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The high price of free speech - Muslim and Irish protests against hate

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Anti-U.S. protests in Ankara, Turkey last week (AP)
Anti-U.S. protests in Ankara, Turkey last week (AP)
In 1849, Irish immigrants were a key participant in what came to be known as the Astor Place Riots. At least two dozen people were killed. 

Why?  The participants were battling over which Shakespearean actor was the era’s best -- England-born William Charles Macready (despised by the Irish) or American-born Edwin Forrest. 

Twenty five years later, Irish American anger at newspaper cartoonist (and anti-Irish bigot) Thomas Nast was so high police officers had to be posted outside of Nast’s home.

So as we watch predominately-Muslim countries explode into violence over an idiotic film, perhaps we should not be surprised.  At one time or another, people of divergent background have reacted violently to books or art or plays or movies.

But it’s not the 1800s anymore.  And just because people have always done this does not make it right. 

The fact that four people had to die because some nincompoop named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula chose to make a bad movie about the prophet Mohammed is a tragedy.  The fact that large numbers of people in countries from Tunisia to Afghanistan believe this violence is justifiable -- and that artists
can be bullied into silence -- is a long-term problem for America.

And here’s another unfortunate thing. European nations, including Ireland, also believe that controversial religious material is best not discussed.  The implied message here seems to be that saying naughty things about another person’s religion is simply too much trouble.  It can, obviously, lead to violence. 

But rather than focus on the fact that a very small but very vocal minority of religious people seem to want to live as if it is still the seventh century, activists and lawmakers from Dublin to Cairo feel it is best to simply not talk about certain subjects.

“We don’t think that depictions of the prophets are freedom of expression. We think it is an offense against our rights,” Ismail Mohamed, a religious scholar, told The New York Times. 

“We want these countries to understand that they need to take into consideration the people … the West has to understand the ideology of the people.”

Mohamed was basically attempting to explain why anger in the Islamic world has boiled over.  He was also arguing that freedom of expression - so cherished and prized in the United States - is an inadequate defense of a movie which depicts the Prophet Mohammed as a womanizer and buffoon.

But here’s the thing -- much of “The West” already agrees with this.  America is pretty much the only country left where freedom of speech generally covers controversial religious material. 

Lest we forget, Ireland itself passed a controversial blasphemy law in 2009.  You may not agree with famed atheist

Richard Dawkins, who said that Ireland’s law would send the nation spiraling back into the Middle Ages.

However, this law - like similar laws passed by other European nations - does send a message to devoutly religious people that their rights are more important than the rights of anyone who might want to criticize certain aspects of any given religion.

From there, it’s not a great leap to simply taking the law into your own hands -- launch a rocket, storm an embassy.  Why not?  It’s my duty to my God.

I have long argued that people should be reverent and respectful about religion.  But part of living in a big, modern world is understanding that people inevitably disagree with you. 

Ultimately, as ugly as those disagreements can get, people must have a protected right to express those disagreements. 

The trouble is, those rights are fading.  Books such as Jeremy Waldron’s The Harm in Hate Speech argue that more - not fewer - restrictions on expression must be passed.  And many countries are doing just that.

Even U.S. authorities, for some reason, felt they had to detain Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a sight nearly as chilling as the angry protests inspired by his dumb movie.

The proper response to anything that can be called “hate speech” is more speech.  Passionate debate.  The organization of peaceful protests. 

Yes, this forces us to condone the speech of bigots and idiots.  To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this is the worst system - except for every other one.

(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com or tomdeignan@earthlink.net)

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