Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Are Radical Imams Going to Redefine Freedom of Speech?

September 19, 2012 4:07 pm 7 comments

Mohammed cartoons.

Now there are threats of violence directed against France for the publication of a cartoon depicting the prophet Mohammad in violation of Islamic law.  This is simply the most recent manifestation of a worldwide effort to censor freedom of expression and make it conform to the most radical interpretation of Islamic tradition.  The bounty on the head of Salman Rushdie was recently increased and this distinguished author remains in peril.  Theo Van Gogh was murdered for violating Islamic Law.  And numerous people have been killed as the result of cartoons being published in Denmark and a video shown on YouTube.

I have seen several minutes of the stupid little film that has, arguably, incited so much violence and the deaths of four distinguished public servants, including a United States Ambassador who was uniquely sympathetic to Islam and Arab interests.

There is nothing good that can be said about the low budget film.  It has little redeeming social value and the world would be a better place if it had never been made or shown.  Nevertheless, it would be wrong, and under American law unconstitutional, to censor or punish such despicable expression.  Freedom of speech means freedom for those who you despise, and freedom to express the most despicable views.  It also means that the government cannot pick and choose which expressions to authorize and which to prevent.

There are several exceptions recognized under American law to untrammeled freedom of expression.  These include falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater, fighting words and speech that present a clear and present danger of inciting violence.  Even if these exceptions were applied to anti-Islamic expressions that would not solve the problem.  It is easy to argue that a video such as the one on YouTube could be banned without doing much damage to freedom of expression, but that would only be the tip of the iceberg.  The radical Imams who incite the violence would not be satisfied until they could decide what could be seen and heard. They want to become the ultimate judges, juries and executioners when it comes to anything that relates to Islam or its prophet.  But religious fanatics who are easily offended by those outside of their religion who violate the rules of their religion cannot serve as censors in democratic societies.  The threat or fear of violence should not become an excuse or justification for restricting freedom of speech.

Those who blame America for allowing what some Muslims regard as blasphemous speech must come to understand that by not censoring such speech, the government does not place its imprimatur upon it.  That may be difficult to understand for people who have come of age in repressive regimes which do not permit any expressions disfavored by the government.  In such regimes, the publication of bigoted materials can be taken as representing the views of the government.  For example, when Iranians newspapers publish anti-Semitic diatribes, the views expressed in those diatribes are the views of the government.  Not so with democratic states.  Indeed it is probably true that more anti-Semitic material is published in the United States than in Iran, simply because so much is published here and almost none of it is subject to any kind of restriction or censorship.  That does not make the United States an anti-Semitic country, but rather a country in which there is freedom to express anti-Semitic views.  It does make Iran an anti-Semitic country, because all views that appear in the media must be approved by the government.

Some who are now calling on governments to censor expressions that are deemed offensive to Muslims point to the fact that some European governments do censor Holocaust-denial speech.  It is false comparison.  First, only a tiny number of governments—most particularly Germany, which was responsible for the Holocaust— censor Holocaust-denial speech.  The vast majority of countries, including the United States, impose no such censorship.  As far as I know no Muslim or Arab country censors Holocaust-denial speech.  To the contrary, several such countries, led by Iran, promote such hate speech.  Second, the Holocaust is a fact that no reasonable historian can dispute.  The kinds of views that have caused the recent violence are expressions of opinion regarding an historical character about which historians vigorously disagree.  Finally, I for one would like to see an end to the censorship of Holocaust-denial speech.  Let those like Ahmadinejad who insist on lying about the history of European Jewry be defeated in the marketplace of ideas.  Truth does not need censorship to defend it.

So let us not allow those who employ violence to initiate a debate about the limits of free speech.  Democracies should not allow themselves to be held hostage to violent extremists.  Having said that, freedom of speech also requires decent people to condemn those who abuse freedom by needlessly insulting the religious beliefs of others or by being insensitive to the havoc they may be causing by exercising their freedom of speech.  This film should be condemned in the marketplace of ideas, but the writings of Salman Rushdie and the publishing of political cartoons should not be condemned.

Individuals have the right to pick and choose which expressions to condemn, which to praise and which to say nothing about.  Governments, however, must remain neutral as to the content of expression.  And governments must protect the rights of all to express even the most despicable of views.  Finally, the international community must use its collective power to apprehend and punish anyone who commits violence in reaction to expressions with which they disagree.  Being offended by freedom of speech should never be regarded as a justification for violence.

An earlier and shorter version of this article appeared in Ha’aretz.

7 Comments

  • rodney allsworth

    O so true,–Truth does not need censorship to defend it.-and then- Being offended by freedom of speech should never be regarded as a justification for violence.- first, if the Muslim religion was the truth that they claim, why do they have to defend its -god-prophet-, if their god is at all god he doesnt need them to defend him, if he needs defending he’s not god at all.

    rod qld

  • If I don’t believe in a god or in a religion, then that might be so insulting to them. In fact, Bible, Quran and Tanakh have these passages saying that the unfaithful should be killed, as well as those that’d try to ‘convert’ you… so, what the hell? Where’s that freedom?

    • Sorry there is nothing in the old Testament about hurting, humiliating or killing Christians or Muslims…..The Koran …and its believers…celebrates the hurting, humiliating and killing of Christians and Jews…Check out how tolerant Mohammad was with the Jews of Quaraza…Does decapitation give you a clue?

