Free Speech is not Hate Speech

When free speech is attacked, we all suffer. So often in the past, those who have been attacked for speaking out haven’t attracted the support they should have either because of what they have to say, or who they are. We have allowed our opinion of the speech of those we don’t agree with to colour our opinion of whether they should be allowed to speak. The massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo was, of course, an attack on free speech. It has inspired worldwide support for freedom of speech. Most have got it right: there’s no excuse for murder. I liked the tweet of Mr OzAtheist (below), which he followed up with a great article.

Mr Oz Atheist

My hope is that this event will be a watershed – that freedom of expression will be respected by all. That there will no longer be any “buts”, no conditions. And no, that doesn’t mean I’m advocating yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre – anyone who suggests that is  deliberately missing the point.

So far, my hope hasn’t been realized. There has been much that has been encouraging. Today’s Unity March in Paris with an estimated 1.6 million participants including 40 world leaders is one. The fact that some of those leaders are suppressing free speech in their own countries though makes me wonder about their commitment.

The massacre has also brought several bigots out of the woodwork from both sides of the aisle. In New Zealand, that was personified on one side by Derek Fox, about whom I wrote a few days ago. Worldwide, there have been several examples of those blaming the victim. Professor Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution Is True wrote about my old mate Reza Aslan, saving me the bother. Aslan is blaming “France’s inability to tolerate multiculturalism”. People like Fox and Aslan blamed the victims, accusing them of racism, bigotry, bullying, assumption of cultural superiority, arrogance, inability to tolerate multi-culturalism, ignorance, and a few other things besides.

On the other other side there are plenty who have used the massacre as an excuse to parade their anti-Muslim prejudice. Reader Doug let me know about this appalling tweet from Rupert Murdoch:

Rupert Murdoch

The New Zealand Herald reported the reaction to the tweet:

[Murdoch] then maintained his stance …

He added: “Big jihadist danger looming everywhere from Philippines to Africa to Europe to US.

“Political correctness makes for denial and hypocrisy.”

His words sparked a storm on the social network, with many Muslim users outraged as Murdoch appeared to lay the blame for the terrorist attacks on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket on an entire religion, which has more than a billion followers.

One user blasted his sweeping generalisation, and said: “‘they’ as in most Muslims????? You can’t hold an entire religion of billions responsive [sic] for the actions of a few'”

Erwin Renaldi said: “I’m really sad reading this. Insulting my faith and I have nothing to do with the extremists and I can do nothing.”

Simon Edhouse added: “Rupert, is West responsible for our extremists, Anders Breivik? etc'”

Richard Robbins said: “Am I to be held responsible for the rantings of octogenarian media moguls because we’re both Caucasian?”

Others questioned Murdoch’s own morals, and cited his role in the phone-hacking scandal at the now-defunct News of the World newspaper.

Michael Monan replied: “@rupertmurdoch In the same way that you must be held responsible for ordering the hacking of the voicemails of dead school children?”

Others ridiculed the comments, including the creator of BBC sitcom Citizen Khan, Adil Ray, who said: “I think all of Australia should be held responsible for Rupert Murdoch.”

Another user joked: “Maybe most Ruperts peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy cancerous media dinosaur @rupertmurdoch, they must be held responsible.”

To which, Rupert Franklin replied: “I’d like to offer an apology on behalf of us all. Murdoch’s comments don’t represent the views of mainstream Rupert community.”

And Matt Haig added: “Rupert Murdoch wrote a tweet. As someone who uses Twitter I would like to apologise on his behalf.”

Even worse was the response of Fox News’s Jeanine Pirro of Justice w/ Judge Jeanine:

Judge Jeanine Pirro’s rant is simply revolting. If this is her view of justice, I’m glad she’s no longer on the bench. I’ve watched this woman’s show in the past – I make an effort to listen to opinion from all sides. I had to stop because of the ignorant vitriol I so frequently heard from her mouth. Before this latest example she already was, in my opinion, a bitch. (This is my website, so I can say words like that!) She’s beyond just bitch now – she appears to have contracted rabies. However, she has the right to her appalling views, just like I have the right to be disgusted by them. (A transcript of Pirro’s rant can be found at Real Clear Politics Video.)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali on OffenceThere have been too many instances of attempts to shut down free speech on college campuses in the United States this year too – and those doing it are often my fellow liberals, who should, in my opinion, be the strongest supporters of free speech. Often it seems they only like free speech for those that agree with them. Other speakers are forced to withdraw because a person or group of people don’t like what they assume the person will say. And any speaker that a Muslim group thinks will speak against Islam is pretty much guaranteed to meet protests. One situation I found particularly difficult to stomach was between Brandeis University and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Brandeis University had planned to award Ms Hirsi Ali an honorary degree. On 8 April the New York Times reported:

Facing growing criticism, Brandeis University said Tuesday that it had reversed course and would not award an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a campaigner for women’s rights and a fierce critic of Islam, who has called the religion “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.”

