Michael J. Totten: Defending Free Expression against Islamists
Globe-trotting journalist Michael J. Totten, writing for World Affairs, has recently published "Radical Islam's Global Reaction: The Push for Blasphemy Laws" (January-February 2013), a timely critique of Islamist attacks on any free speech anywhere that 'blasphemes' against Islam:
Free speech is under attack in the West, and it's under attack from abroad. For years radical Islamists have targeted embassies abroad and individuals at home for "insulting" the Prophet Muhammad. And now diplomats and heads of state from Islamist countries are using international oganizations to pressure the West to criminalize blasphemy and are even lobbying for a global censorship regime . . . . [The] freshly chosen president . . . of Egypt . . . took to the podium at the United Nations [recently] and demanded that blasphemy be outlawed everywhere in the world, including in the United States. "Insults against the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, are not acceptable," said Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. "We will not allow anyone to do this by word or by deed" . . . . Saudi Arabia went even further and advocated an international censorship body to crush blasphemy on the Internet. "There is a crying need for international collaboration to address 'freedom of expression' which clearly disregards public order," the government said . . . . Condemning what they call widespread "Islamophobia," religious authoritarians are asserting themselves, both violently and diplomatically, while the West cowers and says they're right to be angry . . . . This will not do . . . . Instead, the United States should go on the offensive and demand that blasphemy be legalized in every country . . . . This Islamic jihad against free speech started in 1989, when Iran's tyrant Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the murder of British novelist Salman Rushdie because the author supposedly blasphemed the Islamic religion in his novel The Satanic Verses. Dozens of people connected with him, his book, and his publisher were attacked -- some even killed -- in countries as far away as Japan . . . . In 2004, an Islamist fanatic stabbed Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh to death right out in the open on an Amsterdam street in retaliation for a short film called Submission that Van Gogh made with Somali-born feminist and Dutch member of Parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The killer used a butcher knife to pin a note to his corpse that said Hirsi Ali was "next" . . . . An assassin attacked Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard in front of his granddaughter in his own house with an axe. Terrorists from a number of countries, including the United States, conspired to kill Swedish artist Lars Vilks. Seattle Weekly cartoonist Molly Norris entered the FBI's witness-protection program after . . . . [she was] placed . . . on a hit list for suggesting that cartoonists all over the world should draw the Prophet Muhammad on the same day . . . . [T]he worldwide anti-blasphemy campaign has finally mushroomed into a serious menace. The aggressive demands of the Saudis, Egyptians, and Yemenis to use the law and the police to smash what offends them everywhere on the planet is what we all should expect since Western governments are not fighting back with strong and unequivocal support for free speech . . . . Let's pretend, just as a thought experiment, that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution doesn't exist, that the American government could ban blasphemy if it felt like it without getting mauled by the Supreme Court and the public. Now imagine the size of the repressive bureaucracy required to scrub not just YouTube but the entire Internet, including all national media from the New York Times to your mom's Facebook page . . . . You don't have to approve of blasphemy or religious "hate speech" to understand why it must be protected. Free speech is irrelevant if offensive speech isn't protected. "Have a nice day" isn't prohibited anywhere, not even in North Korea . . . . [A]nti-blasphemy laws don't even make any sense on their own terms. Gregory Paul said it best at the online magazine Op-Ed News. "According to Islam," he wrote, "Jesus Christ was a mere mortal prophet. He was not the Son of God who is God as per the Holy Trinity of God, the Son of God, and the Holy Ghost. Therefore, Islam is inherently committing blasphemy against Christianity and risks offending Christians. Since Islam is blasphemous, and since blasphemy must be illegal in all nations, then Islam must be illegal in all countries" . . . . The solution to this sort of absurdity could not be more obvious: no anti-blasphemy laws. Anywhere.I agree entirely. There should be no blasphemy laws anywhere. Religion should be a matter of personal piety, but reason must prevail in the public sphere. Where religion undergirds reason, it is certainly free to do so; where religion undermines reason, it is free only to express itself. What religion cannot be allowed to do is act coercively to restrict expression of whatever it doesn't like.
Open criticism of religions and their claims must be defended, vigorously and honestly. For that matter, open discussion and criticism of any claim should be protected speech.
Speak out for free speech!