Goaded by the recent riots in the Muslim world over a YouTube video ridiculing the prophet Muhammad, representatives of a 57-country coalition are planning to propose a measure to the United Nations General Assembly that would criminalize blasphemy. [Source]
The move has been tried before, unsuccessfully. This year, the coalition is led by Turkey, a country with significant clout at the UN. Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, plans to speak at the General Assembly, demanding international legislation making it a crime to defame religion. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has given some indication that he is in favor of such a move, saying that there should be limitations on free speech if it is "used to provoke or humiliate."
This is, unequivocally, a terrible idea.
Let me be clear about this. People deserve respect. Human beings have the right to have their basic needs met, and to be able to live without fear of persecution. We also, in differing ways and to differing degrees, should respect and protect animals, plants, and the environment.
On the other hand, there is no good reason to demand that everyone respect ideas. Ideas only deserve respect insofar as they merit it. If you believe in something wrong, foolish, harmful, counterfactual, or dangerous, there is no logical reason in the world that I should be required to respect it just because it happens to be your belief. Enacting anti-blasphemy laws is a way of putting religious beliefs out of the reach of criticism -- which is equivalent to giving carte blanche to anyone, for saying or doing anything, as long as the phrase "and thus sayeth the precepts of my religion" is appended to it.
The bottom line is that your beliefs have to earn my respect, based upon (1) how they are manifested in your treatment of others, and (2) their consonance with the facts about the world that we have discovered from science. If your beliefs lead you to oppress women, if they encourage you to blow yourself and others up, if they demand that you suppress free speech and dissent, if they impel you to foist your mythological and erroneous views of the origins of life on children, then your beliefs are not worthy of respect. And your saying, "but it's my religion!" is entirely irrelevant.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying we should silence people from voicing these beliefs. That's as wrong-headed as the proposed anti-blasphemy laws. You have every right to trumpet your beliefs from the rooftops, if you want to. However, no one, myself included, has the right to demand that his opinions, once voiced, be immune to criticism. Or ridicule, either; ridicule may not be nice, but it is powerful, and satire can be a potent force for positive social change (think of the impact that Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal had). So, you may not like it if I or others make fun of your beliefs, but your taking offense cannot trump my right to speak. If it does, it sets up a dangerous precedent, creating a world where every word has to be sifted through the mesh of "Will This Bother Anyone?"
I still think that it would be wonderful if people were kinder. "Don't go out of your way to be an asshole" is still a pretty good guide to behavior, and I believe that a lot of the recent deliberate provocation of Muslims is mean-spirited, crass, and frankly unwise, given how devout Muslims generally respond to such goading. But my saying "it isn't nice," or even "wow, that was a dumb thing to say," is a far cry from "you are forbidden by law from saying that." So, what the filmmaker had to say about Muhammad on his YouTube video might have been banal, crude, foolish, disgusting, and worthy of a hundred other disparaging adjectives.
But he did have the right to say it. And no one, up to and including Ban Ki-moon, should be able to tell him that he can't.