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Free speech and the “clash of civilizations”

2 October 2012 Salon 19 Comments Email This Post Email This Post

Free speech and the “clash of civilizations”

We have no problem with sometimes limiting hateful speech — except, it seems, when Islam is the target

BY 

Three hurtful words, scrawled in black circles under the eyes of a ballplayer named Yunel Escobar: Tu ere[s] maricón.  The message, conveyed in the eyeblack of the Toronto Blue Jays shortstop during a recent game, means, You’re a faggot.  That’s hate language, and reaction was swift and stern.  Major league baseball launched an investigation, the Blue Jays suspended Escobar for three games and enrolled him in “sensitivity training,” and he gave the obligatory apology in front of the microphones. Few if anyone publicly complained that, hurtful or not, homophobic or not, Escobar’s free speech rights trumped the concerns of others wounded by his words.  No one said Escobar should be able to continue displaying the slur.

“Given the reaction of the offended community, Escobar’s punishment was absolutely justifiable and necessary to maintain order in society,” wrote Stacie Brown on policymic.  In other words, the community came together and shut Escobar up, due to a collective sense of mutual respect for the rights of others not to be hurt by hateful speech.  Society has forged standards of respect and unacceptability about racial, ethnic, anti-Semitic and homophobic slurs.  Rightly or wrongly, the message is:  use certain hateful words in public, and you’ll pay the price.  So why is there a different set of values at work when it comes to the hurt caused Muslims by hateful, Islamophobic characterizations of the Prophet Mohammed, or denigrations of Islam?

“The Innocence of Muslims” is only the latest attack on the prophet designed to provoke and therefore reinforce the image of Muslims as the Other, unworthy of the support and empathy of civilized peoples.  “The obvious, outward motive of such attempts is…to show Muslims as irrational, violent, intolerant and barbaric, all of which are attributes profoundly inscribed into the racist anti-Muslim discourse in the West,” writes the Egyptian journalist Hani Shukrallah, editor of Al Ahram Online.

But whether the provocation is the “Innocence” trailer, which depicts Mohammed as a pedophile and “murderous thug”; Danish cartoons, including one depicting Mohammed with a bomb in his turban;  a Florida Quran-burning; or images of naked women with verses of the Quran scrawled across their bodies, in a film whose director liked to call Muslims “goat-fuckers,” the defense centers on free speech.

“Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with,” President Obama pointed out at the United Nations last week, in the continuing wake of the “Innocence” furor. “We do not do so because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened.”

Instinctively, as a journalist, I’ve always been close to a free-speech absolutist.  After all, if we start banning things, where do we draw the line?

But there are two problems with blanket free-speech protections in these cases:  One, such universal protections don’t exist in the first place.  Laws on the books already prohibit certain hateful and provocative speech.  In Germany, it’s against the law to deny the Holocaust.   Here in the States, try advocating assassination, running an explosives seminar, defending the 9/11 attacks, or even making a charitable donation to the wrong group in the wrong conflict zone, and see how far you get.  Some of these restrictions emanate from the USA Patriot Act, but others have been in place for decades.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court in 1919, argued that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”  As Sarah Chayes points out in an LA Times op-ed titled “Free Speech or Incitement?”, “The Innocence of Muslims” was provocative by design, and therefore may fit U.S. case law that prohibits “specifically advocating violence.”  She quotes Anthony Lewis, former New York Times columnist and eloquent free speech champion: “If the result was violence, and violence was intended, then it meets the standard” for a criminal act.

The second problem in the blanket free speech defense is its unequal application to Muslims and Arabs.  “I come from a land, from a faraway place, where the caravan camels roam,” went the Disney film “Alladin”s opening song, “where they cut off your ear if they don‘t like your face. It‘s barbaric, but hey, it‘s home.”  Is there any other group in America for whom this kind of slur would not be roundly condemned, its offenders forced to apologize before being sent into the corner like Yunel Escobar?

There is little in the public conversation that seeks to understand and explain the hurt caused to Muslims by these slurs.  “To mock, to denigrate, to make fun of, somebody who’s deep…[in] the hearts of the Muslims? Really?” asked Sheikh Hamza Yusuf at a packed forum at Zaytuna College, a new Muslim college in Berkeley, in the aftermath of the “Innocence” furor.  (I was the forum’s moderator.) Yusuf argued that religious denigration should be seen in the same light as racial slurs, where “there are consequences. You will lose your job!  We don’t accept racial denigration anymore. I think religious denigration has to be seen as identity.”

