For centuries now, free speech and religious sensibilities have been framed as warring enemies. And both not only need protection from each other but also need protection from censorship.
The ongoing debate between what constitutes an artistic expression of free speech versus religious protection had recently been witnessed not in the public eye but instead under the radar on social media. And the latest stirred-up controversy involves none other than America's beloved pop music star Katy Perry.
Known for theatrical excesses in her videos, some critics argued that Perry had stepped over the line with the worldwide Muslim community in her new video for the song "Dark Horse." As a bejeweled Cleopatra, Perry had egregiously violated the most revered edict of Sharia blasphemy restriction laws: killing Allah.
In the video, the queen-warrior Perry shoots a laser and zaps a pharaoh wearing two pendants. One pendant says "Allah," which means "God" in Arabic. And in the twinkling of an eye, the pharaoh disintegrates into sand, and his pendant disappears with him.
Depending on what side of the debate you are on -- free speech versus protecting religious sensibilities -- Perry was either being her usual artistic, no-holds-barred creative self, or she was just simply culturally unaware.
But for Shazad Iqbal of Bradford, United Kingdom, it didn't matter what the reason was. And he demonstrated his outrage by drumming up more than 65,000 signatures, with an online petition on Change.org demanding that Perry's video "Dark Horse" be removed immediately. Iqbal's argument was that Perry does not have the freedom to insult or blaspheme people's deities under the protection of free speech.
"Blasphemy is clearly conveyed in the video," Iqbal writes on the petition, "since Katy Perry (who appears to be representing an opposition of God) engulfs the believer and the word God in flames."
"This is the reason for lodging the petition so that people from different walks of life, different religions and from different parts of the world, agree that the video promotes blasphemy, using the name of God in an irrelevant and distasteful manner would be considered inappropriate by any religion."
While clearly Perry is no enemy of Islam, her new video was seen nonetheless as giving a black eye to the faith. And unlike other famous public offenders of the Muslim faith -- Indian novelist Salman Rushdie, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, Somali-born writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, to name a few -- there were no effigies of Katy Perry burning in Cairo or Karachi, no fatwa issued to have her hunted down, stoned or put to death.
Perry excised the offending footage, but the debate about Perry's freedom of expression versus Iqbal's religious sensibilities rages on. Proponents of free speech argue that since 9/11 their rights are now easily violated or put on lockdown for fear of inciting violence or committing blasphemy. But people on the other side of this debate like Iqbal argue that restrictions on religious expression have risen rapidly since 9/11.
The Pew Research Center corroborates Iqbal's assertion, revealing that 75 percent of the world's population where religious restrictions are already in place have indeed imposed harsher laws. And countries that never had religious restrictions in the 21st century now do: France, for example, bans Muslim women wearing the niqab.
The debate between Perry's freedom of expression and Iqbal's religious sensibilities reminds us that we all now reside in a more interconnected and religiously pluralistic world. But in so doing, I cannot help but wonder are we really becoming more culturally sensitive or merely thin-skinned.