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Islamic Extremism and Free Speech

Updated on May 8, 2011


On April 1, protesters in Afghanistan, spurred on by angry mullahs and Afghan president Karzai to protest the burning of a Koran by American preacher Terry Jones, killed up to 12 people at a United Nations compound. The protests continued on Sunday when up to 30 people were wounded and two police officers were killed in the city of Kandahar.

I think the burning of a Koran was a foolish and intolerant act by the preacher. But even more disturbing is the reaction of some people in America who apparently believe that he should be somehow held responsible for the actions of the rioters who killed innocents. Even worse is when they call for him to be prosecuted for his actions under some “hate speech” law. Missing in all the condemnation is much-needed criticism of the barbaric actions of extremist Muslims who apparently feel that any criticism of Islam should be off-limits and makes someone deserving of death. We don’t hold Christians or Buddhists to the same standards that we hold Muslims. If a bunch of Christians rioted and killed middle-eastern people in America because they were angry about the controversial photograph, “Pisschrist,” for example, do you really think anyone would be blaming the artist who created it for the actions of Christians who killed innocent people? Of course not. We would hold these Christians as solely responsible for their actions. But because Extremist Muslims are still stuck in the dark ages, we bend to their will and don’t stand up for some of the values in our own society, such as freedom of speech.

When a Danish cartoonist, for example, published a picture of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, Extremist Muslims reacted violently. Muhammad is prohibited from being drawn in the Muslim religion. Why should the values of one religion dictate the policies of western society, much less restrict us from saying what we want and drawing what we want?

Freedom of speech has been held captive by something called the “heckler’s veto” for too long. The hecklers veto is when speech is restricted because it will likely or possibly cause someone to react violently to the speech and cause innocent deaths or at the very least, injuries or violence. An example is when a school play at Tarleton State University in Texas that depicted Jesus Christ as gay was cancelled by the professor of the class who was organizing the play due to safety concerns. This incident was documented by FIRE, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which documents abuses of free speech rights by universities around the United States. The cancellation was due to complaints from students and parents that it was offensive, and the need to maintain security and an “orderly” environment. Thus, free speech was squashed due to the worry of protests and the heckler’s veto.

The First Amendment wasn’t written to protect ‘safe’ or non-controversial speech. It was designed to protect controversial speech, speech that may be reprehensible to us. Such speech invites conflict and criticism, as it should. But the reaction to controversial speech should not be a reason to restrict the speech. For one thing, we are all personally responsible for the way we react to something. It isn’t “inevitable’ that someone will react violently to controversial speech, and if someone does, it is the person reacting violently that should be punished, not the person exercising their free speech rights. If someone reacted violently to a play depicting Jesus Christ as gay, they are responsible for their actions, and the person exercising free speech shouldn’t be blamed for that. It is giving into intimidation.

Even in America, many newspapers refused to show pictures of Muhammad. The creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, wanted to show a picture of Muhammad in their two part episode addressing this controversy, the Cartoon Wars, but Comedy Central wouldn’t let them. In a later episode, they depicted Muhammad in a bear costume, and they received a threat from the site in which someone said that Matt and Trey would “probably end up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show.” Theo Van Gogh was a film maker from Denmark who made a film criticizing the demeaning of and violence against women in some Muslim countries, and was subsequently murdered in 2004 by an extremist.

As a result of this, Comedy Central heavily censored a re-airing of the episode where they bleeped out every utterance of the word ‘Muhammad’ which Matt and Trey vastly disapproved of.

Matt and Trey were taking a courageous stand for freedom of speech, which syncs well with their libertarian views. But was it wise to do it, even if you did believe you had a right to? According to Family Guy creator Seth Mcfarlane, on an edition of Larry King Live, he wasn’t sure if their “Joke” was funny enough to be “worth getting killed over.” Many people express this sentiment. Is it worth the risk? I think it is, and the fate of the person who made the thinly veiled threat to Matt and Trey was to get arrested by the Justice Department on July 21 of last year due to terrorist connections. The writer of the threat was Zachary Chesser, who was planning to join an Islamic terrorist group in Somalia on July 10 when he was stopped by authorities at an airport and arrested.

This is exactly how we should be dealing with threats like this. Rather than cowering in fear and intimidation, we should say what we want and allow law enforcement to deal with those who would break the law and intimidate us into censoring our free speech rights.

There has been much talk of “Islamophobia” by the left in this country and others. And I agree that there are some incidents that demonstrate an unreasonable and even bigoted attitude toward Islam. For example, many conservatives expressed outrage over the first Muslim United States congressman deciding to carry his Koran with him when he was sworn in. Some claimed it undermined “American civilization” or that he should be required to swear on the bible and nothing else. This was completely ridiculous. The constitution forbids religious tests for office and any congressman or woman should be allowed to swear on whatever religious book they view as their own. This goes for Buddhists and Hindus as well as Muslims. Demanding that a Muslim congressperson not be allowed to carry his Koran in a swearing-in ceremony seems blatantly un-American to me. I also thought all the hoopla about the Ground Zero Mosque was ridiculous and silly.

However, this doesn’t mean that we should ignore or not condemn the disturbing and frightening aspects of some Muslim beliefs, such as the barbaric reactions to cartoons and free speech. Such discussion of “Islamaphobia” often ignores the fact that there are indeed aspects of Islamic extremists and their beliefs that we should be frightened of. Liberals need to remember that they would be the first ones to be persecuted in an extremist Muslim country. There’s a middle ground here. But there seems to be little acknowledgement of this middle ground in debates. Either you’re a “bigoted” conservative who opposes a mosque at ground zero or you’re a “tolerant” liberal who naively ignores the barbaric aspects of Muslim extremists. I think Reason magazine, a libertarian publication has the most reasonable editorial position on issues like this, which syncs well with mine and provides some much needed balance and moderation to the whole thing. Here is a good article by the magazine’s website on this subject, which I agree with:

As a final note, I'd like to point out that I make no judgments on the religion of Islam itself, since I don't know enough about it. My concern is with the behavior of Muslim extremists, not with the purported rightness or wrongness of Muslim beliefs. I've taken great care to use the term "Extremist Muslim", and not simply "Muslim", because some people tend to overreact to the latter and think I'm referring to all Muslims, which I'm clearly not.




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