Over the past week, leaders of several Muslim countries, joined by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, have come before the United Nations to call for restrictions on freedom of expression. They’ve pointed to The Innocence of Muslims, a video that insulted the Prophet Mohammed and sparked riots across the world. They’ve lectured the West on Muslim sensibilities and the limits of tolerance for blasphemy.
The riots and the lectures paint a picture of Islam as a culture allergic to unfettered free speech. That picture is misleading. There are Muslim liberals. They don’t show up on your TV screen, because they don’t riot. Today, they’re a small minority of the Muslim population. But with the help of global communications technology and the Arab spring, they’re beginning to make a case for greater tolerance. Here’s a sample of what they’ve said about the latest affronts to Islam: the video, the “savage” subway ads in New York, and the Mohammed cartoons in France. Their words and thoughts are worth your time.
“The best way to counter hatred is to defy it through convincing arguments, good actions and free debate. Much can be done to fight hatred without restricting speech, and governments should condemn hatred and set the example. Any legislation that restricts free speech including religious symbols can be used to quell social and political dissent. … Countless incidents show that when governments or religious movements seek to punish offenses, in the name of combating religious bigotry, violence then ensues and real violations of human rights are perpetrated against targeted individuals. …
Governments and individuals frequently abuse national blasphemy laws to stifle dissent and debate, harass rivals, legitimize mob violence, and settle petty disputes. The loose and unclear language of these laws empowers majorities against dissenters and the state against individuals. They provide a context in which governments can restrict freedom of expression, thought, and religion, and this can result in devastating consequences for those holding religious views that differ from the majority religion, as well as for adherents to minority faiths. … Rather than criminalizing speech, U.N. member states should step up their commitments to fighting hate crimes, countering hateful discourse, opposing discrimination and promoting interfaith and intercultural dialogue.”
—Muslim Public Affairs Council and Human Rights First
“Our basic position is that the First Amendment means that everyone is free to be a bigot or even an idiot like [anti-Muslim blogger/advertiser] Pamela Geller. We wish she wasn’t provoking and inciting hatred, but in America that’s her right. We encourage Muslims to exercise the same right to publicly denounce such adverts.”
—Ibrahim Hooper, communications director, Council on American-Islamic Relations
“The truth is that as amateurish as the movie production is, it still falls in the category of freedom of speech. If you say that to people here, they will read your response as: ‘You accept this. You are a blasphemer.’ They still don’t understand that they don’t have to accept it. They can oppose it, but in a civil manner that is more constructive.”
—Ebtehal Al-Khateeb, professor, Kuwait University
“People of good will and good faith have to use their constitutional right to free expression to condemn incitement. Trying to craft a bill or statute to ban it is nearly impossible without banning some other type of speech that may be legitimate. I think it’s crappy for the guy to have [created the anti-Islam film]. I think it’s despicable actually, but it’s like when people want to burn a Quran. … I don’t think there’s any way to have a rule to ban the kind of incitement contained in that movie. [But] we aren’t helpless. … You see Coptic leaders denouncing this film, you see Jews, Christians, Muslim leaders. It’s more powerful than just banning. … The best thing to do would be—with this movie, Quran burning, Nazis marching—is for people to say, ‘You have a right to do it, but you’re wrong.’
A lot of foreign leaders don’t understand. Nasrallah [leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah] said if [America] was really against the film, you’d ban it. Actually, no, you’re wrong about that. But you don’t understand this country. Nasrallah doesn’t understand that as a law-abiding person he’d be able to practice Islam more freely in American than anywhere else in the world. If you are a Shia Muslim in Saudi Arabia, life is going to be hard. A Sunni in Iran, life is going to be hard. If you want to wear a religious [emblem] in Turkey, tough times. France, they want to ban you from wearing religious symbols. In Switzerland you can’t build a mosque with a minaret on it. The thing about it, freedom of speech, it’s a good and bad thing. It applies to everybody. Once you start making exceptions, you start the erosion of the principle.”
—Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress
“[Muslims should] re-read the Quran itself and recall the Prophet of Islam’s own teachings that the most a wise Muslim should do to respond to an insult is by either ignoring and marginalizing the offender or, even better, to respond by ‘arguing with what is better [speech].’ Upholding freedom of speech in the West, as opposed to backing down, ups the ante on moderate, educated Muslims to speak up and more emphatically remind reactionary violent extremists—and the silent majority standing on the sidelines—what the Quran and the Prophet commanded them to do in response to insults. They will also need to explain to them how freedom of speech works, and how it is that actions of free Western citizens are separate from the actions of their governments. And maybe, just maybe, argue that the people of the Middle East should adopt free speech and disassociate between their own governments and the speech, actions, beliefs and thoughts of citizens. Middle Eastern governments should no longer pretend to be their citizens’ nannies protecting them from the “harms” of speech …
—Islam Hussein, Egyptian blogger
“American Muslim leaders should explain that while freedom of speech often leads to hate speech, most times society benefits from free speech. Free speech develops critical thinking among the general population and acts as a protector against governments that attempt to violate the civil rights of its people.”
