Religious beliefs on the Internet: Between ignorance and censorship

By definition an iconoclast is "a person who attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions, etc. as being based on error or superstition; a breaker or destroyer of images, especially those set up for religious veneration." I use a wider definition of iconoclasm, including political iconoclasm - state ‘censorship’ of religious beliefs. As for religious intolerance, I’ll define it as “intolerance against another's religious beliefs”.

Make no mistake, there is nothing new about iconoclasm and intolerance.  In fact, religious censors have been around for centuries.  Iconoclasm was a huge part of the French Revolution, as people destroyed countless religious artifacts in the name of ‘freedom’.  During Russia's October Revolution in 1917, religious materials were destroyed as part of the strategy to overthrow the government and put the Soviets into power. Sadly, the censorship of religious beliefs by state or people is still very much alive and well today.

Filtering religious images

You might think that all of our advances in technology would make it harder for iconoclasts to censor people's religious beliefs. You might think that the Internet is a place where all beliefs will be possible. However, all of that technology actually makes it easier for censors to get their way. On the web, religious images aren’t destroyed; they’re out of sight - purely filtered.

The biggest example?  The UK's Digital Economy Bill - or, as it's known around the web, the "UK Internet Censorship Bill".  Back in 2010, Parliament passed a bill that was supposed to prevent the theft of copyrighted materials, like illegally downloading music and movies.  From there, Parliament extended the bill's reach so that it could also crack down on child pornography.  After all, it makes sense to block something that's so illegal, immoral, and dangerous, right?

However, the Digital Economy Bill became broader and broader.  At one point, Clause 18 of the bill said that the UK government could block ANY website that's deemed to be undesirable for public consumption.  That specific clause was taken out, but its spirit remained.  Once the bill was passed, UK Internet service providers were required to prevent their subscribers from accessing certain websites, as determined by the government. 

Over the years, the Digital Economy Bill has continued to expand.  In 2011, UK government officials met with representatives from Twitter, Facebook, and Blackberry to discuss ways to prevent certain people from using social media.  After that, UK mobile providers began blocking certain websites from their smartphones.  Mind you, many of those websites have nothing to do with child pornography.  Many of them deal with LGBT rights, feminism, and even political satire.

And now, the UK government is taking on religion.

Specifically, they're instituting a country-wide firewall that will block, among other things, "esoteric" websites.  By the time 2014 begins, UK Internet service providers will be forced to block websites that discuss things like Wicca, Kabbalah, Taoism, and Mysticism.  After all, "esoteric" is an incredibly broad term, and the UK government seems to be painting the broadest picture possible.

Taking down religious concepts

What about America, where freedom of speech is one of the main reasons that the country was founded in the first place?

Back in 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) met with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs as part of the "Strategy for Countering Jihadist Websites".  Congress' point was to prevent terrorists from using the web to recruit and carry out missions by taking down all jihadist-related websites.  The ACLU, however, began with another point. Their concern was the broad meaning being given to "jihadist".  Yes, terrorists commit horrible acts in the name of jihad, but to most Muslims, jihad is actually a spiritual struggle.  According to the Koran, it's an individual's struggle to fulfill his religious duties.  It's supposed to be an internal struggle, rather than an armed, violent fight on the streets.  As a result, not ALL jihad-related websites should be considered a threat.  More concerning, the ACLU pointed out that the title ‘Strategy for Countering Jihadist Websites’ “suggests an inherent evil in allowing the Internet to continue to exist in its current open form. Since terrorists may use the Internet to recruit new terrorists, as the narrative goes, Congress must do something to stop such online activity.” Yes, all of the web's capabilities can turn it into a weapon for terrorists, but why must law-abiding people risk being censored because of a few bad apples?

Web iconoclasm, ignorance and religious intolerance doesn't just take place in the UK or in the US, though.  In fact, there are no borders for such activities. Remember, iconoclasm led to the defacement of many religious artworks. Indeed, recently, #Op Vaticano led to the defacement of numerous Church websites…  Today, the web is a scary combination of the old and the new.  It constantly brings us new advancements and new marvels, but it also gives states the power to define what is a right religion and what is a wrong one.  The true advancement would be to get past these constraints on freedom of speech and religion.

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