In the Free Speech Tug of War, the Internet Is the Rope

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In the Free Speech Tug of War, the Internet Is the Rope

 Published in the Maryland Daily Record October 1, 2012

            On its face, the ongoing rioting in the Muslim world over the Innocence of Muslims video may seem like a clash of mutually uncomprehending cultures.

Anti-Blasphemy Laws: Western as Apple Pie

            There are things the rioters may not realize. They may think the government can easily stop the video. Anti-blasphemy laws are not just found in totalitarian theocracies, but in many Western nations. Such laws can be found in the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Italy, and Greece.[1] They allow speech to be suppressed or penalized if it threatens to offend the sensibilities of religious believers. And a recent European Court for Human Rights decision[2] affirmed an Austrian court’s blasphemy conviction of a film whose offense lay in its depiction of “God the Father . . . as a senile, impotent idiot, Christ as a cretin, and Mary Mother of God as a wanton lady.” (Which obviously sounds like a close analog to what Innocence of Muslims has done with the prophet Mohamed.) The prevalence of such laws in most other countries has reportedly helped fuel the Muslim rioters’ disbelief that the U.S. government could not prevent the filmmaker’s speech if it wanted to.[3]

            Conversely, we Americans find it difficult to comprehend how sacrilege, especially sacrilege committed in the United States, can justify bloodshed in anyone’s mind somewhere else. But we take as an unspoken norm the Establishment Clause of our First Amendment, and the resulting absence of a state religion. Where a state religion does hold sway, however, blasphemy becomes treason and a threat to the entire established order. Preservation of the faith becomes preservation of everything one holds dear. Bloodshed from such a combination of causes is not unheard of on these shores.

            So there is an overlay of mutual incomprehension. But I would submit that both sides still have pretty clear ideas about what is at stake.

On the Line for Them

            Salafist Muslims are reported to be at the heart of these riots. The Salafist agenda, though reportedly not homogenous throughout the Muslim world, is believed to be return to a pure 7th Century faith. A 7th Century purity demands an interdependence of faith, culture and politics. Mohamed did not set up his religion to be one that people might freely choose among other free choices; he intended it to be, and his early adherents implemented it as, the exclusive heart of a state.

            But religious totalitarianism is fragile, exposed at many more points than freely-chosen religion is. Culture and politics must be policed or defended, or the structure may crumble. Western modernity, which exposes everything to challenge, would overwhelm it. It can be sustained only in modernity-free environments, and it takes political force to banish modernity. The Innocence of Muslims, albeit a ludicrously bad movie, can be made a test case. Riots and murders can be perpetrated in its name, and local authorities dared to punish the perpetrators, knowing that such punishment will label them traitors to Islamic purity. Picking a fight over Innocence is thus an important step in internal Islamic culture wars.

On the Line for Us

            Meanwhile, Innocence becomes just as important a test for America, a fact we all sense. Indeed, it can be argued that there is no serious test at all if Innocence is thought to be anything better than a scabrous slander produced by shady people with disreputable motives. Clearly, by refusing to rein it in, we affirm a great deal. Lee Bollinger has summarized[4] what freedom of speech means for us: it allows us to test competing views in the so-called market of ideas, it appears to us to be an absolute precondition for true democracy, and it expresses our social commitment to the dignity of each individual that we allow everyone to speak, not to mention that to us it is closely bound up with freedom of religion. Free speech is truly sacred to us.

The Tug-of-War

            If there is a tug-of-war between these ideals, the Internet is the rope. As long as it exists, one side or the other is going to pulled away from its essence. Now, in most places, the Net is run according to American models of free speech; allowing political debate, pornography, and blasphemy free rein.

            In essence, because the Internet is everywhere, this issue takes the fight to everyone’s homeland. As long as there is an Internet, Muslims in other lands will enjoy the freedom to view and be persuaded, seduced, or inspired by whatever is posted in the West. Promoters of a singularity of Islamic faith, culture, and politics must endure the existence in their midst of a challenge they can neither endure nor control.

            Similarly, as long as there is an Internet, our unusual permissiveness toward blasphemy means that we will face demands to change what we permit in our midst. But compliance with such a demand would existentially destructive. Although we do not always completely honor it, we as a nation and a culture know that allowing even a little bit of censorship to save listeners’ sensibilities would be immensely perilous. Once the precedent were set, every ethnic group, sect, and political party would demand some kind of protection from insult, slur or disagreement. After all, anything worth saying will offend someone. Everything of substance on the Net would have to be “taken down.” After the feeding frenzy, little would be left of the carcass of free speech.

No Surrender

            So we cannot surrender on this, and I have little fear we shall.

            I have written in this space before about how we should treat the legal views and precedents of the rest of mankind with greater respect. But here is one place where I think we should stick by our guns, and I have to say I’m disappointed by what I’ve learned of the anti-blasphemy laws of our European counterparts.

            We know that while everyone can speak freely, many listeners will indeed experience offense and pain and outrage. That is a risk whose acceptance we drank in with our mothers’ milk. We believe, along with Louis Brandeis (although he meant something different by the phrase), that sunlight is the best disinfectant. If sentiments or views offend when expressed in the forum of the Net, that forum can be counted on to expose them to such a withering blast of truth and reason that they will more likely die a deserved death. But if, on the other hand, Net-based speech is reasonable, however crudely or cruelly expressed, it may add something of value to public discourse. It may even be persuasive. That salutary effect is worth a lot of hurt feelings – and challenged faith.

            Faith is admittedly hard to come by, and it is fragile in the face of a universe which is usually ambiguous at best about ultimate realities. Unquestioning adherence to a holy book is easier to inculcate in a world where no one get to raise questions, especially rude ones about holy books and their authors. But a faith that cannot abide the challenge of free, even scabrous, discourse is probably false, and deserving of overthrow.

            We Americans know this in our bones. And that is why we shall not yield.

[1].         Robert A. Kahn, A Margin of Appreciation for Muslims? Viewing the Defamation of Religions Debate Through Otto-Preminger-Institut v. Austria, 5 Charleston L. Rev. 401 (2011), citing

[2].         Otto-Preminger-Institut v. Austria, 295-A Eur. Ct. H.R. (ser. A) (1994), described at length in Kahn (see previous Note).

[3].         This has been widely reported. For instance, the Civil Rights Director of Council of American-Islamic Relations acknowledged this on an interview with Iranian televison.

[4].         Article on the First Amendment in The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States, Kermit Hall, ed. at 345 (2d ed. 2005).

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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