Debate: Islam and free speech

Continuing on from yesterday’s freedom of speech piece, Carl Packman investigates the recent protests in the Middle East and Asia in relation to a film.


Following on from yesterday’s post about the rights of anti-abortion protests and the limits of free speech, in the second part of his series on freedom of speech, Carl Packman glances an eye to the Middle East and Asia, where many protests – including very violent episodes – have been taking place opposing a video made in the US which is said to be anti-Islamic

The video, owned by YouTube account holder “Sam Bacile”, produced by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (the latter denies being the former), has again raised concerns about freedom of speech, what the limits are, and whether censorship should be levelled at films or books or speeches that offend large swaths of people.

What is inevitably on many people’s minds is whether anyone can criticise Islam today without the fear of violent retaliation and the suppression of free expression.

On one side there is Seamus Milne, the Guardian columnist, who recently noted that, given ‘Imperialist war’ has only bolstered ill-feeling in the Arab world of the West, it is no surprise to him there has been so much recent anti-American protest.

His only surprise is, as the title of his piece suggests, there aren’t more violent protests:

“Insults to Muhammad are widely seen by Muslims as an attack on their collective identity and… a particular form of religiosity that elevates him as an ideal exemplar.”

On the other side there is Kevin Bankston, the director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, who said of Google’s decision to keep the video up in countries where there isn’t currently an outbreak of violence:

“I think that’s definitely the right decision. We don’t want violent protesters to be able to enforce a hecklers’ veto over the entire planet.”

There is merit in both arguments. But also errors. With Milne, it is worth taking into consideration the notion that what many feel today is that the West is at war with Islam itself. I believe this to be a factual error, but we can hardly expect those who really believe this to do so in silence.

As I discussed in my previous post on freedom of speech, even if we don’t instinctively like or trust the motives for protest, we must be consistent in our beliefs that freedom of expression be safeguarded. While looking at the freedom of speech of the videomaker, we must also acknowledge the freedom to protest it.

The answer is clearly: yes we should. For we don’t have to agree with the protest, just the right to do so. We also do not have to agree with the modes of protest that some choose to take. That people have died during these protests does not beg difficult questions about our basic freedoms, but asks for commonsense approaches to the ways in which we carry those freedoms out.

The dilemma might be thus: must we support the freedom to protest of those who are actively protesting against the freedom of expression? In short, we should defend the right to protest, no matter what, but condemn and ensure against violence.

What happens to be wrong with Bankston’s line of argument is that it doesn’t take into consideration something that is at the heart of the debate on free speech and US law – namely what the first amendment seeks to protect.

During Schenck v. United States (1919), one of the most famous First Amendment cases in US history, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. established that the right to free speech in the United States is not unlimited.

The line he used has now become the standard line for what limits a democratic society should have on free speech:

“The most stringent protection would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

In other words something that seeks only to cause harm is not worthy of being protected under the noble banner of free speech.

This is why UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said of the video straight away that it abused freedom of speech and was a:

“Disgraceful and shameful act.”

The question for us now is to ask what is the difference between freedom of speech, which includes offensive materials necessarily, and an abuse of freedom of speech? Obviously this is no easy question.

While talking about this very subject, Sarah Chayes of the LA Times did say something that rather concerned me:

“Especially in the heightened volatility of today’s Middle East, such provocation is certainly irresponsible.”

It struck me that for some, this was less about what one could say legimitely, and what one could say without upsetting people. The former can be offensive and challenging, and might even expect to receive heavy criticisim and protest, but the latter can easily just give into people’s over-sensitivities.

A recent edition of Charlie Hebdo, a Paris-based satirical French newspaper, depicts the Prophet Muhammad as crouching over naked – and unsurprisingly some have found this offensive. Critics have said it should be banned and so we ask why: because it is offensive? Or because it was causing unnecessary provocation, much like shouting panic in a theatre?

The one argument against publishing the images were that France would have to shut down all its embassies and schools in 20 countries. But that’s because, it could be said, they would be subject to intimidation by those who don’t believe in the free speech to publish offensive materials.

It would be sad to live in a world where we had to forego our principles for a small section of Muslims who choose to sacrifice free debate with fists, fire and weapons.

During the Rushdie affair, it was supposed that the reaction to The Satanic Verses would bring to fruition the oncoming clash of civilisations between the West and the Islamic world. In fact the clash of civilisations takes place within Islam itself between those who want to debate people who insult Islam, and those who want to behead people who insult Islam.

For those who want to live in a democracy where the freedom to speech is set in stone, one need look no further than the aforementioned Schenck v. United States case in 1919. The difficulty is applying this principle in cases today. Does the film abuse free speech? Can free speech be abused?

The answer is not simple, and the grounds for what counts as abuse will be debated probably forever more, but I don’t want to live in a world where my principles are sidelined by blackmailers. We need to stand firm on this whatever the difficulties that lie ahead.

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