Free speech

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By: Bina Shah

Is the anti-Muslim video, Innocence of Muslims, an issue of free speech or hate speech? That’s the question foremost on my mind as I think back to a weekend of madness, in which protestors against the film ran wild in the streets of Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore, destroying public and private property and committing mayhem that was transmitted to television screens all over the world. A day of peaceful protests followed and on the third day, students gathered to symbolically clean up the streets wrecked by the anarchic mobs, but no international news covered any of that.

The protesters didn’t succeed in getting the film banned or even removed from YouTube; they’re dreaming if they think their rioting and looting will cause the United States or Americans to rethink one of their most precious freedoms, “the political right to communicate one’s opinions or ideas”, also known as freedom of speech or freedom of expression. This right is captured in the Constitution’s First Amendment and while we know that it is not absolute — issues of national security often trump freedom of speech, especially in a post 9/11 scenario — it’s touted as one of the principles on which America was founded. A 15-minute YouTube video isn’t going to make them give it up anytime soon.

Many Muslims opposed to the video want to see it banned, claiming that freedom of speech should not include mocking of a religious figure they hold dear or a religion they practise with seriousness and sincerity. But there is no such clause in the American Constitution that ensures anyone’s religious beliefs will not be mocked, challenged, twisted, or disrespected. American law does not legislate against personal offence or injured sensitivities. All religions have been made fun of, been the subject of criticism and satire and all of this is, in fact, legally protected. In a nation with so much diversity, no single religious group is elevated above the others and many comedians pride themselves on being “equal opportunity offenders”.

While YouTube’s parent company Google can make the decision to block it from being seen in select Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, but not Pakistan), the United States government can’t actually legally block it wholesale. Many sceptics can’t understand why in America, freedom of speech is more respected than the sanctity of religious figures. But the American government will never use state power to stop its people from expressing their opinions about any religion. It considers itself the polar opposite of totalitarian governments that exercise thought control on their population in theory, even if this hasn’t always been true in practice.

That explains why there is no law against hate speech in the United States. But the question still must be asked: does Innocence of Muslims classify as hate speech? The argument can be made that the video vilifies Muslims and was fully intended to incite a violent backlash in Muslim countries, as well as hatred between Muslims and non-Muslims in non-Muslim countries. With its poor production values, wooden acting, and laughable dialogue, it certainly doesn’t qualify as high art.

Yet, there are some in America who don’t think the First Amendment should protect hate speech; the legal philosopher Jeffrey Waldron is one. In his book The Harm of Hate Speech, he argues that die hard First Amendment supporters should rethink their approach if freedom of expression is abused to take away other people’s right to security. The famous Voltaire quote “I detest what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is beloved of many Americans, but Waldron asks us to consider whether or not the right to “say it” robs another citizen of her right to feel she is a secure, protected member of her community, society or nation. If Muslims feel less secure as American citizens, as a result of the video, this, rather than whether or not the video offends them, should be the grounds on which hate speech can be banned.

Finally, we in Pakistan should consider very carefully what we’re asking the United States to do in the name of respecting Muslims and Islamic religious sentiment. They might very well ask us to consider the same thing in the name of respecting the religious minorities who live in Pakistan. Would we be comfortable banning all forms of expression that offend the sensibilities and sensitivities of Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and even Jews? Sometimes the shoe doesn’t feel very comfortable when it’s on the other foot.

Pakistan Press Foundation

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