In Wake of Violence, Freedom of Expression and Hate Speech Debate Continues

Kristin Wright | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Monday, October 08, 2012
In Wake of Violence, Freedom of Expression and Hate Speech Debate Continues

In Wake of Violence, Freedom of Expression and Hate Speech Debate Continues


"Those who claim to defend God, Islam, or the Prophet are thus either deluding themselves or manipulating religion for their own mundane and political purposes," Abdurrahman Wahid wrote in the forward to Paul Marshall and Nina Shea’s book Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide.

Abdurrahman Wahid was a Muslim cleric who became president of Indonesia in 1999. Wahid was unflinching on his perspective of blasphemy laws, a topic he elaborated on in Silenced. But Wahid’s perspective has become increasingly rare in the Muslim world, and his revered adage that “God needs no defense” has of late been too often overruled by uncontrollable rage over the most remote mockery of Mohammed.

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the filmmaker behind the controversial film “Innocence of Muslims” that incensed Muslims throughout the Arab world, was arrested last Thursday under suspicion of violating the terms of his probation, and for lying about his role in the creation of the controversial film. Violence spread throughout the Arab world in September when Muslims angered by Innocence, which depicts Mohammed as a womanizer and child molester, began burning and pillaging cities throughout the Arab world and beyond.

Calls for censorship of the controversial film generated a debate on what some see as varying definitions of freedom of speech between the Arab world and the West. Nakoula himself has been seen by many – including those in the White House – as the root cause for the violence, simply for creating a film that angered Muslims. But sometime after Obama’s failed request for YouTube to pull the film from its servers, U.S. leaders began to wake up to the harsh consequences of censoring even the most ridiculous of messages.

In his speech before the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama described a more defined perspective on the importance of freedom of speech throughout the world. “The future must not belong to those who target Coptic Christians in Egypt -- it must be claimed by those in Tahrir Square who chanted, ‘Muslims, Christians, we are one,’” he said. “The future must not belong to those who bully women -- it must be shaped by girls who go to school, and those who stand for a world where our daughters can live their dreams just like our sons.”

The president continued to describe the importance of preserving freedom of speech regardless of the cost. “Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with,” he said. “We do not do so because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.”

The statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on September 11, 2012, however, stood in stark contrast to the firm defense of freedom of speech called for by President Obama. Noted for its apologetic tone and lack of attention to the anniversary of September 11, the memo drew harsh criticism by advocates of human rights and free speech.

“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions,” the statement read. “Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

For Nina Shea, executive director of the Center for Religious Freedom, the statement crossed a line. In the statement, she writes, the “U.S. embassy redefines and limits freedom of speech to that speech which others, and, explicitly Muslims, do not find offensive: The embassy asserts that to ‘hurt the religious beliefs of others’ is to ‘abuse the universal right of free speech.’” She adds, “Of course, the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protects even insulting and offensive speech, as well as ‘hate speech’ and even advocacy of violence, unless the advocacy is directed to inciting imminent and likely violence (see the 1969 Supreme Court case Brandenburg v. Ohio).”

Whatever the intentions behind the statement (and Shea surmises it was intended to circumvent violent attacks on the embassy), it was hardly effective in its purpose. The embassy was attacked, the American flag torn down, and the flag of al Qaeda hoisted in its place.

It is perhaps the lessons learned from the anger over “Innocence of Muslims” that prompted a more serious tackling of the importance of freedom of speech by President Obama at the U.N. General Assembly. Reminding listeners that Americans have fought and died around the world to protect the right of all people to express their views – even views that we profoundly disagree with – Obama concluded, “We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech -- the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.”

Kristin WrightKristin Wright is a columnist and contributing writer at ReligionToday.com, where she focuses on global human rights and religious freedom issues. Kristin has covered topics such as bride trafficking in North Korea, honor killings in Pakistan, the persecution of members of minority faiths in Iran, and the plight of Syrian refugees. She has visited with religious minorities in Pakistan, worked with children at risk in Mumbai's “Red Light” district, and interviewed individuals on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kristin can be contacted via her website at kristinwright.net or email at kristin@kristinwright.net.

Publication date: October 8, 2012

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