In countries where many religions coexist, governments view with apprehension public statements on religious beliefs, icons and customs. Such statements can spark internal communal violence and complicate international relations. Recall the editorial cartoons ridiculing Mohammad in the Danish and French media that triggered diplomatic protests to Denmark and riots in several Muslim countries in 2005, and the al-Qaida attack on the Paris newspaper Charlie Hebdo that killed 12 people in 2015.
Where faith communities also divide along ethnic lines, religion becomes an even more sensitive topic. Well before the European incidents, governments facing this challenge imposed limits on freedom of expression, prohibiting speech likely to offend the faithful. They followed the same logic that punishes pranksters who endanger the public by shouting “Fire!” or “Bomb!” in a crowded theater.
Not particularly praised for its liberal values, the Duterte administration has become an ally of the most fervent Western defenders of free speech. President Duterte has ridiculed as “stupid” the God of the Christian Bible, which Muslims also regard as holy. In one statement, Mr. Duterte seemed to demean the majority of the people, forcing his minions to invoke his right to free speech—a defense that, in some Asean countries, would not save him from sanctions.
Mr. Duterte is free to worship whichever god he chooses to create in his own image and likeness. But it is offensive, if not unconstitutional, when he uses the bully pulpit of the presidency to peddle his views on religion. Even worse is when, from this elevated platform, he hurls gratuitous insults on the faith of his compatriots.
Many Filipinos did find Mr. Duterte’s comments on Christian religion offensive. He has declared that he would not issue an apology for his insulting statements. The God we worship suffers no damage from any insult coming from someone like Mr. Duterte, and has no need for his apology. It may not even restrain Duterte followers, who have used the controversy to spew more fake news and insults against Church and clergy.
Many, perhaps, welcomed suggestions from the Palace that he would be open to a dialogue with the Church hierarchy. This may have a value, if it focused less on Mr. Duterte’s insults than on his policies. I suspect our God would feel less aggrieved and angered being called “stupid” than being confronted with the continuing killing of His people in the administration’s drug war.
The evidence-based study on the anti-drug campaign by a consortium composed of Ateneo de Manila, Columbia University’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, De La Salle University and the University of the Philippines would provide a rich subject for this dialogue. Unfortunately, it met with a muted response from Malacañang, which paid more attention to Mr. Duterte’s “God is stupid” comment.
Clarifying facts would serve as a useful starting point for the dialogue. The consortium study counted 5,021 drug-related deaths between May 10, 2016 and Sept. 29, 2017. The PNP offered lower figures for a longer time-frame: 2,235 drug-related deaths from July 2016 to January 2018. Surely, it can supply the numbers for the same time frame. Then, it can perhaps explain why the study was wrong in counting 2,753 killed by policemen during police operations.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque questions the study because it relies on media reports. But both print and broadcast reports draw from police sources, including police blotters. He accepts that the victims were mostly the poor, but ask for independent verification that they were killed because of the antidrug war. If Roque has doubts on this issue, he should ask the police who did the killing to explain their action.
The consortium has declared its eagerness to collaborate with the government in the analysis of the count and context of the drug war deaths. Otherwise, how can we proclaim the government’s antidrugs campaign a success? And the rising death count will remain a continuing insult and offense to God and our Christian values—a proper issue for the Church and the President to pursue.
Edilberto C. de Jesus (edcdejesus@ gmail.com) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.
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