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Liberals, Please Speak up for Free Speech

Only if we accept arbitrary limits on freedom of speech as dictated by cultural groups can cartoons of Muhammad constitute hate speech. We must first cede to Islam the right to forbid them. Liberals should consider whether the injunctions of Islam, or indeed any other religion, constitute an acceptable curb on liberty.
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by Hugh Harris

The death of two Islamists who attacked Pamela Geller’s “Jihad Watch Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” once again shines a light on the limits of free speech.  Only days later some 204 writers protested at the decision of the PEN American Center to honor to the staff of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo (12 of whom had been brutally murdered in the notorious January attack) with the Freedom of Expression Courage Award.

With good reason we liberals tend to side with minorities suffering at the hands of oppression.  Increasingly, liberal debate over free speech muddles the oppressor and the oppressed, tolerance and intolerance.  If liberal values still entail the willingness to respect different viewpoints, and the right to express them.

A case in point is Sophia A. McClennen’s: Pamela Geller’s “South Park” idiocy: Satire, hatred and the right’s faith-based fear-mongeringpublished in Salon on May 7, 2015.

Apparently, a razor fine distinction can be made between acceptable satire and unacceptable satire.  McClennen doesn’t explicitly condemn Pamela Geller for hate speech, but it seems she would like to, speculating that maybe she wanted to incite violence:

…then it is worth wondering whether Geller was hoping for violence.  She clearly knew what had already happened to Charlie Hebdo.

But that’s rather the point isn’t it?  The intolerance is not contained in the depiction of Muhammad but rather in the death threat that precedes it.  Liberals may argue about the motives of Geller, but the issue is whether she has a “right” to free speech, not whether she is right.

Only if we accept arbitrary limits on freedom of speech as dictated by cultural groups can cartoons of Muhammad constitute hate speech.  We must first cede to Islam the right to forbid them.  Liberals should consider whether the injunctions of Islam, or indeed any other religion, constitute an acceptable curb on liberty.

This is really about whether we will accept that some things are sacrosanct.  All religions venerate their icons: respect is demanded and worship accords it.  But can we really demand that people of other religions, or no religion, must observe them too?

The answer: “No.”  It’s not only an infringement on freedom, but plainly impractical.  Why should we privilege the beliefs of one group over another – by what criteria?  Who decides?  The extreme protagonists of Islam have no corresponding intention of respecting the beliefs of other religions.  If tolerance was valued, respect would be given and received.  In this debate respect is only demanded, extorted in fact, on pain of death.

Hate-speech is generally accepted as fighting words aimed at inciting violence on national, racial, or religious grounds, and to excite hostility toward particular individuals or groups.  Censorship serves a useful purposed in controlling violent and pornographic images, exposure to inappropriate material to children, and stopping incitement to violence directed at individuals or groups.

Depictions of Muhammad are considered offensive and provocative, but they do not call for violent behavior against Muslims.  They are blasphemous and forbidden according to the tenets of Islam, but why should the rest of us be beholden to these shibboleths?

Blasphemy and free speech cannot co-exist.  Liberals who would deny the right to satirize or critique belief systems are abrogating the ideals underpinning liberalism itself.  What happens when we allow dogma to rule over liberty and bow to the extremists who dispense justice via Kalashnikov?  Illiberal ideals are illiberal ideals no matter how disenfranchised the group holding them.

We do not need to look far to see where this road leads. Secular blogger Ananta Bijoy Das from Bangladesh was hacked to death by a machete wielding gang whilst on his way to work with his wife.  This follows the similar “hacking” murders of activistsAvijit Roy and Washikur Rahman.  Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, sentenced to a decade in prison and a 1000 lashes, may face beheading if his case is re-opened.

Human rights campaigner Sabeen Mahmud, from Pakistan, murdered, due to investigating the disappearance of over 2000 Baloch rights activists.  A Christian couple accused of blasphemy are beaten up, and then burned to death in a kiln.  In India, Shirin Dalvi, an Urdu newspaper editor, charged and forced into hiding for publishing a story about the Charlie Hebdo magazine.

