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 most recent assault began in Cairo on September 11, 2012, when a deranged mob attacked the US Embassy, breached its walls, and hoisted the black flag of al-Qaeda. Similar scenes of violence and mayhem broke out from Tunisia to Indonesia. Allegedly—although not in the case of the attack in Benghazi that led to the assasination of Ambassador Christopher Stevens—because an Egyptian-American Copt no one had ever heard of before uploaded the trailer for an amateurish anti-Muhammad movie called “The Innocence of Muslims” to YouTube.
The United States government went directly to cringe mode and spent as much time condemning the video as it did the mob.
It started with an official announcement on the Twitter page of the US Embassy in Cairo: “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others,” the message said. The White House distanced itself and said that response was neither official nor authorized, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said something similar a couple of days later. The video, she said, is “disgusting and reprehensible” and “we absolutely reject its content and message.”
There’s no point defending the video aside from its right to exist. I’ve seen it. It’s ludicrous. Clinton’s reaction is normal. But there’s a problem. She’s the chief diplomat of the United States. Condemning random trash on the Internet isn’t her job, not even in response to an international incident. Her statement should have been the same as if an Oscar-winning film inspired a riot.
“There are more than three hundred million ways in which Americans expressing themselves might give offense to those who make it their business to be offended,” Lee Smith argued in the Weekly Standard. “Is the White House going to put every American crank on speed-dial so it can tell them to shut up whenever a mob gathers outside a US embassy or consulate?”
Islamist governments sensed weakness, an opening, an opportunity. The United States was saying they had a point! So they took the next logical step.
Just weeks after the riots, the freshly chosen presidents of Egypt and Yemen took to the podium at the United Nations 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.” “There should be limits for the freedom of expression,” added Yemen’s president, Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi, “especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures.”
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.
That’s where things stand. 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. Hillary Clinton even says she personally shares their anger.
This will not do. It will not do at all. Instead, the United States should go on the offensive and demand that blasphemy be legalized in every country on earth.
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. Bookstores in the United Kingdom and United States were firebombed. The British government took the threat so seriously it provided Rushdie with an around-the-clock armed security detail, and he had to live in hiding under an assumed name for years.
Though the Rushdie affair looked like an extreme outlier event for a while, it turned out to be only the prologue for an ever more sordid drama. 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.” She stayed on in the Netherlands under armed guard for a while, but later had to move to the United States.
The Van Gogh murder inspired a wave of attempts on the lives of more “blasphemers.” 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 American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (whom the United States later atomized with a Hellfire missile) placed her on a hit list for suggesting that cartoonists all over the world should draw the Prophet Muhammad on the same day.
Those incidents targeted individuals, which is bad enough. But then six years ago, Middle Eastern outposts of the Western democracies came under fire. In early 2006, riots exploded across the Muslim world after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. The Danish embassies in Pakistan, Syria, and Lebanon were attacked. A mob set the embassy in Beirut on fire. The Danish and the Norwegian embassies in Damascus were set on fire. More than one hundred people were killed.
That was the prologue to the recent unpleasantness that started in Cairo. It took a while, but the 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.
The other side has the momentum right now. Brazil banned “The Innocence of Muslims” outright. A court went so far as to order the arrest of Google’s highest-ranking executive in the country since YouTube, which Google now owns, refuses to take down videos when it’s told.
The California branch of the phony civil rights group CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations) now openly says it wants blasphemy banned in the United States. “There should be laws against hate speech that leads to violence or criminal activities,” said Rashid Ahmad, the founder of CAIR’s Sacramento chapter. “Because of the film we’ve lost so many lives—the filmmaker has blood on his hands.”
Feeling that they have the wind at their backs, ten thousand Muslims protested Google’s London offices for failing to censor the film. Sheikh Faiz al-Aqtab Siddiqui spoke at the rally and made what is perhaps the most absurd argument yet. “Terrorism,” he said, “is not just people who kill human bodies, but who kill human feelings as well.”
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, of everything that might offend mobs waving terrorist flags.
