Commentary Magazine


Contentions

On Not Getting the Concept

The State Department has apparently gotten around to condemning Terry Jones for “the burning of the Holy Koran that occurred several days ago.” Alana has already covered this controversy in a domestic context, especially as regards the spectacle of U.S. lawmakers threatening to hold hearings and pretending that they don’t know the First Amendment exists. Unless they find a “Muslim mob” exception somewhere toward the back of the Constitution, it’s going to be pretty difficult to hold anything but pro forma hearings.

As far as misunderstanding free speech goes, though, U.S. government officials are simply outmatched by our vaunted international partners. For unreflexive sophistry, this statement is almost impossible to beat. On a tour of Mazar-e Sharif, where seven UN workers were killed in rioting last weekend, UN Afghan Mission head Staffan de Mistura told the BBC that the murders

should not deter the UN presence, activities in this country in this delicate and particularly crucial period. . . . I don’t think we should blaming any Afghan for the news, we should blaming the person who has produced the news, in other words the one who burnt the Koran. . . . Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of offending culture, religion, traditions.

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I am pretty sure freedom of speech means exactly the freedom to offend culture, religion, or traditions. It’s difficult to imagine what use it might have except telling someone that his culture, religion, or traditions need to be reevaluated, abandoned, or at the very least excluded as the basis for public policy. Such “offensive” speech is the first step toward prying closely held beliefs away from the institutions that shelter them, which is the prerequisite for a liberal democracy.

There’s an argument to be made that our multinational, transnational, and international allies can’t really make any sense of liberal democracy—and maybe we ought to consider that before we ask for their help in future nation-building projects.



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