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.
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:
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.)
There 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.
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.