It would never happen even if it were possible. Aside from the likes of CAIR activists who get red in the face over imagined discrimination against Muslims for a living, no American constituency exists to support anti-blasphemy legislation, not even on the right- or left-wing lunatic fringes. Christians and Christianity are mocked and derided every single day without anyone seriously calling for censorship. Here’s but one example: a current Broadway play called The Book of Mormon, written by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of South Park, lampoons the religion of Mitt Romney, the most powerful Republican in the United States last year, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, one of the most powerful Democrats. Yet we don’t hear even the meekest of peeps in favor of censorship from either party or from even the most sensitive Mormons. That’s because we settled this hundreds of years ago.
Western Europe’s prohibitions against blasphemy took a serious beating in the eighteenth century by intellectuals and free thinkers of the Enlightenment. Getting centuries of reactionary plaque off the books hasn’t been easy. Anti-blasphemy laws are still in place in some parts of Europe, though they’re hardly ever enforced. The United States, though, forged a new constitution from scratch at that time. The first and only sentence in the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits prohibitions against blasphemy. It has been in place for more than two hundred years.
The Middle East has some serious catching up to do. It might even happen eventually. Americans are hardly the only people concerned about this. People in Muslim countries are, too. Tunisia’s Islamist party Ennahda has been pushing to ban blasphemy in the new constitution, but its leaders have been facing so much resistance from the country’s liberal and secular parties for so long that in October 2012 they finally caved in and dropped it. To be sure, Tunisia is as decadent as a pot-hazed Amsterdam brothel compared with Saudi Arabia, but both countries are Arab and Muslim.
Hillary Clinton made a few good points at the United Nations back in September when the Egyptian and Yemeni government pushed to impose their prejudices on the rest of us. “None of us can insulate ourselves from insult,” she said. “In the time since I began speaking just minutes ago, more than three hundred hours of video has been uploaded to YouTube. Some of it, no doubt, is vile. Some of it, no doubt, is offensive to my religion or yours. But we must not give these views power they do not deserve.”
She’s right, of course, but she’s still on the defensive. She’s explaining why we shouldn’t criminalize blasphemy in the United States. But she’s not even quite doing that right. It’s fine that she’s arguing in a diplomatic way that those who are offended need to grow up and get over it, but she’s eliding the most crucial point, that the persecution of blasphemers is tyrannical. It wouldn’t just be tyrannical in the United States. It’s tyrannical in Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and everywhere else.
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. “The Innocence of Muslims” video is legitimately offensive to some people. That’s why we have to protect it. And that’s what the US government needs to be arguing rather than getting up in front of a microphone and trying to smooth things over by saying the mob has a point or that Egypt’s push for a blasphemy ban is understandable. What is Clinton supposed to say when rioters don’t have a point? The Iranian government does not have a point about Salman Rushdie’s novel, nor did the butcher of Theo Van Gogh have a point about Submission.
Aside from the fact that they’re tyrannical, anti-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.” Not just Islam, but all three Abrahamic faiths could be made illegal according to the anti-blasphemy laws the Islamists wish to foist on the world.
The solution to this sort of absurdity could not be more obvious: no anti-blasphemy laws. Anywhere.
The United States won’t win this argument anytime soon, but the other side won’t win it either—not when death squads commit acts of terrorism and murder, not when mobs set embassies on fire, not when heads of state make retrograde speeches at the United Nations, not even when weepy protesters demonstrate peacefully. We’re all stalemated here whether we like it or not, but that’s hardly a reason to let tyrants and terrorists set the terms of debate. The US needs to go on the offensive, not only against any and all who would dare to murder in the name of their God, but also against every government in the world that has medieval laws on the books—beginning with those that demand we scrap our hard-won, time-worn Constitution because they can’t handle the Internet.
Paul Marshall and Nina Shea published a grim book in 2011 called Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide. They conclude that “in Muslim-majority countries and areas, restrictions on freedom of religion and expression, based on prohibitions of blasphemy, apostasy, and ‘insulting Islam,’ are pervasive, thwart freedom, and cause suffering to millions of people.” Tragically, those millions will have to keep suffering for a while. But Westerners will have to put up with it as well—until the Middle East’s worst reactionaries understand they can’t win. The way to convince them they’re destined to lose is by showing them, as unambiguously as is possible, that keeping their own backward laws on their books is the most they’ll ever get.
Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor at World Affairs and the author of three books, including Where the West Ends and The Road to Fatima Gate.