Commentary Magazine


Free Speech and Islamic Sensibilities

One of the most discouraging trends in international affairs is the way some Western nations have kowtowed to the calls of Muslim nations to treat “blasphemy” against Islam as a human rights offense. As the controversy over the publication of Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as the YouTube video that the White House falsely claimed incited the murder of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya have shown, many in the West are generally more concerned with appeasing terrorists than they are with standing up for freedom of expression.

But however abject the Western stand has been abroad, most Americans probably thought no such concerns were needed about defending our rights at home. Yet a story in Politico brings to our attention the fact that such complacence may be unfounded. Apparently a United States attorney in Tennessee is seeking to use civil rights statutes to criminalize criticism of Islam or inflammatory statements that offend Muslims. According to the Tullahoma News, Bill Killian, the U.S. attorney for Eastern Tennessee, believes “Internet postings that violate civil rights are subject to federal jurisdiction.” Though the newspaper makes clear that Killian’s intent is to promote better community relations and to prevent discrimination against Muslims that is based on the false notion that all are terrorists, his willingness to dump the First Amendment rights of some in order to protect the sensibility of others ought to scare all Americans.

Killian is, of course, right to point out that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists. The vast majority are law abiding citizens whose rights should be protected the same as those of anyone else. It is also true that those who fear that Muslims will impose sharia law on Tennessee or any other American state are largely unfounded, though that issue is not a fringe concern in Africa and Asia where the rights of non-Muslims are threatened by just that threat. If all Killian wants to do is to make sure American Muslims are not targeted for discrimination or violence (though there is, in fact, no evidence that a post-9/11 backlash of bias or attacks has actually taken place) that is also all well and good.

But there is a vast difference between defending the civil rights of a minority and seeking to silence those who hold views that are offensive to that minority.

If hate speech leads directly to violence or is used to create an atmosphere of intimidation or attacks against a minority group, the government does well to look into the manner. But for a person with the vast resources and power of the federal government at his disposal, such as a U.S. attorney, to threaten prosecution of those who say offensive things about Muslims on the Internet is to place free speech in jeopardy. Indeed, rather than silencing those who complain about sharia law, statements such as those of Killian are likely to fuel such fears–and rightly so–since he appears to be setting Muslims up as a protected class who cannot be offended without fear of recourse to the law.

What’s especially frightening about this is that the discussion of what offends Muslims has very little to do with actionable hate speech. As was the case with the YouTube video about Muhammad that the administration initially claimed to have been the cause of the Benghazi attacks, the video was something that was perfectly legal even if it was ill considered and nasty as well as inept. But just as the maker of that video was jailed on a parole violation (a turn of events that would have been inconceivable had he not been subjected to international opprobrium including condemnation by the president and the secretary of state), there now appears to be a double standard by which the government seems to view offenses to Islam. Attacks on Islam or even rude remarks about its prophet may be uncivil, but they are no more illegal than abuse directed at Jews or any other form of hate that the government rightly forebears from prosecuting.

Even more to the point, while the efforts of Killian to protect American Muslims are correct, if they are not also accompanied by calls for this community to do some soul searching about the way it has enabled and even coddled extremists who are fomenting or carrying out terrorism they do the nation a disservice.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke directly to this issue in a courageous piece published in the Daily Mail in which he rightly pointed out that the radicalism that led to the murder of a British soldier last week—as well as to other outrages such as the Boston Marathon bombing and a host of other terrorist attacks in the United States carried out by persons primarily motivated by an interpretation of Islam—requires both Muslims and non-Muslims to face facts:

There is a problem within Islam – from the adherents of an ideology that is a strain within Islam. We have to put it on the table and be honest about it. Of course there are Christian extremists and Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu ones. But I am afraid this strain is not the province of a few extremists. It has at its heart a view about religion and about the interaction between religion and politics that is not compatible with pluralistic, liberal, open-minded societies.

But instead of honesty about this threat, what Muslims are hearing from people like Killian is that the government may punish offenses against their faith. That not only trashes freedom of speech, statements such as Killian’s and others that stick to the “Islam is a religion of peace” line while ignoring the very real problem of Islamist extremism that is fomenting terror add to our problems.

Killian must retract his statement or at least clarify it to show that he has no intention of prosecuting those who merely offend Islam, no matter how objectionable their utterances. If not, he should be fired. But even more than that, his foolish attempt to mollify Muslims show just how clueless many government officials—including those, like Killian, who are connected to the security establishment—are about the nature of the threat from Islamist terror.

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