A Question of Free Speech

The recent shootings in Texas raise to the fore the question of freedom of speech, the freedom to offend, the issues of tolerance and coexistence in society, and the need to find a balance between these competing interests. One of the problems of the debate is the polarity of opinion, as they emerge in light of the challenges facing a myriad of interest groups. Some argue that in a liberal society people should be permitted to say what they please, irrespective of whether it is likely to cause offence. After all, free speech was won after a bloody struggle. But others suggest that free speech needs to have boundaries. This is especially the case in relation to hate speech, which aggravates a situation by promoting racist and cultural stereotypes to the detriment of groups that are, or once were, severely marginalised and discriminated against. This short essay examines the events in Texas, the wider free speech debate, and the way ahead.

An Islamophic industry
The American Freedom Defense Initiative hosted an event in Curtis Culwell Center in Garland to determine the winning cartoon in a ‘draw the Prophet Mohammed’ competition. At the occasion, prominent individuals in the anti-Islam movement were invited to speak before announcing the 12,500 USD winner. During the proceedings, two gunmen attack the centre, injuring a guard before ultimately being shot dead themselves. Shortly before this happened, there were speeches going on inside the Centre in Garland. It could be argued that the speeches from Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and Geert Wilders confirm the reality that hidden within the concept of freedom of speech is racism, bigotry and misunderstanding that goes back to the origins of anti–Muslim sentiment formed during the European medieval era and ever since. Free speech in America alludes to God, the state and the First Amendment, but is arguably a mere ruse to spread fear, lies and hatred. The point is that Geller et al are inciting hatred. Moreover, there is a machinery behind this anti–Muslim rhetoric, which is well–funded and organised. The fact that this event was attacked by two individuals with specific gripes of their own is of course deeply problematic at every level. But there are two sides involved here, and both sets of extremes are playing off each other. Both need to be fixed. The worry is not the cyclical nature of this violence, both symbolic and physical, but also how the powerful continually perpetuate the cycle at the expense of the powerless.

There is clearly a genuine problem. It lies in the relentless attacks that Muslims face on a daily basis throughout the West, and in relation to Western foreign policy. This issue is real and measurable enough (aside from the internal issues that Muslim states have, which are due to the spread of Salafism). But it does not take much to be pushed. The internal issues did not exist until invasion, occupation, colonialism and scientific racism. These issues were caused by a weakness from within, but also without. While the Muslim world itself must fix these issues, it cannot do so if the rest of the world absolves itself of, directly and indirectly, influencing, funding, supporting and materially sustaining violent Islamic radicalism throughout the twentieth century. Orientalism does not help, but nor does Occidentalism. It is right that Muslims should take ownership of the problems and the solutions, but by omitting the deeper structural concerns there is a risk of legitimising the status quo. Actors must critique in order to push the boundaries of debate, generating new  and innovative ideas. If we this is free speech, then it is to be highly welcomed, but it makes no sense if it a) does not help the debate in any way, b) creates more harm than good by agitating many by being done insensitively, or c) that it is a cover for racism. The latter issue is the most pernicious. Offensive cartoons are not just an affront to those with strong religious beliefs, and this matters not in liberal society, but when they vilify, demonise, they are in effect a cloak for racism. When free speech is used as a mask to cover racism, it is a real worry. The fair minded majority, Muslims and non–Muslims, may eventually tire of the endless assault, but the very few keep stirring it back onto the agenda, so as to ‘prove’ their point that Islam and Muslims, as a whole, are the problem.

Contextualising Islamophobia in America
Many contest the term Islamophobia. While far from perfect, the term raises the debate. It allows discussion of pertinent issues. This Islamophobia is leading to misery, the loss of innocent lives, and acts of racism, discrimination and violence that go unchecked, even legitimised. There is extensive scholarship surrounding the term, but it is necessary to go beyond a fixation on the term itself. Muslims need to take it as their own problem and their own cause. Islamophobes tend to place all Muslims in a single category, but Muslims are a heterogeneous global community with myriad concerns and aspirations. Diverse communities within Islam are victims of the wider campaign to distort realities, driven by narrow politics. This is why Islamophobia is a major issue, as it has dug its tentacles deep into all aspects of societies. Geller et al instrumentalise the plight of Muslims for their own ends, as do those few prominent radicalisers who can find an audience. Indeed, Western Muslim social problems must be tackled, but Muslims in the West did not create them, nor can these Muslims brave them on their own, however much they would wish them gone. Young Muslims are pushed and pushed In some cases a few blow back, but then the whole faith system is attacked, in every way.

The USA has its own difficulties. People there evoke the First Amendment – but in the USA three out of four people believe that the Bible is the word of God. For many practicing Christians, therefore, Islam is an abomination, and consequently a legitimate target. There is also the rather peculiar notion of American exceptionalism, which is upheld to the last. In such a context, there is no appreciation of how cartoons, evil in nature or merely (innocent) caricatures, are so abhorrent to Muslims. Non–Muslims simply cannot understand this – and regard all reactions to cartoons by Muslims as somehow proof that they are the obstacle to progress. But most Muslims, around 99 per cent of the world’s Muslim population, if they know their history and teachings, are instructed to ignore the taunts, however racist, jingoistic, protracted or juvenile they may be. But some Muslims are deeply sensitised, for multiple reasons, and are swayed into taking action – not because the religion commands them, but because they feel hopeless. Certain powerful actors in the West hold onto existing stereotypes that legitimise their dominant paradigms. Ordinary and peaceful American folk only have to turn on their TV sets to be made to feel angry and bitter about this so–called Islamic threat. At the sharp edge of interaction between Geller et al.and young ethnic minority radicalised ‘Muslims’ is an immense asymmetry of power, privilege, patronage and potential. Satirical cartoons can be helpful, if done sensitively and for the right aims, namely as part of an attempt to open up a discourse of positive change. Otherwise, they have potential to make matters worse.

Thinking ahead
The problem is not freedom of speech, nor the freedom to offend. It is when people use the free speech ruse to promote, disseminate and impart essentially racist ideas to a wider audience. Cartoons and images which lampoon and demonise the Prophet were first developed during the mediaeval era. There is nothing new, challenging or developmental about depicting the Prophet as a pig or a dog. How is this free speech when it is clear that such representation causes deep offence to Sunni Muslims? Nevertheless, this should not be seen as a starting point for violence, which some less well–informed and de–intellectualised Muslim minds might adhere to. Rather, it should be an opportunity for a sophisticated discussion about the limits of decency, not about rights themselves, especially if the actions taken by the perpetrators can only do harm and not good. Ultimately, the question is the extent to which free speech creates opportunities for constructive dialogue. If free speech is used stir hate, legitimise existing stereotypes and prejudices, and propel misinformation onto others who lack knowledge about a complex and multi–layered community of communities that spans the globe but remains much maligned and misunderstood then it is neither free or speech but propaganda.

If this kind of free speech operates underneath the radar of the law it may well be permissible but it remains problematic. When this hate pushes the boundaries beyond legal acceptability, the state is in a position to take action. But for the rest of society, people ought to do what the law permits, including writing letters to editors and politicians, organising marches and demonstrations in protest, and generating a strong counter–narrative against the haters. These approaches will help a wider community to better understand the array of issues at play, and not just fixate on one notion in relation to Muslim issues, in this case the idea of free speech.

2 thoughts on “A Question of Free Speech

  1. There is nothing new, challenging or developmental about depicting the Prophet as a pig or a dog. How is this free speech when it is clear that such representation causes deep offence to Sunni Muslims?

    Is it only offensive to Sunni Muslims? What about other Muslims?

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