Islam and the Question of Free Speech

Free speech is often seen as the pillar of enlightenment, and modernity, and necessary for a healthy, democratic society; it is seen as what keeps power in check. The freedom to express with no constraint no matter the sensitivity of the topic. And in this supposed clash between the west and the east, between ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’, civil and barbarity, free speech is seen on the side of the west. But like all common narratives that sprout a black and white distinction, it is often based on unfounded generalizations and prejudices. The articles will inspect Islam and western free speech. 

Several cases are used to demonstrate the ‘hatred’ of Muslims to free speech. Firstly, Theo Van Gogh, who deliberately offended several religions in a highly erotic and sadistic fashion, was killed by a Muslim. Another is the cartoons illustrated by Kåre Bluitgen depicting the prophet Muhammed. Also, Charlie Hebdo and its provocative cartoons of the prophets and several other religious symbols. They also recite Jytte Klausen's study ‘“a number of victims associated with demonstrations against the Danish cartoons,” which stated there were 800 injured and 240-250 dead due to violence caused by the cartoons. 

Let’s start with the numbers. An analysis conducted by Anne Norton, liberal thinker and a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, states that Jytte Klausen's studies “count 241–48+ deaths over a four-month period, of which 205–7 come from a single five-day period in Nigeria” and counts 800 injured “of which 485+ come from Nigeria”. Relative to death occurrence in Nigeria, this isn’t an odd number. Anne Norton states that such a cluster of death has occurred several times in the past. The second-largest amount of fatalities is in Libya, in which the link to the cartoon is weak; Anne Norton argues firstly that most killings occurred between Libyan Muslims and Libyan Muslims, and secondly, that the riots against the Italian embassy were against a previous repressive colonizer who’s wearing of an offensive shirt provoked it. Anne Norton's analysis concludes that most violence mainly occurred in areas where violence is common, not due to some west vs east false narrative. Furthermore, this pail against deaths in anti-imperial sentiment protests. 

The other point is that the publication of such offensive provocative cartoons and films is seen as a way to affirm free speech, the pillars of enlightening; they claim they are doing it for a higher cause. As such, it is colored with slogans of courageousness. But let me ask you something wouldn’t attacking the common consensus be a better strategy. Doesn’t it seem that making fun of Athan, headscarves, of “a minority group with little political, subject to discrimination and continuing slights” is missing the point? Is it speech they were defending when Christian Vanneste was heavily fined for stating that ‘homosexual behavior endangers the survival of humanity?’ Where any mention or historical criticism of the Holocaust is severely criticized, any distinction between antisemitism and Zionism is silenced.  It seems the mockery of Islam is done for the sake of pleasure or provocation and not for an actual moral cause; if it's free speech they are after, then making a mockery of what everyone agrees on is the most effective method. 

The justification for mockery of religions, especially in modern times, disguised as protection of freedom of speech, is, as the NYTimes labeled it, “juvenile”. The inconsistency of western moral claims is very natural. There are only two options for the West: either to uphold freedom of speech on everything, no matter how vulgar, racist, or anti-Semitic it is, or censor things that incite hatred and violence.