Debate about free speech has almost completely overshadowed the tragic 16th December attacks that supposedly marked a turning point in the nation. While that painful day will never be forgotten, it is hard not to think that we have moved on to a more convenient point of outrage – one that allows us to unite against an enemy that is much more convenient to rally against seeing as how they are in far away lands armed only with pens rather than our own backyard armed with guns and bombs. However pertaining to ‘freedom of speech’, there are certain double standards, however, that are glaring and must be given due consideration given the present controversies.
Protests against the terrorist attack in Paris almost immediately featured the phrase “Je Suis Charlie”, a French phrase meaning, “I am Charlie” referring to the magazine that published the offensive cartoons. This caused many peace loving Muslims who were shocked by the killings to bristle. Being against killing should not require being for offending a religion. This is a reasonable position, but unfortunately it quickly changed into something else: Statements that speech offensive to Islam should be considered ‘terrorism’ and limited in order to prevent violent responses.
According to this line of argument, the West limits speech that provokes any religion except Islam. Basically, it is another anti-Islam conspiracy in which other religions (but especially Jews) are protected while Muslims are mocked. Like most conspiracy theories, this one is also easily disproven. From Monty Python’s film “Life of Brian” to more serious films like “The Last Temptation of Christ”, free speech laws have protected mockery and blasphemy against Christianity in the West since long.
However, there is one area in which some European countries have chosen to place limits on free speech and that is the holocaust. This raises two questions that seem to be missing from our discussion of the proper restraints on free speech. The first is why holocaust denial is banned in some Western countries. It is not to protect those countries from the violent reactions of extremist Jewish terrorists. In the 1970s, a French professor wrote letters to the newspaper ‘Le Monde’ claiming that gas chambers used by the Nazis to kill Jews did not exist. What happened next? Jewish extremists did not murder journalists. No self-declared defenders of Zionism assassinated the holocaust denier. Actually, he is still living, only as a social and academic outcast. The response was not to kill, but to shun. Not to threaten with violence, but to threaten with social and professional isolation. And it has worked.
But let’s get back to the question: Why do some European countries have laws that limit hate speech against certain minorities like Jews? The answer is not to protect those countries from the responses of the minorities – It is to protect the minorities from the responses of the majorities. Germany restricts speech promoting anti-semitism not because such speech resulted in the killing by Jews, but because Germany has a recent history in which such speech resulted in the killing of countless innocent Jews.
Here is where some will introduce the terrible attacks against Muslims that have taken place after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Even though these attacks are unforgivable, they are not really the same thing, though, because those attacks were in response to the actions of the attackers Said and Cherif Kouachi, not the bigoted cartoons. This does not justify the publication of the offensive cartoons, but it means that we must compare apples to apples. The fact is that responding to offensive speech with violence only perpetuates the offensive speech – and violence. Killing the offenders has never resulted in greater respect for Muslims, and it never will. It will only make things worse.
And there is another double standard that we must face if we are going to stop people from purposely provoking Muslims. How can we expect to be taken seriously in calls for limiting speech that offends the religious sensibilities of Muslims when we not only tolerate but legislate religious hate speech in our own country? Our respected political leaders have passed a resolution condemning the offensive cartoons and calling on the international community to “take decisive steps to stop such practice”. But are we willing to take our own medicine?
Speech that is considered offensive to Muslims is not tolerated in this country, but what about speech against Jews? Hindus? Ahmedis? It is easy to give lip service to the idea that all religions are protected, but who could take such nonsense seriously? How can we expect the international community to “take decisive steps” to protecting religious sensitivities when we refuse to do the same? Are we willing to hold Hafiz Saeed’s accountable for hate speech against Jews and Hindus? Are we willing to hold Aamir Liaquat accountable for hate speech against Ahmedis? If Europeans are hypocrites for banning speech against Jews but not Muslims, what are we? How can we ask another country to respect our religion when our own country has laws requiring people to declare certain religions as “imposters“?
After careful consideration, I have come to two conclusions. First, if we are going to succeed in ending Islamaphobia and gaining the respect due to Islam in the eyes of the world, we must abandon violence as a means to that end. Second, if we are going to be taken seriously when we condemn the hypocrisy of the West, we must be willing to face our own hypocrisy – and end it.