The primacy of free speech over religious sensitivity

Muslims are notoriously prone to violent anger when their god or their prophet is portrayed at all, let alone in an unflattering light. Militants have thought nothing about even murdering those whom they think have transgressed against their faith. Today comes reports of the latest atrocity, the murder of American diplomats in Libya in retaliation for the purported showing on an internet video that supposedly disrespects the religious beliefs of Muslims.

As I wrote about six months ago, there have been attempts, instigated by Islamic countries and supported by some western nations including the US, to get the United Nations to adopt international treaties that would limit criticisms of religion by trying to include it under the umbrella of ‘hate speech’. Jonathan Turley had an excellent op-ed about what is being attempted and why it is a dangerous assault on free speech.

The BBC news report linked above says that the film that triggered the latest outburst is “highly provocative and insulting to Muslims”. I can well believe that the people who made the film were deliberately seeking to provoke a reaction. According to the Washington Post it was a created by an Israeli filmmaker living in California who claims it was funded by 100 Jewish donors. The film had been shown publicly just once before, to an empty Hollywood theater.

This tragedy may result in renewed calls for people to be ‘sensitive’ to religious sentiment. My feeling is that no level of deference will ever satisfy all religious people and attempts to do so only enhance the sense of entitlement of the most prickly of religious elements. No one has the right to unilaterally what is religiously offensive and what is not and enforce speech restrictions on others. If people want to go out of their way to offend others, the only thing that should be used to deter them is the opprobrium that they might face, not death or physical injury.

It will be interesting to see how the US government responds to this attack. When private individuals have been attacked by religious zealots, the acts have been condemned but also resulted in calls for greater sensitivity to the feelings of religious people. That is wrong-headed. What we really need is a greater global sensitivity to the right of free speech. Muslims, like any other religious group, will have to come to terms with the fact that their religious beliefs cannot be allowed to put limits on the speech of others however deliberately offensive it may seem to them.


  1. eric says

    It will be interesting to see how the US government responds to this attack.

    Sadly, the State Department has basically apologized for the free speech that prompted the attack. Not only are they not defending their own citizens’ right to free speech, they are feeding into the (possible) misunderstanding foreigners may have of US law, by implying that our diplomats have some authority over or bear some responsibility for the speech of regular American citizens.

    The DOS’ response should have been: we defend their right to speak even while not condoning their message. They are not the government, and targeting our diplomats for retaliation was to punish innocent people for the actions of others. Lastly, even had our diplomats said offensive things, it is wrong to respond to speech with violence.

  2. flex says

    To be clear, because I’m certain you already know this, not all Muslims are thin-skinned about any representation of their prophet.

    The prohibition in the Qur’an which this belief is drawn from is a prohibition against idolatry. The hadith which bans representations of people and animals doesn’t occur until long after the text of the Qur’an was finalized. This hadith is largely seen as only applicable to Sunni sects, and not even all of them. Many Shi’a sects openly display images of Muhammad.

    All that being said, Pastor Jones’ film appears to be deliberately provocative, displaying Muhammad in a quite negative light. Even Muslims who are unconcerned about showing an image of Muhammad would likely be incensed about how their prophet was portrayed. Imagine the reaction in America should a film be made showing Christ to be a charlatan; only into the whole messiah bit to get money and women.

    This does not excuse the violence triggered by the film.

  3. flex says

    Just to be clear, back to the OP, Pastor Jones has every right to make a bad film. No matter how provocative it is, no matter how insulting to a religious figure it is, no matter how much he may even be intending to infuriate others. While freedom of speech may have limits, Pastor Jones did not exceed them here.

    The blame for violence rests with those who committed, or explicitly called for, violence.

  4. smrnda says

    Some people have suggested that the calls on the part of the US Government for ‘sensitivity’ regarding things that might offend people’s religious sensibilities was just calculated realpolitik.

    A few people have mentioned ‘how would Americans feel if’ (insert disrespect of something Christina or American here.) The problem is stuff that is offensive to people’s religious sensibilities is put out all the time in the States, and we don’t have riots in the streets over it.

  5. Mano Singham says

    In fairness, there has been much mockery of Christ and Christianity in the US. Yes, that gets some Christians mad but their response usually extends to just demonstrations, boycotts, angry letters, abuse, and the like. I am not sure when was the last time that someone was actually killed in America for disrespecting Jesus.

  6. says

    While I believe in free speech, I’m not a big fan of religious bigotry by one religious group against another. I doubt all the makers of the film were atheists. Let’s not pretended this is a protest against all religion.

  7. says

    Considering that was released by the embassy, in the middle of the escalating riot, I’m not sure I blame them. The point was to calm down actively rioting people.

    In the same vein, I really don’t have an issue with a police negotiator telling a man with hostages that they’ll let him go free. Their primary concern is the lives of the hostages. Same deal here.

    You really can’t take a press release from an embassy in the middle of an escalating riot and extrapolate it into the entire DoS’s position.

  8. says

    When American lives are in the middle of the ordeal, being held hostage by rioters, I’m willing to accept the government tiptoeing around with it’s words.

    When all our citizens in Libya and Egypt are safe we can let loose with (righteously) angry rhetoric.

  9. katkinkate says

    I’m in two minds about this. It is very understandable that people, organisations and governments want to cringe away from, or try to placate the violent bullies of the moslem world, but I am worried that being over-solicitous of their feelings of outrage without exacting any penalty for their over-the-top violent temper tantrums is a modus operandi for eventual Islamic domination of the world. And I know that sounds like an islamophobic conspiracy theory, but it’s not. I’m sure it’s not an intentional strategy of world domination. There’s no conspiracy to take over western countries by acting like toddlers having a temper tantrum, but the world’s excessive pandering to their violent elements will encourage them to feel entitled to the ‘respect’ for their feelings above others rights. A hateful movie might hurt feelings, but death by home-made bombs is forever. But then I’m not sure what can be done to control the extremists effectively. Also I think a little bit of islamophobia is logical. A small proportion of their population have proven themselves to be all to ready to heap violent death on anyone they feel are not sufficiently respectful of their religion or females who step outside the parameters of the accepted behaviour. As someone who is not only female but not particularly respectful of anyone’s religion I must admit they make me nervous.

  10. flex says

    Point taken.

    But I don’t believe that the restraint shown by Christian’s in America from rioting and murder can be credited to their religion. There are lots of factors which have led to the occurrence of religiously inspired violence in the Middle East, and conversely have reduced the occurrence of religiously inspired violence in America. In my opinion, the most important factor which has acted to reduce religiously inspired violence in the U.S. has been the growth of the middle-class, not an increasing tolerance within Christianity.

    In countries which have both a large Muslim population as well as a large middle class, religiously inspired violence occurs at a much reduced frequency than in countries which have a large population in poverty. There are some exceptions, of course.

  11. says

    The acts have been condemned but also resulted in calls for greater sensitivity to the feelings of religious people. That is wrong-headed.

    Not only that, I have suggested it could be viewed as contradictory. Let’s say the people who made this movie were simply expressing their religious beliefs. Well, now they have possibly been insulted by having their religious beliefs condemned by someone claiming to want sensitivity.

  12. eric says

    Well, the riot is over now. Time to tell the former hostage-holder he doesn’t really get to go free.

    Do you think that’s going to happen? Do you think State is going to retract or “clarify” their earlier statement? If so, I have a bridge you might be interested in purchasing.

  13. says

    I can understand your reasoning. I do fear, though, that after things blow over, that no one will go, “Nah! Just kidding! People are free to offend religion as much as they want. Freedom of speech, bitches!” Well, OK, no one would say anything that over-the-top, but the point is I don’t expect the Embassy to later retract anything from their statement. Do you?

  14. JagerBaBomb says

    Well, it seems now that the administration is saying this was a calculated attack that used the outrage over the video as a cover. Why else would those ‘protesters’ in Libya show up with RPG’s and grenade launchers? Let’s not forget the date this occurred on, as well.

    Now it would Obama is continuing his ‘apology tour’ by air-dropping more apologies over suspected Al-Qaeda-aligned training camps in Libya.

  15. says

    First of all Christians have no religion, little girls walk around half naked, videos with whores wearing crosses and bukkaki cum drippin on them, disrespect of other religions, DRUNKS, who the f**K are you calling scum and dirty. I wonder how your “jesus” would say if he were here today.

  16. PatrickG says

    It’s been said by other people above, but … why not say “Some Muslims”? There are quite a few Muslims in the world, and not every one of them shares the same worldview.

    But then, I’m looking forward to your upcoming post that says:

    “Christians oppose any form of abortion or birth control. Christians reject the theory of evolution. Christians think women should not be represented in the workforce. Christians long for explosive war in the Middle East so as to bring about the end times foretold by Revelations.”

    You do plan on writing that, yes?

  17. PatrickG says

    Echoing what flex said…

    The fact that Christians in the United States have not been able to use wholesale murder as a tactic does not speak well of Christians here. It speaks well of our legal system and police forces (I do not mean to disregard issues regarding either, here.).

    If you don’t think some U.S. Christians wouldn’t happily engage in more brutal tactics, I can only refer you to the celebration by some Christians re: the murder of George Tiller, as just one example.

    Criticism of institutionalized safeguards against violence (or lack thereof) in Islamic countries is one thing. Blanket condemnations of 1.5 billion people are reprehensible, and irrational.

    Atheists eat babies, after all. Not just some. All of us!

  18. colinhutton says

    From what I have read, the film is linked to Terry Jones, a fundamentalist Christian pastor from Florida. If that is so, I trust you will correct your attribution of it to an Israeli filmmaker and Jewish donors.

  19. DrVanNostrand says

    @12 colinhutton

    Jones never claimed to have made the movie. He is just a supporter and perhaps also one of many donors. “Sam Bacile” made the movie and claimed to be Israeli. He also claimed to have been funded by “100 jews”. Subsequent reporting seems to indicate that that’s not his real name and he’s not in fact an Israeli citizen. I haven’t come across anything about the veracity of his claim to have been funded by “100 jews”.

  20. Julies says

    Do you mean to say only atheists should get to denigrate any religion? Everyone should have the same rights.


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