Free Speech and Islam

Recently, some ads critical of Islam went up on buses in San Francisco, courtesy of controversial blogger Pamela Geller.  Not long after that, it appeared several of these ads had been defaced.  The graffiti artist covered up the message with one of their own, as well as the image of Muslim superhero Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel introduced a year ago by Marvel Comics.  The book’s muslim writer, G. Willow Wilson, approved of the graffiti on twitter.

I first heard about all this through Gawker’s io9 blog, which wasn’t very helpful because it didn’t even give any description of the content that it dismissed as “Islamophobic.”  Since their editors lacked either the journalistic integrity or the courage to print that, I’ll have to do it myself.  Next to a photo of Adolf Hitler with Muslim leader Haj Amin al-Husseini, it reads: “Islamic Jew-hatred: It’s in the Quran. Two-thirds of all US aid goes to Islamic countries. Stop the hate. End all aid to Islamic countries.”

msmarvel

The messages being sent by the vandals were confusing to say the least.  One says, “Stamp out racism”, the honor brigade‘s usual method of shutting out critics of Islam by calling them racists, even though Islam is not a race.  Another reads, “Free speech isn’t a license to spread hate”, the typical Muslim concession to a vague idea of free speech as long it doesn’t protect anything they object to.  Of course, Muslim leaders never seem to be as concerned with stopping their own from saying or doing things that other religions might find offensive.

It’s a threat to free speech whenever a group or individual believes they alone have the authority to determine what criticisms about their ideology can be seen by the public, let alone to enforce that interpretation through criminal acts.  In this case the vandals could have bought their own rival ads, or swayed public opinion through a protest or a boycott.  They could have easily taken a free picture, defaced the ads in photoshop, and then posted it on the internet and that wouldn’t have been illegal.  But regrettably, this exemplifies the disturbing trend of Muslims breaking the law whenever they don’t like something somebody says about their religion.  A few weeks ago, Muslim terrorists killed a dozen innocent people in Paris over a silly cartoon.  The government of Saudi Arabia condemned those terrorists, but then proceeded to flog blogger Raif Badawi the very next week.  And now, a manufactured representative of moderate Islam is being used to shut out another critical message with her creator’s blessing.  While they don’t all resort to physical violence (aside from property damage, of course), all of these from moderate to extremists are nevertheless examples of opposition to free speech by force.  The only discernible difference is not their level of tolerance for opposing speech, just the level of force they’re willing to exert to silence it.  It’s par for the course that a Muslim superhero is the champion of suppressing free speech.

Of course, Kamala Khan doesn’t speak for all Muslims, or even all moderate Muslims, but where are the voices of moderate Islam standing up for all free speech, not just sharia approved speech?  After the Charlie Hebdo attacks Alternet was quick to compile a list of 45 Islamic organizations denouncing the terrorism, yet this list seems less reassuring when put under scrutiny.  For starters, one of the examples (#18) is the brutal Saudi dictatorship which actively suppresses dissent with violence.  Another three are Ahmadi organizations (#’s 2, 7, and 15).  Although Ahmadiyya is the only sect of Islam that totally rejects violence as a matter of doctrine, they are at most only 1% of the worldwide Muslim population and generally considered heretics and persecuted by the greater Muslim majority, to the extent that it’s practically illegal to be an Ahmadi Muslim in several countries.  While their denunciation of violence is greatly appreciated, it not really statistically relevant because we could always count on this 1% to denounce violence, the other 99% of Muslims are the more important question.  It’s rather dishonest of Alternet to have such a small minority disproportionately representative of 6% of their sampling.  Even including Saudi Arabia, if the percentage of extremists truly were as tiny as Muslim apologists claim, then we could optimistically expect more than 90 responses for every Ahmadiyya organization that Alternet can find.  For 1 Ahmadi statement, there should theoretically be 99 statements representing the Ummah, but what we see instead is a huge blind spot of more than half the Muslim population.  This is why it’s important for Muslims everywhere to denounce violence and extremism as loudly and often as possible, because the world really has no clue where the majority stands.

G. Willow Wilson mistakenly believes the graffiti is also free speech, saying on twitter:  “To me, the graffiti is part of the back-and-forth of the free speech conversation. Call and response. Argument, counterargument.”  Some of her supporters have argued the mantra that the response to free speech is more speech, but anybody who can do basic math can see that the ads started with one message and ended with still only a single message.

Unfortunately, many misguided Western liberals have been swayed by the apologist’s “hate speech” argument.  Even if the media didn’t publish the content of the original message, they took their word that it must have been “Islamophobic”.  But while it should have mattered to those defending the censorship, the content really doesn’t matter to those who believe in the principle of freedom of speech.  One doesn’t have to approve of the message, but if you approve of it being suppressed, then you don’t really believe in free speech.  Like it or not, so-called hate speech is still free speech, and the idea of free speech exists for no reason other than to protect speech that somebody doesn’t like.  You’re not really a liberal if you support an oppressive religion silencing free speech.

Faster than you can cry “no true Scotsman!” I will argue that free speech is inseparable from liberty and liberalism–it’s a defining characteristic.  A compromising liberal accepting an ideology’s own limits of what critics can say about it is self-defeating, like a pro-lifer having an abortion or a vegan eating a cheeseburger.  Doing certain things that go completely against a professed ideology can exclude oneself from that identity.  And make no mistake, giving authoritarian religions control back over their own narratives is in effect neutering the progress of the Enlightenment and taking civilization back to the Dark Ages.  While you may freely agree with the Muslims that the criticism in question is incorrect or inappropriate, everybody should be ashamed of these lawless bullying tactics to take away another person’s right to speech.  Muslims will eventually have to start catching up to the 21st century, and Islam will have to stop being both the most easily offended religion in the world and also the most offensive.

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