December 25, 2019 Faith Matters

Freedom of Speech or Freedom of Belief? – What Really Matters in the case of Netflix Messiah!

Freedom of speech is applied equally to everyone, but it seems not everyone is in favour of it being applied equally. This is no more true for Messiah than it is for anything else.”


The Metro newspaper ran a story of how the latest Netflix show Messiah has sparked demands for it to be banned as it is “anti-Islamic” and “blasphemous”. The petition calling for the ban was started by Zeynaba Dahir and has gained nearly 4,000 signatures within three weeks. A quick scan of those that have signed the petition shows that it is prima facie both Muslims and Christians that are in support of not only the ban, but boycotting Netflix, should it go ahead and air the show.

Messiah is set in the present day and is focused on a man that first appears in the Middle East. He is able to perform miracles and rapidly gains a growing following as a result. He is presented as the eschatological return of Isa (Jesus) or Mahdi. A CIA agent is then sent to uncover if he is the real thing or just a fraud.

Freedom of Belief

The calls to ban this show seem bizarre to me, it seems and it is difficult to argue against, that the protection of religion is the primary factor driving the petition. Looking at some of the comments, many have stated, that it is disrespectful to their religious beliefs and that it is disrespectful to both Islam and Christianity, given that they both accept Jesus, albeit with different roles.

However, as disrespectful as it may be, it is not an infringement on their beliefs. The show may not accord with what they accept, but it does not prevent them from exercising their own beliefs. Both Muslims and Christians are free to be critical of the show, the storyline and exercise their freedom to call for its ban, but that’s it. That’s all they can do really. It ‘s a show that they have not watched, but one in which they have already concluded that they do not like it, because they presume it disrespects their religion. But even if it does, so what?

Given that many of those complaining about the show have called it blasphemous, only goes to highlight the issue. Blasphemy is not a crime in the U.K. (thank God) and nor should it ever be. We would get nowhere if we were to ban everything that upset everyone, especially when it does not contravene the law. The fact that there are calls to ban the show only goes to show that we as a society, at least some parts of it, are progressing by regressing. We are turning back the clocks to a time when blasphemy would lead to the death penalty, though in this instance, it would lead to economic sanctions, e.g. boycotting Netflix.

In countries where there are literally blasphemy laws, we have seen the devastation it has caused. For example, take the case in Pakistan of Asia Bibi. She was accused of blasphemy, sentenced to death by hanging and then acquitted due to insufficient evidence. However, she was not able to leave Pakistan until a review had been completed. Thankfully, she has now arrived in Canada after being given asylum. More recently, we have seen another case in Pakistan of academic Junaid Hafeez. Accused of posting derogatory comments on social media about the Prophet Muhammed and he is now facing the death penalty as a result.  Of course, what I am certainly not saying here is that the same thing will happen in the U.K., rather I am highlighting the places that do take blasphemy so seriously, that it is part of their law and what happens as a result. Presumably, those signing the petition, are not in favour of the death penalty and would condemn it with the same furore that they are condemning Messiah? I hope so!

Freedom of Speech

What we enjoy in the West, far more so than in other parts of the world is freedom of speech. It is a right that many would die and have died to have. Not only do we have it, but it is also part of our constitutional law protected by human rights. Our freedom of speech allows us to be as respectful or disrespectful as we like, provided we do not incite hatred or violence. So to look at the case of Messiah, I am unclear how the incitement of hate or violence is applicable unless it was directed at religion?

Inciting hate against religion is really a non-issue because religion is not protected by the law, however, people of religious beliefs are. Even then, to claim that Messiah incites hatred, via the backdoor, towards individuals, is a tenuous claim- because to do so, would be to claim that both individuals and religions cannot be separated. This is false because a person can choose to enter and leave religion as they wish, whereas the same isn’t true for race or ethnicity, e.g. Asian, Black, Jewish etc…

Freedom of speech also gives people of religions, in this instance Muslims and Christians, the right to propagate their religion as they please, so long as it does not contravene the law. Freedom of speech is applied equally to everyone, but it seems not everyone is in favour of it being applied equally. This is no more true for Messiah than it is for anything else. The sheer hypocrisy from those signing this petition under the freedom to do so, are also the same ones not wanting Netflix to have the same freedom to put on Messiah. If Muslims and Christians are allowed to propagate their religion, then why can’t others do the same for their own beliefs, be they religious or not? This is the tension we are faced with- who’s right trumps whose?

The Law

The law is clear on this matter, the right to freedom of expression is ultimate. It does not discriminate between the two parties here, the religious and the producers of Messiah. To quote at length, Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 states the following:

“Freedom of expression

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.
  2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

Not only prima facie, but also on closer observation of the above legislation, I find it difficult how those signing the petition would apply this to their campaign. The show is innocuous, in the sense that it does not promote or incite violence or hate, but rather just tells the story of a religious character with a modern interpretation of it. Those that are offended by this, have the right to be offended, but in my view, their right of offence does not trump the right of the producers’ freedom of expression. It is probably why Zeynaba Dahir hasn’t yet sought to take this matter to court, because the merits of such a case appear to be non-existent. Thus- her only option is to apply economic sanctions via a boycott of Netflix.

Concluding Thoughts

The petition by Zeynaba Dahir, supported by many Muslims and Christians is a moral campaign, one which does not appear to have the merits to stand up in a court of law. So instead of taking it to court and probably losing, economic sanctions are therefore the next steps to prevent this innocuous program from airing. Fortunately for Netflix, their revenue stream is so large that this petition may not gain the publicity and support it requires to any meaningful impact.

But it is for us, both secular, religious and non-religious people to stand up against this moral posturing against a perfectly legitimate show in the name of freedom of expression because to not do so, would be to give in to the madness of group morality that is not in tune with the rest of modern society.

But I must conclude with this, a point that I think Zeynaba Dahir et al must consider carefully as they stridently push through with their “moral” campaign. Both their beliefs of Jesus are at odds with each other, blasphemous one would say, so why aren’t they proposing a ban on each others religion? The reason why they are not is because they are not willing to confront this reality with the same veracity as they are with this campaign. It is because it is a fight they are not willing to engage in because the odds appear less favourable than if they were going against Netflix. So instead they are happy to work together to defeat a common enemy, i.e. the producers of Messiah. In other words, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Faith Matters. The author of the article, Wasiq, can be found on Twitter @WasiqUK