As could be predicted, the violence resulting from the anti-Islamic film Innocence of Muslims has resulted in calls for the limits to freedom of speech and laws for the protection of religious sensibilities. The president of Egypt Mohamed Morsi and the president of Yemen Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi both made speeches at the United Nations this week calling for such restrictions.
[Morsi] also said that though his country now embraces democracy and human rights, it would not accept the categorical approach to free speech that Obama urged at the United Nations and would not tolerate insults to religion.
“Egypt respects freedom of expression,” he said, but “one that is not used to incite hatred against anyone. One that is not directed toward one specific religion or cult.”
He called on the U.N. to consider international action to crack down on speech that defames religions.
Yemen President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, in his remarks, also rejected protection of speech that criticizes religion. “There should be limits for the freedom of expression, especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures,” Hadi said.
Tunisia, a third country that overthrew its dictator as a result of the Arab spring, is also struggling with the issue of free expression, with religious fundamentalists attacking artists who they think are blaspheming.
But Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda party that captured elections last year, also said that the video that sparked the attack, Innocence of Muslims, wasn’t something that should be protected by freedom of expression.
“This video wasn’t freedom of expression; it was freedom to attack what is sacred to others,” said Ghannouchi. “We don’t see a contradiction between free expression and respecting others’ beliefs.”
Tunisia’s government is trying to insert an article into the country’s new constitution that would make insulting sacred beliefs a criminal offense. The idea is anathema to secular Tunisians.
But for grocery store manager Salem Amri, freedom of expression stops when it hurts others.
“There are always barriers that we shouldn’t be allowed to touch,” he says. “We Muslims have our principles.”
Some western countries have their own Achilles heel when it comes to protecting free speech because they have passed laws making it an offense to deny the Holocaust, thus making them easy targets for the charge of hypocrisy. Those who are calling for protection of religion are only too eager to use that to argue that since other countries have their lines that cannot be crossed, why shouldn’t they?
Amri points out that in some parts of Europe, freedom of expression does not permit denying the Holocaust — so what’s wrong with protecting religious beliefs?
Fares Mabrouk, who runs the Arab Policy Institute, says every country has its red lines.
“There is no absolute freedom of expression. Now in Tunisia, are we going to set our limits in terms of freedom of expression? There are different opinions. And this is part of our building a new democracy. This is one of our tasks,” Mabrouk says.
Even in the US, some are suggesting that the First Amendment protections in the US that we value highly are not only outliers when it comes to other nations but also have been elevated within the US fairly recently, just since the middle of the 20th century, and hence they should not be thought of as inviolable. This idea that free speech is overvalued in the west is the argument made by Eric Posner, a professor of law at the University of Chicago.
Americans need to learn that the rest of the world—and not just Muslims—see no sense in the First Amendment. Even other Western nations take a more circumspect position on freedom of expression than we do, realizing that often free speech must yield to other values and the need for order. Our own history suggests that they might have a point.
We have to remember that our First Amendment values are not universal; they emerged contingently from our own political history, a set of cobbled-together compromises among political and ideological factions responding to localized events. As often happens, what starts out as a grudging political settlement has become, when challenged from abroad, a dogmatic principle to be imposed universally. Suddenly, the disparagement of other people and their beliefs is not an unfortunate fact but a positive good.
Scott Lemieux is having none of it.
It is true that the modern understanding of the First Amendment did not become entrenched in American constitutionalism until the 1960s. But that’s neither here not there unless Posner can point to the advantages of the previous regime, which he rather conspicuously fails to do in a remotely convincing fashion. Personally, I don’t long for the days in which you could be thrown in horrible jails and fined the modern equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars for criticizing a public official, or in which a prominent labor leader could receive a ten-year prison sentence for making an anti-war speech. I don’t pine for the era in which schoolchildren could be coerced into giving a Nazi-style salute to the flag and subject to expulsion and/or physical assault if they didn’t comply. The dissenters who mocked the idea that the repression of powerless dissenters was all that stood between us and an American Stalin during the Red Scare were obviously right.
The Vatican has been walking a fine line trying to find ways to protect its own religious beliefs from criticism while not openly calling for criminalization of such acts.
But in recent years, especially after controversy erupted over the so-called Muhammad cartoons in Europe in 2005, the Vatican has also shown a clear concern for Muslim sensibilities toward the slandering of religious values and symbols.
A joint declaration of a Catholic-Muslim dialogue at the Vatican in 2008 stated that the “founding figures” and the “sacred” symbols of religions “should not be subject to any form of mockery or ridicule.”
Another joint statement by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and Cairo’s respected Al-Azhar University was even clearer: it called on the media “in all countries to be vigilant that freedom of expression not be taken as a pretext for offending religions, convictions, religious symbols and everything that is considered sacred.”
In both documents, however, the emphasis was on self restraint, with no mention of legislative enforcement.
What is disturbing is that there is already considerable self-censorship in western countries when it comes to offending religion. For example, a re-broadcast of a documentary on Islam titled Islam: The Untold Story was cancelled in England after the presenter, the historian Tom Holland, was threatened. (You can read a review of it here.) Here’s the trailer.
Fortunately, you can see the full documentary on YouTube, though for how long I don’t know, given the current intimidatory climate. I just discovered it online and hope to watch it this weekend.
[Update: According to commenter HP, what I posted is not the link to the correct documentary but another one by the same historian, so I have removed it. I'll try and find the correct one.]
[Second update: See here for links to view the documentary and my review.]
Unlike the Innocence of Muslims garbage, this is a serious documentary, but both deserve protection from threats. Once you start chipping away at freedom of speech because some people’s beliefs are offended, there is no end. My right to watch Islam: The Untold Story is threatened if the Innocence of Muslims is banned.