When free speech takes a back seat to fear
September 25, 2012
In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons depicting Muhammad in an attempt to contribute to the debate regarding criticism of Islam and self-censorship. Although the paper would later apologize, the cartoons’ publication led to death threats, the resignation of Danish ministers, and a multi-million-dollar bounty on the head of the cartoonist. Muslims around the world protested, sometimes violently.
In the United States, a cartoonist who sponsored “Everyone Draw Mohammed Day” had to go into witness protection. Comedy Central censored a South Park episode where Muhammad was depicted. Yale removed reproductions of the Muhammad cartoons from a scholarly book on the subject.
History is repeating itself over a 14-minute trailer posted to YouTube for The Innocence of Muslims, a movie that no one has seen. This time, Muslim outrage is aimed at the United States, not the Danes. All hell has broken out in the Muslim world, particularly in Cairo, where President Obama made his reconciliation speech to the Muslim world at the beginning of his term, and in Libya, where the United States ambassador and three other people attached to the U.S. mission were killed.
For years, Muslims have been trying to carve out a special, protected niche for Islam under the guise of prohibiting Islamophobia. Since 1999, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and its predecessors have been submitting resolutions to the UN asking members to take measures against defamation of Islam — later changed to include all religions. The several non-binding resolutions accepted by the UN raise such restrictions over freedom of expression.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that, in the wake of the bloody global protests over the anti-Islam film, the president of Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation, urged the UN and the OIC to issue edicts against religious defamation because, according to one report, “it hurts the hearts of religious people, disturbs the peace and can trigger bloody conflicts.” Similarly, Egypt’s general prosecutor issued arrest warrants against those allegedly associated with the video.
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman condemned the rationale for the Muslim outrage as self-serving because it ignores Muslim hate videos directed at other religions.
The administration’s defense of Western tradition and the Constitution’s defense of free speech has been poor. Before the attack in Cairo, the U.S. embassy issued a statement condemning the “continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.”
No sooner had Egypt and Tunisian officials raised the possibility of suing or prosecuting those responsible than federal authorities went after the film’s producer, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, under the pretext of reviewing the terms of his probation based on his bank fraud conviction in 2009.
And rather than defending freedom of expression, administration officials called the film “hateful and offensive” (UN Ambassador Susan Rice), “reprehensible and disgusting” (White House spokesperson Jay Carney), and “disgusting and reprehensible” (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton).
This is a double standard. Have any of these officials used similar language against films and programs in Muslim countries propagating the Blood Libel against Jews?
Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens points out the hypocrisy of Clinton, who made nary a peep after attending a performance of The Book of Mormon, a Broadway musical poking fun at Mormons and their beliefs. And the hypocrisy does not end with Clinton. As Stephens states, “In the consensus view of modern American liberalism, it is hilarious to mock Mormons and Mormonism but outrageous to mock Muslims and Islam. Why? Maybe it’s because nobody has ever been harmed, much less killed, making fun of Mormons.”
Has this fear of Islam (literally, Islamophobia) allowed Muslims to carve out a safe harbor available only to them? This is where OIC and others would like to go. Consider the howls from the media and cultural elite when Mayor Giuliani and the Catholic League protested a painting of the Virgin Mary in elephant dung at a taxpayer-funded exhibit. Or the ridicule of protests over Piss Christ, a photo of a crucifix in urine, partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.
First Amendment scholar Eugene Volokh advises against attempts to buy calm by yielding to censorship. “It seems to me to actually be safer — not just better for First Amendment principles, but actually safer for Americans — to hold the line now, and make clear that American speech is protected even if foreigners choose to respond to it with murder. That would send the message, ‘murder won’t get you what you want.’ Not a perfectly effective message to be sure, but a better one than ‘murder will get you what you want.’”
Someone has to stand up for the Constitution, preferably the administration.