The Governor of Punjab and Pakistan’s Federal Minorities Minister both assassinated for questioning the death penalty for blasphemy in in 2011.  Indian Professor, T.J. Joseph: his hand chopped off by an Islamist mob because he used the word “Muhammad” on an exam question. Charged with offending religious sentiments, and subsequently acquitted when the “Muhammad” was later confirmed to be a fictional character.  Scarcely does a day end without free expression facing its age old enemy, violence, justified by offence.

The writers protested the PEN award because they perceive Muslims, in France, to be largely disenfranchised and discriminated against.  The letter acknowledges both the courage and commitment to free speech of Charlie Hebdo, but declines to lend support to arguably “offensive” material which might intensify pre-existing prejudices.  Chillingly, the writers protest to the award’s recipient based on the content of Charlie Hebdo, suggesting more agreeable free speech would have been preferred.  How uncontroversial speech requires courage is unexplained.  One wonders whether they understand that in undermining the free, in free speech, they lend support to the forces of intolerance.

This begs the question…After cow-towing to the edict that no-one must depict the prophet what logic do we use to object to the proscriptions that will inevitably follow?  These might include embargoes on: consuming alcohol, women driving cars, immodest dress, expressing a secular point of view, gambling, finding fault with Islam, being alone with the opposite sex, poking fun at Islamic customs, believing in reincarnation, practicing yoga and many, many others.  If we agree to accept impositions upon our liberty we need a good reason to so, beyond the offence or victimhood reported by particular groups.

If there is any doubt, remember the treatment of heretics under Christianity prior to the Enlightenment.  For speaking their mind the great reformers of the faith usually met grisly fates at the hands of the orthodox.  Jan Hus, the key precursor to Protestantism, arrested, tried for heresy and burned at the stake.  William Tyndale, the leading translator of the Bible, responsible for many of its memorable phrases was a controversial figure during his lifetime, when orthodoxy dictated that the Bible should only be in Latin:  strangled and then burned at the stake.  Socrates, Joan of Arc, Giordano Bruno, Michael Servetus all feature on an impressive list of lives cut short due to their “offensiveness.”  To allow the hallowed icons of religion immunity from criticism we must unlearn the lessons of history.

Any ideology, religious, political or otherwise must be open for criticism.  Recall the great moral lesson of the 20th Century totalitarian regimes; the cost of sacrificing liberty for the common good was murder on an industrial scale.  When dissent was outlawed tyranny ensued.  The totalitarian regimes were all, at one point or other, minority groups.  Liberals must remind themselves that liberty is fundamental, it underpins tolerance and pluralism, and to maintain it, free speech must be inviolable.

Falsely shouting “Fire!” in a theatre, was the exception to free speech invoked by Oliver Wendell Holmes when delivering a guilty verdict on a group distributing leaflets encouraging draft resistance in the US Supreme Court in 1919.  The senseless waste of lives of World War I, a war fought for questionable reasons, caused Holmes to doubt his decision later in life.

For those who think that flouting taboos is unnecessary or provocative miss the very point of doing so.  Commentators who understand what their liberalism means should unambiguously support free speech regardless of who is the speaker.

The debate is aptly summed up by PEN President Andrew Solomon:

So let me say a few words about the Charlie Hebdo controversy. The defense of people murdered for their exercise of free speech is at the heart of what PEN stands for. So is the unfettered articulation of opposing viewpoints, as we have seen over the last ten days. Charlie Hebdo’s mission of satirizing sacred targets endured despite the firebombing of its office in 2011 and the murder of much of its staff in January. Few people are willing to put themselves in peril to ensure that we are all free to say what we believe. Charlie Hebdo’s current staff has persisted, and tonight’s award reflects their refusal to accept the curtailment of lawful speech through violence.

The price of free speech is the possibility, nay probability, of offence.  But the benefits of resisting totalitarianism, ignorance and apathy surely outweigh the toll.  For the absolutists who would censor, let them advise their authority for doing so.  I have yet to meet the person whose knowledge of the world is complete, and would immediately distrust anyone who made the claim.  Often those causing offense through free speech are legitimately shouting “Fire!” in order to draw our attention to something.  I don’t agree that my access to information should be limited by the sanction of others.  Should yours?

Hugh Harris is a freelance writer and owner of The Rational Razor, a blog dedicated to philosophy, and rational thought.