We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values,” the university said in a statement released eight days after it had announced that Ms. Hirsi Ali … would be honored at its commencement on May 18.

As noted at Professor Jerry Coyne’s website Why Evolution is True, the withdrawal followed “Muslim-inspired protest”. She was later invited to speak at Yale, but there too the invitation was rescinded. The list of groups (which is in Coyne’s article) included, to my horror, the Yale Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics (AHA).

The e-mail from the Muslim Students Association, signed also by many supporting groups, is titled “Dear Friends: More Speech, Not Hate Speech,” and it reads:

We write to express our concerns about the speaker that is coming to campus this September 15, 2014. The Buckley Foundation is inviting Ayaan Hirsi Ali to discuss the topic “Clash of Civilizations: Islam and the West.”

The level of radical inaccuracy in representing a faith that is part of our community compels all of us, not just Muslims on campus, to act on Yale’s fundamental values of freedom of speech and diversity of thought to express our sentiments.

We sympathize with the unfortunate circumstances that Ms. Hirsi Ali faced in her Muslim household as a child and we recognize that such experiences do exist in many countries, including Muslim-majority ones. We condemn such actions and contend that Islam does not promote them. It is important to distinguish Islamic teachings from the practices of some Muslims, which can be based on a variety of sociopolitical reasons and which do exist in other non-Muslim communities around the world.

Our concern is that Ms. Hirsi Ali is being invited to speak as an authority on Islam despite the fact that she does not hold the credentials to do so. In the past, under such authority, she has overlooked the complexity of sociopolitical issues in Muslim-majority countries and has purported that Islam promotes a number of violent and inhumane practices. At her worst, Ms. Hirsi Ali has said that Islam is a “destructive nihilistic cult of death” worshiping a “fire-breathing Allah” that, in all of its forms, needs to be “defeated.”

While the Muslim community and its allies cannot but believe that the students of the Buckley program care to “promote intellectual diversity” in a respectful and purposeful manner, we do want to reiterate that we feel highly disrespected by the invitation of this speaker. Moreover, it would be more beneficial for someone with representative scholarly qualifications to be speaking if the goal is “to foster open political discussion and intellectual engagement on campus.”

The comments Ms. Hirsi Ali has made on Islam have been classified as hate speech and have been considered unprotected libel and slander. She has been condemned for them by national organizations and universities. The Muslim community and its allies are disappointed that our own fellow Yalies would invite such a speaker knowingly and that she would have such a platform in our home.

While we have legitimate concerns from what we know, and while we cannot overlook how marginalizing her presence will be to the Muslim community and how uncomfortable it will be for the community’s allies, we are hopeful that the discussion is constructive and that Ms. Hirsi Ali speaks only to her personal experiences and professional expertise.

In advancing freedom of speech on campus, we are happy to work together, with the Buckley program and with others, to facilitate representative dialogue about Islam. We are also happy to engage anybody curious about why we feel this way. The Muslim community at Yale is vibrant and its doors are always open to those interested in learning more—not about a perceived clash of civilizations, but about Islam as something that represents a meaningful faith experience for a community of Yalies. We encourage you to reach out to the Coordinator of Muslim Life and to the Muslim Students Association to learn more about Muslim beliefs, practices, experiences, and events.

We welcome those interested in honest learning and productive dialogue to visit the musalla in Bingham D or to join us in our next Friday service and lunch at 1:00pm in Dwight Chapel.

With peace,

The irony here is obvious: in order to protect free speech, the Muslim Students’ Association wants to shut it down. They are only interested in presenting Islam as a “meaningful faith experience” and all but dismiss Hirsi Ali’s experiences. If she talks about them, that will make Muslims “uncomfortable” and apparently that is enough to stop her talking. It is a sad fact that because many in Islam do not respect her right to freedom of speech, Hirsi Ali is required to live permanently with the presence of armed bodyguards.

These are not isolated incidents. Anywhere there is a perceived criticism of Islam, it seems there is a majority of Muslims who wish to shut the criticism down rather than engage or ignore. Most, of course, do not (and would not even consider) resorting to murder as in the Charlie Hebdo massacre, but there seems to be a feeling that Islam should have a special protection above other religions.