Islamophobia, and the accompanying hating on Arabs, helps provide cover for exceptional denigration.  At the Zaytuna forum, Hatem Bazian, a co-founder of the college, described “an Islamophobic production industry that is dedicated to demeaning, to speaking ill of Muslims and attempting to silence Muslims from civil discourse.” This “othering” simply does not spur the same kind of outrage as slurs on blacks, gays, Jews, Asians or Latinos. In Hollywood especially, from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to “Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” Arabs and Muslims are the last fair game for attacks with impunity.  Jack Shaheen, director of “Reel Bad Arabs,” cites a  “dangerously consistent pattern of hateful Arab stereotypes.  All aspects of our culture project the Arab as villain.  That is a given.”  The attacks on Arabs and Muslims come with free speech arguments that often don’t apply for other groups.

“Western states and media,” wrote Mustafa Malik in the San Francisco Chronicle, “have waived the free-speech principles…in case of Holocaust denials, racial slurs, advocacy of terrorism and other expressions that could endanger Western social order or national security.  But they have persistently refused to prevent the vilification of Islam.”

Such vilifications, obviously, do not justify mayhem by the weak and besieged already enraged at the West – be it the murderers of the Dutch director, Theo Van Gogh, or the rioters who, post Innocence, have claimed the lives of dozens of people, perhaps including Chris Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya.  (The Libyan attacks may have been pre-meditated, and the video only a pretext.)

But it’s time to have a conversation about whether the free speech rights are being applied evenly, and whether speech which leads to murder deserves to be protected.  Simply saying “there’s nothing we can do” will only perpetuate the pattern.  This will leave the ground clear for extremists from both sides, who, ironically, need each other to join the battle in their perceived fateful clash of civilizations.

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Sandy Tolan is author of “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East,” and associate professor of journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC.

MORE SANDY TOLAN.

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19 Comments »

  1. “So why is there a different set of values at work when it comes to the hurt caused Muslims by hateful, Islamophobic characterizations of the Prophet Mohammed, or denigrations of Islam?”

    So why is the koran allowed to cause hurt to christians by hateful, christophobic charaterizations of the Messiah, Jesus Christ?

    Just another worthless article sprading the lie that islam is somehow special.

  2. If the people in charge of Islam had not sold its soul to politics, and weren’t using mobs for ethnic cleansing, it wouldn’t be having this problem. If bombers were yelling death to ____ instead of Allahu akbar, they wouldn’t be having this problem.

    Inciting violence is done on a regular basis in some mosques every Friday. The muslims should wise up about how they are enraging others. Have been for years.

    Context makes the difference. If someone in the crowd had been yelling eres maricon, they would not have been punished. Escobar was part of a team, comes under unsportsmanlike conduct.

  3. “But it’s time to have a conversation about whether the free speech rights are being applied evenly, and whether speech which leads to murder deserves to be protected”

    So the person who wrote this thinks the civil rights movement in the USA should have been abandoned because the calls for civil rights led to murders.

    Does Salon.com really think what can be discussed should be dictated by murderers?

  4. jesus fucking christ. this woman has about as much understanding of american fredoom of speech as dongo. her comparisions are equally insane and irrational.

    FIRST: terry jones is not in the MLB. he is self employeed. the comparison to a baseball play, who like a soldier is expected to behave by a code of conduct. the government did nothing to him. just like it should do nothing to the makers of the film. his employee punished him. if i call my muslim boss a sandnigger he might fire me. i can’t cry freedom of speech and expect my job to be protected. “In other words, the community came together and shut Escobar up” yes, and feel free as a community to come together and boycott terry jones, lowes, whatever you want. DON’T expect the government to intevine, or whatever other crazy Un sponser law against blasphemy to be enforced in america.

    SECOND: please come up with something other than the tired, germany has a law against holocaust denial. it’s a bad law and it’s not american. and speaking of old and rediculous argueements. yelling fire in a crowded theater comparison is absolute non-sense. for you intenet scholars, the reason you can’t yell fire in a crowded movie theater is because it is reasonable to expect people to flee the fire. you know because smoke inhalation will kill you. so there is a possibility of people being trampled. news flash, a movie can’t kill you. cartoons can’t kill you. or the other movie, submission can’t kill you. a guy burning a koran in his parking lot in gainsville can’t kill you.

    THIRD: “whether speech which leads to murder deserves to be protected.” how about don’t murder people because your FUCKING COCKSUCKING BASTARD OF A PROPHET, has been insulted? this makes absolutely no-sense. i know it is appearently a motif in this article.

    and for all you idiots who continue to not know or choose to ignore the FACTS. no one has ever been charged with denying the holocaust in america. no one has ever been arrest for racial slurs. no one has been arrested for verbally supporting 9/11. you can wave a swaztika in america, in front of jews all you want.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Socialist_Party_of_America_v._Village_of_Skokie

  5. You may not be arrested for slurs, but you may loose your job even for saying something that makes a distinction, e.g. blacks tend to be good at sports.

    There has been witch hunting based on speech.

  6. I agree with you anon, people are hypersensitive as to what others say for no reason than to be noticed and made the center of attention. The woman writing this article has no idea what she is talking about, no other religion in the U.S. has the protections she is wanting and no other religion in the U.S. is pushing for such protections. I do not intend on living according to a Muslim belief set even if it gets them upset. I do not expect them to live by a Christian belief set even when their actions make me angry. Freedom of religion is the ability to worship as you please given some limits such as you cannot sacrifice people regardless of your beliefs. Freedom of religion does not force people to respect your religion or your participation in such a religion. Muslims are free to worship in the United States but they are not free to set limits on my actions or the words I use. I think we need more constitutional classes for incoming immigrants to this country and free speech along with freedom of religion needs to be stressed.

  7. If the people in charge of Islam had not sold its soul to politics, and weren’t using mobs for ethnic cleansing, it wouldn’t be having this problem. If bombers were yelling death to ____ instead of Allahu akbar, they wouldn’t be having this problem.

    Inciting violence is done on a regular basis in some mosques every Friday. The muslims should wise up about how they are enraging others. Have been for years.

    Context makes the difference. If someone in the crowd had been yelling eres maricon, they would not have been punished. Escobar was part of a team, comes under unsportsmanlike conduct.

    No one has sold Islam. No one can! Just as no one can sell christianity. However, there may be misrepresentations of any religion.

    So, you need to correct yourself regarding your basic premise.

    Muslims are reacting. So, there is/was provocation. The making of that idiotic movie was a provocation.

    That was not freedom of speech. If freedom of speech was really so sacrosanct why are attempts to deny the holocaust considered objectionable?

    Why

  8. You will not be arrested in US for denying the holocaust.

    The mullahs etc. certainly are using Islam to further ethnic cleansing and other political aims. They cast about looking for pretexts to murder their neighbor or drive him away if he happens to think and believe differently.

    All one has to do is burn or otherwise damage a Koran, then claim someone did it, this incites a riot. They wanted to burn Rimsha alive.

    Muslims are engineering provocations on a daily basis, with a special emphasis on Friday. They murder themselves as often as the kuffar.

    Plenty of Copts are enraged at what they endured under muslim rule.

  9. Shariq Jamal,

    you can consider aything you what objectionable. what you can’t do is riot. burn property, kill people becasue you find a movie objectionable. so when the president of iran denies the holocaust, how many riots where there?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocaust_denial

    you can consider aything you what objectionable. what you can’t do is riot. burn property, kill people becasue you find a movie objectionable. why is this a difficult concept for muslims to understand?

    WHY?????????

  10. Am seeing posts by muslims asking if the imposition of an international blasphemy law means that no one will appear on their airwaves cursing, mocking and calling for the death of Jews and Christians, Amadis, etc.

    Remarkable that people who so abuse others wail when their own toes are trampled.

  11. The comparsion that the professor used is not correct.With the Muslims the problem is religion ,their prophet and god;their names are holy.If you make a cartoon at a muslim it would not be a problem.I just don’t like to hear anyone using the sacred name of jesus or GOD when their swearing,but i cannot go out there and threaten people.If GOD is the creater then it is in his power to punish the plasphemer i cannot play GOD and take things in my hand.
    If Allah is God then he has unlimited power. when the muslims are praying they can pray that Allah punish the evil doers .Christions pray for people who offend them or forgive them.what Allah does for the muslims ?it does not make sense praying to a god five times a day who cannot do anythin for you.

  12. “If Allah is God then he has unlimited power”

    Most muslims believe their god isn’t omnipotent

  13. Very good, Jane.

  14. “they don’t?”

    Most muslim don’t believe their god can send another prophet, they also don’t believe their god can forgive the “sin” of shirk

  15. i don’t think that is a can’t, but a won’t?

    [18.45] And set forth to them parable of the life of this world: like water which We send down from the cloud so the herbage of the earth becomes tangled on account of it, then it becomes dry broken into pieces which the winds scatter; and Allah is the holder of power over all things.

    [29.20] Say: Travel in the earth and see how He makes the first creation, then Allah creates the latter creation; surely Allah has power over all things.

    power over all things. sounds like the definition of omnipotent to me.

  16. Muslim prayer in office spaces violates the “do not discuss religion” code in force in many US offices. It is considered bad form, if not expressly forbidden, to drag out your Rosary or Bible or question fellow employees about their beliefs.

  17. “Muslims are reacting. So, there is/was provocation. The making of that idiotic movie was a provocation.”

    The rioting gave the film massive publicity.

  18. I want to read professor Sandy will write on the incident of the two young Cop boy who were arested and held for two days in Egypt for holding the koran the wrong way.The big question that is on most non Muslim minds is why ?did they make a hate speech?or did they provoke the muslim masters?then there was the Indian police cheif in London who was attack by some Muslims.

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