In horror, I followed the events that led to the recent attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in Cairo, Benghazi, Tunis, Khartoum and other cities. Given the eruption of similar reactions in the past, I was not surprised over the attacks per se as I was over the ability of some Muslims to cause so much violence over such an insignificant, silly, and poorly made film insulting Muslims and their Prophet.
My horror came because of two things: first, because of the notion of guilt by association — that is if one even considers making films a sin. The handful of individuals who made the controversial video lampooning Islam’s Prophet and posted it on YouTube were somehow mistaken for representing a government and country of over 300 million people.
The second reason, to my horror, was the suggestion by some in the West that limits on speech should be considered in order to foster dialogue with the Muslim world, especially if it is known beforehand that such speech may result in violent consequences. Even if these are just calls for “self-censorship by the community” (is censorship not censorship if the speech is deemed inappropriate by “society”?), below I make the case that such calls are actually harmful to any hope for freedom in and serious dialogue with the broader Middle East. But before I do that, let us first get two things out of the way, for it seems that some do not understand how freedom of speech works.
First, short of direct incitement of violence, free speech cannot be blamed for death and destruction. Only those who respond to mere speech with violence are the ones who should be held responsible.
“Extremists in the Muslim world need to understand that countering ideas with violence is simply unacceptable in the 21st century.” – Islam Hussein
Google, thankfully, replied in the firm negative. And that is a good thing for the maintenance of a free society in the U.S. and the West generally. Google’s refusal could serve as a good reminder of how freedom of speech works — a mechanism upheld by the U.S. Constitution and one that the government chose to overlook.
But upholding freedom of speech in the West is ultimately a good thing for the East, too. The underlying tenet of freedom of speech is that of a free market of ideas, ideas that can only be fought with ideas. Extremists in the Muslim world need to understand that countering ideas with violence is simply unacceptable in the 21st century. When the West backs down in the face of violence in response to ideas, no matter how bad these ideas may be, it only reaffirms the extremists’ belief that violence as a response mechanism is effective. Extremists need to know that it will not work. Maybe then it will force them to re-read the Quran itself and recall the Prophet of Islam’s own teachings that the most a wise Muslim should do to respond to an insult is to either ignore and marginalize the offender or, even better, to respond by “arguing with what is better [speech].”
But, in all likelihood, extremists will not do so out of their own free will. Upholding freedom of speech in the West, as opposed to backing down, empowers moderate, educated Muslims to speak up and more emphatically remind reactionary violent extremists — and the silent majority standing on the sidelines — what the Quran and the Prophet commanded them to do in response to insults. They will also need to explain to them how freedom of speech works, and how it is that actions of free Western citizens are separate from the actions of their governments. And maybe, just maybe, argue that the people of the Middle East should adopt free speech and start making a distinction between their own governments and the speech, actions, beliefs and thoughts of citizens. Middle Eastern governments should no longer pretend to be their citizens’ nannies protecting them from the “harms” of speech in the days of the Internet and instant video streaming to one’s smart phone, nor should citizens of the Middle East expect that from their governments.
Speaking of governments, finally. Upholding freedom of speech will force newly-elected governments, especially Islamist ones, to realize that their old mix of theocentric and nationalistic populist rhetoric and conspiracy theories that they may have used back when they were outside of government can no longer go unnoticed and unaccounted for in the international arena, nor before their own citizens. They will be forced to take responsibility protecting and securing diplomatic missions and international relations. Libya started taking steps in that direction, but other governments have not done much other than making statements of condemnation and demanding limits on speech in the West.
Many in the West have expressed the same set of thoughts that I write about here. I salute them, though I think that the message coming from a Middle Eastern Muslim like myself may reassure free speech skeptics in the West that upholding that most precious of ideals in the face of temptation to meddle with it is good for both the West and the East.
A version of this post was originally published on Fikra Forum.
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Islam Hussein is a self-described Egyptian liberal who blogs in Arabic at libraliyya.org. You can follow him on twitter @libraliyya and on Facebook (libraliyya).