Since 1999 the Organization of the Islamic Conference has been trying to get defamation of religion condemned by the United Nations. They want what would amount to an international blasphemy law. Via member countries, usually Pakistan, they have introduced multiple resolutions to ban the defamation of religion. These have been voted on and accepted by the majority.

It is clear that in promoting these resolutions, the main concern is Islam. From Wikipedia:

The 27 March 2008 resolution included the clause:

14. Deplores the use of printed, audio-visual and electronic media, including the Internet, and of any other means to incite acts of violence, xenophobia or related intolerance and discrimination towards Islam or any religion;

In February 2009, Pakistan’s UN representative, Zamir Akram, said:

“… defamation of religions could and had led to violence . . . . The end result was the creation of a kind of Islamophobia in which Muslims were typecast as terrorists. That did not mean that they opposed freedom of expression; it merely meant that there was a level at which such expression led to incitement. An example was the propaganda campaign that had been led by the Nazis in the Second World War against the Jews which had led to the Holocaust.”

The March 2009 resolution, proposed by Pakistan included:

18. Requests the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance to report on all manifestations of defamation of religions, and in particular on the serious implications of Islamophobia, on the enjoyment of all rights by their followers, to the Council at its twelfth session;

Western democracies have consistently opposed these resolutions with statements such as (from Wikipedia):

The European Union’s representative, Jean-Baptiste Mattei (France), said the European Union “rejected and would continue to reject the concept of defamation of religions.” He said, “Human rights laws did not and should not protect belief systems.”

… Carlos Portales (Chile) observed, “The concept of the defamation of religion took them in an area that could lead to the actual prohibition of opinions.”

… The United States said that defamation of religion is “a fundamentally flawed concept.”

Sweden, for the European Union, argued that international human rights law protects individuals, not institutions or religions.

France insisted that the UN must not afford legal protection to systems of belief.

In addition, Wikipedia reports that in 2009:

“… 200 civil society organizations from 46 countries, including Muslim, Christian, Jewish, secular, Humanist and atheist groups, urged the UNHRC [United Nations Human Rights Council] by a joint petition to reject any resolution against the defamation of religion.”

There are many Muslim groups that are speaking out in support of freedom of speech and expression. The Muslim Canadian Congress (@MCCOngress) themselves tweeted the “offending” Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammed and photos of members holding placards stating “Islamism is Racism”. The Muslim mayor of Rotterdam said to Muslims living in his city, “… if you do not like freedom, in Heaven’s name pack your bag and leave.”

I’ll leave you though with Maajid Nawaz, Chairman of the Quilliam Foundation. He is a man I particularly admire for all the work he does reaching out to disaffected Muslim youth. He gave this interview to the BBC in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre:

Let’s hope the world can move forward together from the tragic events in Paris with a new respect for the value and importance of freedom of speech.


16 Responses to “Free Speech is not Hate Speech”

  1. Diane G. says:

    Much food for thought, much to digest. Thank you, Heather.

    –a peaceful Rupert

  2. Ken says:

    Sorry, not all “buts” are invalid.

    E.g. I agree no one should be killed for cartoons, but this is about way more than free speech.

    We’re talking about al Qeada here, who have clearly stated political goals and need to radicalise more Muslims to achieve them. While they no doubt believe in the religious injunction against these cartoons, their primary motivation is to divide French society by whatever means necessary.

    Honestly, al Qeada is not stupid. They know they will not affect speech in France. They probably expect to make it stronger if anything. They are very happy to make life worse for French Muslim communities in general if a few more recruits come over to them as a result. As you document above, they are so far being successful at increasing tensions between Muslims and others.

    Free speech is important, but (there it is again) the real threat from these killings is not to free speech, it is to the peaceful existance of Muslims in French society who started out in a vulnerable position in the first place. By pretending free speech is the only target, we further assist al Qaeda in achieving its goals.

  3. Ken says:

    Example 2:

    I agree no one should be killed for cartoons, but I have never supported Charlie Hebdo’s brand of satire and do not need to use #JeSuisCharlie to prove I support free speech.

    Most people raising “buts” are not calling for a ban on free speech they don’t like. They are saying that suporting free speech does not require them to pretend, even for a moment, that they support sentiments that they clearly do not. They are saying that their own speech is free for them to choose too, and they will not submit to some litmus test to prove themselves

    The Daily Blog asks how many of us would use #IAmWhaleOil if something like the Paris incident happened here. That most of us would in no circumstances do so does not mean we are any less committed to free speech than those who would. It means only that matters are never so simple as we might like, and that we can keep two thoughts in our heads at the same time.

  4. Diana MacPherson says:

    Well said Heather. I’m glad you mentioned the Muslim Canadian Congress as they are very much aligned with secular values. Tarek Fatah, a Pakistani Canadian, formed the group. I watched an interview between Fatah and what I would call an extreme Islamist (he wants Sharia enacted and enforced) and Fatah asked this man why Muslims (saying “we”) should impose their beliefs on others (wrt drawing Mohammed). He further explained that non-Muslims do not believe that stuff so why force it.

    I feel Canada is lucky to have the MCC and Tarek Fatah. He is a voice of reason in all this mess.

    • Thanks for your support Diana. It’s not exactly my most well written piece, but there was stuff I wanted to say, so out it came! It was your piece on the Canadian Atheist site that made me aware of the Muslim Canadian Congress. Fatah sounds like an interesting man.

  5. Jason says:

    I was encouraged by the collective outrage by Pakistanis following the Peshawar School Massacre. I hope they and their government can see that they cannot condemn the philosophy behind the attack (ie the religious beliefs of the terrorists), without betraying their own proposed defamation law.

    • Good point. Wikipedia states there were Muslim-majority countries that didn’t support the law because they didn’t want closer scrutiny of their anti-blasphemy laws, but doesn’t state who they were. I suppose it would be easy enough to find out via the UN website though.

  6. paxton marshall says:

    Hi Heather. What would, in your opinion, qualify as hate speech?

    • Hi Paxton. That’s a good question, and a really difficult one. It’s hard to put a definition on it because imo it always depends on context, manner of delivery, to whom you’re talking, and all sorts of other things. I think artists (including satirists and cartoonists), comedians and some others should be given some leeway. There are certainly plenty of things people say that I consider hateful, that nevertheless I feel compelled to defend their right to say them. It is a different situation here – we have no constitution; freedom of speech is protected by human rights legislation. That legislation includes a hate speech offence: (Pinched from Wikipedia)

      New Zealand prohibits hate speech under the Human Rights Act 1993. Section 61 (Racial Disharmony) makes it unlawful to publish or distribute “threatening, abusive, or insulting…matter or words likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons…on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national or ethnic origins of that group of persons”. Section 131 (Inciting Racial Disharmony) lists offences for which “racial disharmony” creates liability.

      As you can see, religion is excluded from the list – NZ takes the same position as that outlined in my article as US and Europe do at the UN.

  7. paxton marshall says:

    It should be pointed out that Ayaan Hirsi Ali has advocated western military action (terrorism?) against Muslim countries, and that Jerry Coyne is an outspoken apologist for Israeli brutality against the Palestinians, and the killing of well over 1,000 Gazans, including many women and children in the latest invasion alone.

  8. AU says:

    One thing I am totally against is groupthink – which seems to happen whenever there is some “crisis”. And now, all of a sudden, people are saying the Charlie Hebdo attack was an attack on “freedom of speech”.

    Yet Charlie Hebdo FIRED a cartoonist after he refused to apologise for drawing a cartoon which suggested that Jews get further in the world for being Jews.

    Surely if you believe in freedom of speech, you’re allowed to say this. Surely if Charlie Hebdo believed in freedom of speech, they would never have sacked him.

    • They fired a cartoonist, yes, but they didn’t kill him. They were wrong imo, but that doesn’t make them valid targets for murder. Nothing does.

      I think France has a problem with anti-Semitism, which they have created for themselves with the law that makes it illegal to deny the Holocaust. (I’ve talked about this in my response to another comment.) Christopher Hitchens has talked/written about this too: . I haven’t watched this one, but from what I know his thoughts on the matter align fairly closely with mine.

      As I said in my article, most of the leaders marching in the Paris Unity March were from countries that have suppressed freedom of speech in their own countries. Many have specifically attacked and killed journalists, so they’re basically a bunch of hypocrites. I hope the fact that they marched though will give them pause for thought in the future. Yes, I agree, that hope is probably wasted.

  9. Ken says:

    Heather, another thing I’d like to point out is that Reza Aslan’s comments have been hugely mis-characterised. Did you watch the whole video referenced before reposting Coyne’s claim that Aslan was blaming the victims? He does no such thing and there is absolutely no justification for grouping him with Derek Fox.

    Mis-characterisation of this sort is what often we complain others do to atheists, so it is important we don’t do the same. That Aslan has done similarly bad things in the recent past is no excuse, I hope you agree.

    In this clip, he explicitly voices virtually unconditional support for free speech and that violence is never justified, agreeing that as many world leaders as possible should join in the affirmation. He also talks about the backdrop that this violence is occurring in, which is not irrelevant, as too many want to argue.

    Specifically he says, as you quote, there is in France a lot of “racism, bigotry, bullying, assumption of cultural superiority, arrogance, inability to tolerate multi-culturalism, ignorance…”, – is this in doubt? But Aslan was talking about French society in general, not Charlie Hebdo. In fact, he hardly mentions them at all, and when he does, it is to say that they are part of a long legitimate tradition in France. In fact, he gives the sort of comment on CH that I’ve been reading from other journalists and French people in defence of CH when they’ve has been charged with racism. Even when offered a chance to brand their satire as hate speech, he does not, but defends their right to print what they want.

    This is hardly blaming the victim. The very most you could say is that Aslan offered France’s widespread racism as part of the overall causes of violence, which he also points out is currently being perpetrated against French Muslims as well as by them. This division is easy to exacerbate and exploit. It provides groups like al Qeada great opportunities to radicalise other Muslims to their cause. To point out such things is not apologetics, but critical to understanding enough such that useful solutions might be found.

    If you think this is incorrect, I would like to hear why.

    Coyne also implies that Aslan’s call for greater acceptance of multiculturalism in France includes instituting sharia law, but again, Aslan says no such thing. The example he holds up for the France is the US! We might want to offer critique that the US has itself a long way to go yet regarding multiculturalism, but it’s ridiculous to imply Aslan wants to turn France into some kind of Muslim theocracy.

    Frankly, this is the most reasonable and informing piece I’ve seen Aslan deliver. With respect, he deserves better than he has got here.

    • I agree with one thing – it is one of Aslan’s more reasonable pieces. I have noticed him being much more careful since the FGM thing, which is all to the good. I didn’t quote Aslan except for the words “France’s ability to tolerate multiculturalism”. The words you have put in quote marks weren’t a quote, but a selection of mine of the sorts of words various people have used to blame the victims including, but not limited to, Fox and Aslan. Most of my article hardly referred to Aslan, so I’m surprised that is what resonated for you so much.

      Aslan is intelligent, good at expressing himself verbally (and in writing for that matter), and good at seeming to be reasonable. It is only further analysis of what he actually says that exposes him for what he is – an apologist for all Muslims and all of Islam, whatever they do.

      I don’t recall the bit in Jerry’s article about Sharia Law, but I think if you disagree with what he’s written, you should take that up with him directly.

      France is far from perfect. The law that forbids questioning whether the Holocaust happened is, I think, ill-advised. My opinion, as an historian, is that there is no doubt that the Holocaust did happen and anyone who says otherwise is simply wrong and ignoring the evidence. However, I also find stifling enquiry offensive, so in the spirit of freedom of enquiry I have to put up with such ignorance, even though that ignorance usually finds its origin in religious prejudice. I should be able to criticize those people as much as I like, but neither of us, no matter how offensive we find the views of the other, should ever feel justified in resorting to violence or murder.

      Aslan can, and should (if he wants to of course), criticize what he sees as wrong with French society all he wants. He should never make any link that seems to justify violence or murder, which, in my opinion, he did.

      • Ken says:

        Well, Aslan says in that clip that CH’s publications “are not a justification at all”, so it’s simply not fair to lump him with Derek Fox who said they were.

        I think you’re equating discussion of the wider context that terrorism takes place in, with justification for specific acts. But explanation is not justification. As I said previously, what Aslan actually links French racism to in this piece is the fact that it makes recruitment easier for the likes of al Qeada. And al Qeada exists for reasons that go well beyond religion. bin Laden told journalists that he turned on the US for supporting Israeli oppression of Palestinians, for causing the deaths of a million people in Iraq via sanctions that included a ban on medicines, and for keeping US troops in Saudi Arabia. These reasons are much more political than religious. They are a huge part of why al Qeada recruits to kill. Explaining this context does not justify that killing in any way at all.

        Without full context, we can’t address all the underlying causes of terrorism. All we can do is complain about Islam and free speech, while missing the critical geo-political steps the West needs to take as well. If we can’t talk about all of al Qeada’s motives out of fear of being labelled apologists, we’ll never reduce terrorism. The only people served by this are the terrorists and the Muslim haters that you rightly castigate above.

        • You’ve broadened the discussion quite a bit here, and I agree with what you’ve added. There has to be more discussion about root causes, and that discussion has to be honest. While some deny it’s not Islam, when radical and fundamentalist Islam is clearly part of the problem, there are plenty of others who deny the socio-economic and geo-political causes, or at least their own or their country’s part in them.

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