Commentary Magazine


Topic: Prophet Muhammad

Muslims and the First Amendment

For the past several years, there have been two competing narratives about Islam in America. One put forward by groups that purport to represent believers in Islam and the liberal media would have it that in the post-9/11 era, American Muslims are besieged by a wave of hatred and violence (even though there is no statistical evidence to back up such claims). The other is one articulated by critics of Islam who argue that Muslims are demanding and getting accommodations from government and other institutions that are an unconstitutional establishment of Islamic or Sharia law. Advocates of this point of view are the driving force behind efforts to enact laws that would prohibit recognition or use of Sharia law in U.S. courts. This cause has often seemed to be, at best, the result of overblown fears because, unlike in Asia and Africa where Muslim efforts to make Sharia the law of the land, there is little danger of that happening in Oklahoma or other states where anti-Sharia statutes have been proposed.

However, every now and then a story pops up which makes such fears seem more reasonable. One concerns the assault by a local Muslim on a man wearing a costume during a Halloween parade in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, last year. The attacker said the costume depicted a zombie version of the Prophet Muhammad. The attack was recorded on film and witnessed by a police officer who promptly arrested the assailant, who was later charged with harassment. But, as legal scholar Jonathan Turley notes in his blog, the judge who heard the case not only dismissed the case on the grounds that the offense to Islam was not protected speech but also lectured the victim on the wrongheaded nature of his views. Judge Mark Martin’s decision was based on the idea that the assailant, one Talaag Elbayomy, was merely defending “his culture.” Turley, who posted a video of the assault and a partial transcript of the judge’s comments, concludes that Martin’s decision “raises serious questions of judicial temperament, if not misconduct.” But I would go farther and point out that the judge’s behavior seems to reflect a bizarre notion of Muslim entitlement that is by no means unrelated to the attempt to sell the country on the myth of a post 9/11 backlash.

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For the past several years, there have been two competing narratives about Islam in America. One put forward by groups that purport to represent believers in Islam and the liberal media would have it that in the post-9/11 era, American Muslims are besieged by a wave of hatred and violence (even though there is no statistical evidence to back up such claims). The other is one articulated by critics of Islam who argue that Muslims are demanding and getting accommodations from government and other institutions that are an unconstitutional establishment of Islamic or Sharia law. Advocates of this point of view are the driving force behind efforts to enact laws that would prohibit recognition or use of Sharia law in U.S. courts. This cause has often seemed to be, at best, the result of overblown fears because, unlike in Asia and Africa where Muslim efforts to make Sharia the law of the land, there is little danger of that happening in Oklahoma or other states where anti-Sharia statutes have been proposed.

However, every now and then a story pops up which makes such fears seem more reasonable. One concerns the assault by a local Muslim on a man wearing a costume during a Halloween parade in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, last year. The attacker said the costume depicted a zombie version of the Prophet Muhammad. The attack was recorded on film and witnessed by a police officer who promptly arrested the assailant, who was later charged with harassment. But, as legal scholar Jonathan Turley notes in his blog, the judge who heard the case not only dismissed the case on the grounds that the offense to Islam was not protected speech but also lectured the victim on the wrongheaded nature of his views. Judge Mark Martin’s decision was based on the idea that the assailant, one Talaag Elbayomy, was merely defending “his culture.” Turley, who posted a video of the assault and a partial transcript of the judge’s comments, concludes that Martin’s decision “raises serious questions of judicial temperament, if not misconduct.” But I would go farther and point out that the judge’s behavior seems to reflect a bizarre notion of Muslim entitlement that is by no means unrelated to the attempt to sell the country on the myth of a post 9/11 backlash.

Martin called Ernie Perce, the Pennsylvania director of American Atheists, a “doofus” and, citing his own experiences serving in Iraq and other Muslim countries, told him his conduct could be punished by death in such countries. He went on to claim the Framers did not intend the First Amendment to be used to “piss off other peoples and cultures” and therefore did not protect his right to criticize Islam even in the context of a Halloween parade. Martin not only seemed to accept the idea that Elbayomy was conditioned to attack critics of Islam by his background and faith but that the law ought to recognize his need to not be so offended. This “cultural defense” seems to treat Muslims as so inherently aggrieved by living in a country where their religion is not the law of the land that they deserve some sort of special legal protection for their own blatantly illegal behavior.

As Turley states, the fact that the victim was a recognized antagonist of the Muslim faith had no bearing on whether he ought to be allowed to exercise his right to speak his mind without being physically attacked. Though insulting the prophet is a death-penalty offense in much of the world, such behavior is not illegal in a country that recognizes the right to free speech.

It should be specified that this is just one clearly incompetent judge who used his godlike control of his courtroom to vent his personal opinions and perpetrated a miscarriage of justice. But what is really troubling is the way his decision seems to reflect a growing sense that Muslim sensibilities are so delicate they may override the rights of others to comment on their faith. One need not endorse the insult of any faith to understand Perce’s conduct was legal and his attacker was in the wrong.

It is hardly a stretch to point out the connection between this case and something all too common in Muslim countries where insults or perceived attacks on Islam — such as the recent incident in Afghanistan — are treated as justifying riots and murder. For all of the unsubstantiated talk about a rising tide of Islamophobia, critics of Islam are still far more likely to be subjected to attacks than are Muslims. Like all Americans, Muslims are entitled to the full protection of the law for the expression of their beliefs. But attempts to enshrine their notion of what is a sacrilege into secular law are a path to the destruction of the Constitution.

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