Dear Muslims, Let’s Explain Freedom of Speech

The video brouhaha seems to be coming to an end but I’ve been searching for a way to try and explain to Muslims why there’s a such a necessity for free speech, why it’s so important in the West and how mockery and insult differs from hate speech. Why mocking Muhammed (or Jesus or Buddha or anyone else for that matter) is different from holocaust denial.

There’s been a lot of talk about how much Muslims revere their prophet and comparisons with insulting family, calling someone’s mother a whore and similar comparisons. These don’t really work as a comparison with a long dead figure. Additionally violence simply on the basis of mockery or insult is still not acceptable. Ever heard the saying ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me?’

Surely, if you truly believe, a god and is prophet can take care of themselves and take a little mockery without having anyone murdered, yes?

Here’s a way you might understand.

Western culture, whether it manages to uphold it or not, is heavily focussed on the concept of freedom. We revere freedom in many different ways in much the same way that you say you revere your prophet. Freedom, particularly of expression, is part of the warp and weft of our political and social culture and curtailing it is considered dangerous.

Freedom of expression:

  • Allows us to hold our government and public figures to account. Essential in a democracy and for a democracy.
  • Allows us to subject ideas to powerful scrutiny and criticism. That which survives such examination has proven its worth.
  • Allows societal values to progress, incrementally, through constant examination and discussion.
  • Allows innovative and amazing art, writing and ideas to come out.

There is a cost associated with this and that is that people do get offended and ideas do get challenged. Rudeness occurs. It’s a tiny price to pay for all the positive benefits we get from it and looking at the influence of theocracy and despotic leadership in many parts of the Middle East it’s something that the Middle East could definitely benefit from, while there are things in the Middle East we could benefit from (hospitality rules and importance of family being two that come to mind).

Someone making fun of Muhammed or taking issue with the history or beliefs of Islam doesn’t harm you and isn’t encouraging people to attack Muslims. However crude it might be, however rude it might be, however offensive you might find it, it can’t actually hurt you or lead to hurt.

The reason we punish holocaust denial and hate speech is that it the one case it is trying to pretend an horrific atrocity never occurred. An horrific atrocity that took place in no small part due to the propagation of hate speech such as conspiracy theories and blood libel.

Hate speech is direct appeal to do harm, the targeting of a group of people as subhuman or exhorting people to hurt them. Ideas such as blacks, or arabs or whoever else are congenitally dangerous/stupid/inferior. We don’t allow that because it can (arguably) be shown to actually cause harm.

Your actions in rioting and murdering people, putting out bounties on people’s heads etc do, directly threaten and prevent people from feeling free to express themselves and attempts to introduce blasphemy laws and guidelines nationally and internationally do the same.

Muhammed, long dead, cannot be harmed by a bit of mockery or honest, open and robust examination, criticism and mirth-making at the expense of the Koran. Surely a god, if one existed, could look after itself and could stand up to a little criticism?

Free expression is a foundational right upon which a great deal else hinges and as such it is part of the suite of rights that many, many people have died to defend and establish over the centuries. Your attempts to violently shut people up are as offensive to us as anything you claim to be offended by, but we don’t seem to resort to murder.

You want us to understand your reverence for Muhammed, try to understand our reverence for free expression because if you did understand then you’d know that reactions like this just cause people to value and exercise their free expression all the more.

Pitch a fit over a cartoon and people start Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.

Pitch a fit over these films? Well, I’m sure they’re being fileshared and mirrored a lot more than they would have been otherwise and you’ll also find a lot MORE (not less) criticism is Islam and Muslims as a result.

Don’t. Feed. The. Trolls.

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5 responses to “Dear Muslims, Let’s Explain Freedom of Speech

  1. I do agree for the most part, but I don’t think hate speech is any worse than indoctrinating children into fundamentalist beliefs. The lies that are pounded into their heads on a daily basis affect their minds so much that as adults, they cannot even comprehend logic anymore. Of course it doesn’t happen to everyone, but I’ve had discussions with many people that have no concept of what a rational, objective argument is, and it’s very sad. But it is protected under freedom of speech, proving that even good things can have negative consequences.

  2. Never mind free speech, you need to tell them about the Streisand effect. Hey, they believe in a sky daddy, so you can’t expect them to grok the Internet as well.

  3. You started off good, yet shot yourself in the foot when you segregated “hate speech” from the general category of free speech. It’s not unlike a racist who deems a race he hates “subhuman”.

    Here’s a relevant Thomas Paine quote:

    “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

    • The important divisor for me is the presence of genuine harm. Hate speech goes beyond ‘I do not like persons X’ to exhortations to harm.

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