“[T]he subtlest form of cynicism in this affair has been from those in the Islamic world who have condemned the violence but also suggested that it again shows why the West should ‘balance’ freedom of speech with restrictions on the right to give offense to religious traditions of others. The Organization of Islamic [Cooperation], and many Muslim leaders and intellectuals, have long called for the creation of a zone of censorship around religious sentiments in which free speech is formally curtailed or restricted. This is, of course, strictly antithetical to genuine notions of free speech, freedom of inquiry, and freedom of religion and conscience. Worse, it implicitly endorses the mindset of the extremists.
By citing the violent response of extremists and injured sentiments of non-extremists, such calls seek to sacrifice a fundamental human right to protect religious and cultural sensibilities. This must be categorically rejected not only by Western governments but also by all people committed to universal freedoms and fundamental human rights. The Muslims of the world are simply going to have to get used to the fact that freedom means everybody has an equal opportunity to be offended and that they must endure this without a violent response or the suppression of free speech. Asking for strong condemnations of intolerant, outrageous expression is reasonable. Asking for censorship is not.”
—Hussein Ibish, senior fellow, American Task Force on Palestine
“The answer to speech we find deeply offensive is more speech—speech that tells the true story of Islam—not censorship or violence.”
“Yes the film was bad, yes the film was intolerant, and yes it poorly reflects the values that most Americans uphold, honor, and believe in. … How about growing some thick skin, brains, and actual faith next time and not necessarily in that order. Make a rebuttal film, challenge to a debate, hold a press conference … do SOMETHING that shows that Muslims are not a bunch of horned up teenage males with mommy-daddy issues and a lack of viable outlets.”
—Robert Salaam, The American Muslim
“I would ask Muslims to recognize that the best way to oppose hate speech is to ignore it. Reaction is precisely what a hater wants to provoke. We can show the falsity of their messages simply by turning our backs.”
“MPV upholds the principle of free speech, whether political, artistic, social or religious, even when that expression may be offensive and that dissent may be considered blasphemous. MPV holds that none should be legally prosecuted, imprisoned or detained for declaring or promoting unpopular opinions.”
“As Muslims, we uphold the value of freedom of speech. But we also believe that with freedom of speech, there also has [to be] responsibility. … So this is my personal response to those who are saying, ‘Well, we have to protect freedom of speech at all costs,’ and that people should be able to just denigrate other’s faiths. Can you do it legally? Yes. Should we morally do it? Absolutely not.”
—Dawud Walid, executive director, Michigan chapter of CAIR
“The faith of Islam is no way weakened or damaged by freedom of expression, even if that speech helps promote an agenda of hate by a minority of misled individuals. … While we fully support our constitutional right to free expression, we must also encourage responsible and well informed media about Islam both in the USA and abroad.”
“As Americans we understand the importance of the right to free speech and freedom of expression. American Muslims value this right on behalf of every American citizen and would never shy away from ever defending this right. We also feel that this right to free speech should be seen as a great responsibility. … The right to freedom of expression should not be an opportunity to spread hate and pass insults on sacred religious icons.”
”We support freedom of speech and opinion, which come with responsibility, as well as the right to peaceful demonstrations.”
—Finnish Islamic Council and 14 other Finnish Muslim organizations
“Most Americans do not support desecrating holy books, portraying others’ prophets as pedophiles and sadists, and preaching hate. But unless Americans of diverse backgrounds speak up to accurately represent our country, Muslims abroad are exposed only to our vilest citizens. … The best way to protect free speech is to proffer an accurate counter-narrative into the marketplace of ideas. Otherwise our silence will be interpreted as condoning hate.”
—Sahar Aziz, associate professor, Texas Wesleyan School of Law
“Such limits [on incendiary speech] are best attained not by governments banning offensive material but rather through self-restraint. Yet such restraint is often missing in Western discourse on Muslims and Islam. … America does not censor but it does censure hate. Yet such societal opprobrium is missing against anti-Islamism. The absence of such civilian remedy is part of the problem.”
—Haroon Siddiqui, former editorial page editor, The Star
“[T]he U.S. political establishment, civil society, and other faith communities must respond to bigotry, like they respond to any reprehensible behavior that is legally protected. … Yes, bigots have the right to speak with recklessness. When it is met with indifference or political paralysis, then America’s image is one that sanctions anti-Muslim bigotry but counters other forms of bigotry, a double-standard.”
—Jihad Turk, religious adviser, Islamic Center of Southern California, and Salam Al-Marayati, president, MPAC
Not all of these writers, thinkers, and organizations agree on the limits of free speech. But in their statements, you can see common threads. Free speech doesn’t mean moral acceptance. You can censure hatred without censoring it. In fact, free speech protects your right to criticize and refute hateful speech. Or you can ignore the insults, as Mohammed did.
Free speech invigorates debate, strengthens critical thinking, and thereby arms citizens against tyranny. It will make the Muslim world a better place. Yes, bigots will abuse freedom of expression. But the greater danger is that governments will abuse the power to restrict this freedom—or that in the name of peace, dissent will be silenced anytime a mob threatens to riot.
These are the words of Muslim advocates of liberty. Consider and debate them. It’s your future.
William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: