The attacks on free speech gain steam

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 < a href="">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.


  1. machintelligence says

    Since one religion’s orthodoxy is another’s blasphemy these laws fail the reductio ad absurdum test.

    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.

    They do have a point all right — it’s on the top of their heads.

  2. carlie says

    Since one religion’s orthodoxy is another’s blasphemy

    Exactly. I’d love to see one religion sue another for teaching that any way to heaven other than theirs is wrong.

  3. rory says

    I found Posner’s article on Slate rather despicable. He so blithely calls for restrictions on speech, without considering who would be in charge of determining what speech should be restricted and by what means that restriction should be accomplished. He seems to think that any speech which produces sufficiently negative consequences for the government in terms of national security should be curtailed, but this would amount to nothing more than an international heckler’s veto.

    I’m glad to see him being taken to task for his views, both in the comments pages on Slate and in the handful of blog articles who have mentioned Posner (yours and JT’s, so far).

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    … Eric Posner, a professor of law at the University of Chicago.

    We already knew the U of Chicago economics school was full of borderline fascists; their law school is rapidly earning a reputation for housing blatant enemies of Constitutional safeguards.

    I suspect that if they opened a Department of Public Health, it would rapidly become a bastion of anti-vaccinationists.

  5. Kilian Hekhuis says

    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

    Although I can see where these come from, I really loath such laws (and I’m from a country that has one). I find it incomprehensible that denying one part of history is prohibited, while denying all history older than, say, 6000 years, is fine. Denying the truth, no matter how silly it is, should never be forbidden.

  6. HP says

    Just FYI: The embedded video is not the controversial episode, and is apparently mislabeled; this is a fairly straightforward and largely pro-Islamic history of Moorish Andalusia in the Iberian peninsula by the same presenter.

    AFAICT, the controversial episode(which questions the historicity of Mohammed) is not on YouTube, although there’s a brief trailer subtitled in Arabic here:

  7. stonyground says

    The issue of free speech is something that the US has almost right and the rest of us need to aspire to. In my opinion, freedom of speech should be absolutem, apart from rare exceptions involving inciting criminal activity that can have real negative consequences. Those who think otherwise will have to decide who is qualified to be the arbiter of what we are allowed to say and what we are to be forbidden from saying. Is there someone out there who knows everything? I only ask because someone who knows everything is the only person who is qualified to make that decision.

    The ban on holocaust denial is a prime example of a stupid restriction on free speech. You only have to ban people from denying the holocaust if you don’t have the evidence that it actually happened. If you don’t have the evidence then the deniers have a case that needs to be heard. If you do have the evidence then you have everything that you need to prove them wrong. The evidence that it happened is overwhelming, the only people who deny it are idiots who admire Hitler. What more needs to be said?

  8. stonyground says

    What more needs to be said? I forgot to mention the Islamists.

    Islamists, if your religion really is true and all the other religions are false, then free speech gives you the absolute right to make your case to the whole world. If your religion is demonstrably true then, far from being a problem, free speech is absolutely to your advantage. Forgive me then, if I interpret your rabid opposition to free speech as an admission that you are unable to make the case that your religion is true. Those of us that insist upon basing our beliefs upon evidence, welcome others pointing out when we are wrong. That is the way that we hone our knowledge. So much better than cutting their heads off and staying wrong, wouldn’t you say?

  9. Psychopomp Gecko says

    If your all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the universe’s personal following has to be protected from a crappy video making fun of it, that might be a sign about the validity of your religion.

  10. Peter_Henry says

    See if it allows me to post this time …
    I agree with most of the criticisms on limiting expression and on publicizing incendiary views.
    But, I am not self-congratulary because “free speech” guidelines are not applied evenly.

    The Federal government has successfully prosecuted people and sentenced them to long prison terms for providing “material support” to terrorist groups, such support amounting to publishing favorable viewpoints of the 9-11 terrorists, advocating for armed responses to American actions, providing access to Hezbollah’s satellite TV. In one case, a cleric was assassinated for alleged involvement in terrorism; such involvement most likely involved providing spiritual support for the actual attackers.
    So much for, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

  11. mnb0 says

    “an offense to deny the Holocaust”
    This ban has nothing to do with protecting religion, but everything with protecting the survivors. As such it’s even more justified than a ban on creationism in biology class imo. Remember: Holocaust denial is every inch as pseudoscientific as creationism. Anyone interested in a parody that mercilessly exposes its mechanisms should visit this:

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