04 December 2012

Islamists vs. Libertarians

While looking for Egyptian news sources for the demonstration outside the presidential palace in Cairo today, I came across an op-ed on the English-language ahram.org website by a Palestinian journalist, Khalid Amayreh, responding to criticisms from American libertarians of earlier comments Amayreh made on the "Innocence of Muslims" controversy. Amayreh focused, without attribution, on a Reason Online column by Ronald Bailey, who guaranteed that he would offend many Muslims by claiming that "an attack on free speech is a greater blasphemy than is an insult to the divine." Amayreh's response:

I know freedom of speech is a sacred value in the United States and many other countries. However, just as American libertarians insist that no other value should be more paramount than this value, we expect the same Americans to understand that other peoples in other parts of the world have equally paramount values, including religious values.

What does this mean in practice? Amayreh asserts, to libertarians' scorn, a right not to be offended, specifically not to have their paramount religious values insulted.  "The two rights need not always be in a state of conflict," he writes, "However, when a purported right has the potential of decimating the other more natural right, the right to life, there should be no question as to where our attention should be focused." He clarifies later: "In a nutshell, free speech, though not an absolute value in itself, is a positive value and ought to be protected and defended; but hate, malicious and vulgar speech is a negative value that ultimately leads to bloodshed and war." Using Nazi anti-semitism as his model, Amayreh implies that any form of "hate speech" puts the speaker on a slippery slope to violence. We can infer that, as a Muslim, Amayreh hears anti-Muslim speech -- possibly anything that can be construed as anti-Muslim, as a threat to his life. At that point he claims more than a right not to be offended. He claims a right of self-defense that cannot be trumped by freedom of speech. Americans insist on precision when indicting speech as incitement to violence, but Amayreh argues that Muslims have a right to judge according to their own standards. While (as Bailey noted), Amayreh criticized the violence provoked by "Innocence of Muslims," his latest statement on the subject amounts to "what else did you expect?"

There are, of course, those who claim that hate speech wouldn't have to lead to bloodshed. Well, this might be true if the rest of the world adopted the American value system and believed in the First Amendment as God-incarnate. But to the chagrin of our American friends, the world is too diverse to adopt the American way and adhere to the American Constitution as the ultimate religion of mankind.

In short, tit for tat: if you Americans don't have to respect our respect for the Prophet, we Muslims don't have to respect your freedom of speech -- or, more to the point, your expectation of immunity when you speak. If Muslim's don't accept "the First Amendment as God-incarnate," they can deny that "hate speech wouldn't have to lead to bloodshed." They may not say "yes, it must," but they will say that, if violence, happens, it isn't Muslims' fault -- or not theirs alone. Of course, no American would call the First Amendment "God-incarnate," though some may claim that the Constitution (or parts of it) were divinely inspired. But the typical American claim that the Bill of Rights identifies not merely the rights of Americans, but those of all human beings by virtue of their humanity, may well strike Muslim ears as an assertion of divine will. To Islamists, if not to all Muslims, human rights can only be found in the Qur'an or the Traditions of the Prophet. An impasse seems inevitable, and Amayreh himself acknowledges "how difficult it would be to legislate "respect" among heterogeneous communities let alone among diverse cultures." Nevertheless, he insists that " the present situation between Islam and the West where one group of people must be offended and insulted on the grounds that another group of people has an allegedly absolute right to free speech cannot be maintained." But if there is to be a truly global code of human rights and freedom of expression, it cannot be dictated absolutely or unilaterally by either the U.S. or Islam. The question for future reference is whether the rest of the world is more concerned about not being offended or with getting away with offending those who might otherwise have the power to silence them.


Anonymous said...

It seems to me the obvious solution. For muslims who are so easily offended to move to a muslim nation and for all muslim nations to cut all telecommunications with non-muslim nations. Then the civilized world can continue to practice free speech and the muslims can have no reason to take offense.

Samuel Wilson said...

Your solution should include an option for Muslims less easily offended to move out of the zero-offense zone and take part in global civilization. That aside, it'll have to be enforced pretty strictly, since both Islamists and libertarians have a zeal to convert others that doesn't respect borders.

Anonymous said...

I did stipulate "For muslims who are so easily offended", rather than "All muslims". Since, in my mind, these borders would be impermeable, libertarians wouldn't be allowed into these muslim areas and those muslims wouldn't be allowed out.