  • Jews of the world, unite in affirming often
    “ISRAEL IS GODS PROMISE TO THE GENERATIONS” “ISRAEL IS THE LIGHT UNTO THE NATIONS”.

  • To use one of Prof. Dershowitz’ favorite Yiddishisms, it takes some kind of Chutspah (or as Bill Clinton might say, brass) for these characters to be demanding apologies from western democracies when their governments, newspapers, schools, writers, spokesmen, and populace regularly and continuously spout the most venomous anti-Jewish commentary,including calls for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people. But all others must be sensitive to their religious sensibilities and concerns. This idiocy is being forced on us because as one of their wall posters said, there are one and a half billion of them. They have a sixth century mindset and act accordingly. When people fought religious wars back then, there wasn’t much concern for civilian casualities; they had wars of extermination. Now, such wars are only contemplated by the Islamic fanatics who take comfort from the fact that their enemies aren’t ready to reciprocate in kind (we only see such behavior in their internecine battles, such as is ongoing in Syria or happened in Iran-Iraq). As psychologist have repeatedly taught us, the only realistic method for curtailing such behavior is tit-for-tat. Unfortunately, this doesn’t square with liberal sensibility, although the Allies didn’t hesitate to respond in kind against the Germans and Japanese during WWII. Pundits incessantly complain about the “cycle of violence”, but the terrorist mindset will not be squelched unless there is a real fear of consequences. Appealing to the rationality of fanatics and their sympathizers (which appears to encompass much of Islamic society) is ineffective and self defeating.

  • It’s not just radical imams as extreme leftists like HaAretz would like you to believe!
    Freedom of speech is incompatible with Islam and its law, the Sharia.

  • Sorry Alan…your guy Obama and his sidekick Hillary are more concerned with not hurting the jihadists’ feelings than defending the US Constitution….the initial statement from the USEmbassy in Egypt was US policy…If it wasn’t, then you fire State Dept employees the way FDR fired Joe Kennedy Sr…that statement made clear that Obama and Hillary care more about sharia than the US Constitution…You cannot “distance” yourself from the statement unless you fire the people at the embassy..

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Features Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    JNS.org – Aside from Israel itself, those with a vested interest in the Jewish state are accustomed to tracking developments related to Middle East players such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But much global attention has recently focused on the Caucasus region at the Europe-Asia border, specifically on the suddenly intensified violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area of western Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while not taking place in Israel’s immediate neighborhood, does have what one scholar called […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    JNS.org – On Friday, April 22, 196 nations across the world mark Earth Day, the annual day dedicated to environmental protection that was enacted in 1970. Not to be forgotten on this day is Israel, which is known as the “start-up nation” for its disproportionate amount of technological innovation, including in the area of protecting the environment. For Earth Day 2016, JNS.org presents a sampling of the Jewish state’s internal achievements and global contributions in the environmental realm. Water conservation Israeli […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture World New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    Holocaust humor and the role that laughter played in the lives of Jews during World War II are the focus of a documentary that made its world premiere on Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. In The Last Laugh, first- and second-generation survivors, as well as famous Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, discuss their thoughts on when joking about the death camps is appropriate or taboo. “Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no,” Jewish comedic giant, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the film. “Anything I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    JNS.org – Sherri Mandell’s life was devastated on May 8, 2001, when her 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists on the outskirts of the Israeli Jewish community of Tekoa. Yet Mandell not only shares the story of her loss, but also celebrates the lessons she has learned from tragedy. Indeed, “celebrate” is this Israeli-American author’s word choice. Her second book, The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press), came out earlier this year. The lesson: in every celebration, there is […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    JNS.org – Alan Gross used to be nothing more to me than a tragic headline. When I started my position at this news service in July 2011, Gross had been imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009 for what that country called “crimes against the state.” Gross, a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development, went to Cuba to help the Jewish community there access the Internet. After his arrest, he received a trial he describes as a “B movie,” […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Features New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    JNS.org – When I saw the recent Academy Award-winning film “The Big Short,” I was struck by the sheer genius of the financiers who devised the schemes and packaged the loans for resale, but it left me with unanswered questions about how the properties these loans represented were moved. “The Big Short” was largely about paper transactions, big money, and wealthy investors, and it mildly touched on the way the actual end-users — the home buyers and brokers — played into this […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews Psychiatry and the Spirit

    Psychiatry and the Spirit

    Why do we think so negatively about psychiatrists that we still insult them by calling them shrinks? Some medics might be quacks, but we don’t generally refer to them as witches! Shrinks; The Untold Story of Psychiatry, by Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, is a sobering account of how psychiatry has swung from a marginal, unscientific mixture of weird theories into one of the most common and pervasive forms of treatment of what are commonly called “disorders of the mind.” Is it […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion At Forbes Summit in Israel, Entrepreneurship Is a ‘Common Language’

    At Forbes Summit in Israel, Entrepreneurship Is a ‘Common Language’

    JNS.org – Nine months ago, Seth Cohen, director of network initiatives for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and Randall Lane, editor of Forbes Magazine, were schmoozing about the “vibrancy of Tel Aviv and soul of Jerusalem,” as Lane put it. They dreamed about how they could bring young and innovative millennials to the so-called “start-up nation.” From April 3-7, Forbes turned that dream into a reality. Israel played host to the first-ever Forbes Under 30 EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa) […]

    Read more →