m answering. But the truth is, I don’t know where we draw the line. And the fact that there is no clear right or wrong about this issue may just be the scariest thing about it.



Author: JackKinLim

There's like, stuff that should be here.

One thought on “Zakir Naik and Amos Yee: Complicated Questions About Free Speech”

  1. Good stuff Jack, and really good points on free speech and potential harm. It pains me everytime some self-proclaimed “religiously informed” individual speaks entirely subjectively about other religions. OH AND ESPECIALLY WHEN THEY PICK THINGS OFF CONTEXT. They just fall in line with “believers” who misinterpret religious text.
    I like how you clearly lay your points out, makes it easy to read and understand what you’re trying to get across. Really enjoyed it, looking forward to more!

    Liked by 1 person

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