Free speech is no excuse for Muslim-baiting

A Lahore man protests against cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammad. Mohsin Raza/REUTERS

Over the last decade, the world has witnessed a number of significant clashes between the rights of free of speech and respect for religion.

On a Sunday evening in May this year, two men in Garland, Texas shot an unarmed security guard at a Muhammad-focused art exhibit and cartoon contest sponsored by an anti-Islamic organization. The gunmen were killed by a police officer hired to provide security at the event.

This incident marked the most recent in a string of violent acts highlighting an uneasy imbalance between freedom of speech and respect for religious beliefs. It followed the attack earlier this year on the satirical French newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and subsequent shootings in Copenhagen. It also evoked memories of the Danish cartoon controversy 10 years ago, which resulted in violent protests around the world.

In 2005, Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of a Danish newspaper, invited cartoonists to draw the face of Muhammad as they saw him. Concerned that Danish artists were self-censoring their criticism of Islam due to fear of reprisals, Rose wanted the cartoons “to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter.”

The resulting 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad included one by Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. Other images were less provocative, but they were offensive to many Muslims. Some cited general Islamic restrictions on drawing images of the prophet. Others felt the representation of Muhammad reflected negative stereotypes of Muslims and Islam.

Diversity and values

The scene of a cafe shooting in Copenhagen, 2015. Hannibal Hanschke/REUTERS

Each of these episodes took place in communities struggling to make sense of increasing religious and cultural diversity. This is perhaps more clearly the case in France and Denmark, where the number of Muslims has grown rapidly in recent years due to immigration. Muslims have been in the US for much longer, but particularly since 9/11, Americans have grappled with an undercurrent of conflict between so-called “Western” and “Islamic” values.

While there are historical and cultural differences between Denmark, the US and France, all three countries have seen a rise of Islamophobia from some segments of their populations over the past three decades. This is often accompanied by a desire to defend the nation against a perceived threat to free speech.

In all three instances, these sentiments led to the creation of images of the Prophet Muhammad, which in turn provoked violent extremism.

During the coverage of these violent incidents by the media, more often than not, commentators focused on a single issue, arguing that free speech and respect for religious and cultural differences are mutually exclusive. We must, they argued, support not simply freedom of speech but also the right to offend. This right, sometimes articulated as a duty, was discussed as a necessary aspect of democracy.

But as I have maintained in my book on the Danish cartoon crisis, this is a dangerously dualistic interpretation of free speech and religious respect. While I believe that free speech is a crucial part of democracy, as a theologian and scholar of religion, I argue that this freedom necessitates respect and responsibility. Simply because we can say something doesn’t necessarily mean that we should.

In the article that accompanied the cartoons in 2005, editor Flemming Rose argued that in a democracy with freedom of expression, one must tolerate scorn, mockery and ridicule. In my work, I maintain that religious and cultural pluralism are core values that democracies should aspire toward. Pluralism, according to scholars like Harvard University’s Diana Eck, goes beyond tolerating diversity to actively seeking to engage difference through mutual dialogue. This kind of pluralism is impossible if we deliberately use free speech to provoke, demean or injure others.

We should consider more carefully what “freedom of speech” actually means in context. Despite popular belief, free speech is not absolute, even in the United States. The Supreme Court has made this clear through a number of cases. The government can regulate speech in certain instances, with exceptions for circumstances like “fighting words,” or incitement to imminent violent action. The media and individuals self-censor in multiple ways in accord with a sense of shared taste or a tacit agreement of certain boundaries.

Violence not legitimate

Condemning the inexcusable violence committed by the shooters in Garland, France and Denmark doesn’t stop us from questioning the justification for the cartoon contest and subsequent exhibit. Are they not simply provocations of a minority by the majority?

Violence isn’t a legitimate response to a religious offense, but the intentional disrespect of a neighbor’s religious sensibilities is also inexcusable in a pluralistic society. There are, of course, legitimate reasons for fearing the beliefs and threats of extremist groups like IS and al-Qaeda. But portraying all Muslims as violent and sponsoring events like the “contest” in Garland will not help prevent religious extremism. These actions encourage violence by extremists, and alienate American Muslims, the vast majority of whom simply want to live their lives peacefully.

In a world that continues to become more diverse, engaging in civil dialogue in an effort to better understand our differences is paramount. We can condemn violent extremism and simultaneously reject the idea that freedom of speech and respect are mutually exclusive.