Islamist Hypocrisy on Free Speech: Suppose They Got What They Wanted?

Eric Posner, legal scholar and son of the scholar and judge Richard Posner, declares in Slate that free speech is overrated and that internationally, even to a small degree in Europe, it needs to take a back seat to order. He seems to think that the United States government should have found a way to suppress the video that led to the killing of the American ambassador to Libya. Justin Green [at David Frum], meanwhile, is appalled. He thinks that Posner’s article looks like something you would be more likely to find in the satirical paper The Onion. I think, “suppose we did change our laws to ban defaming of religions?” It would be these Islamist radicals that would be the first to get into trouble under such a law. Some of them still quote, for example, the discredited volumes The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. That is illegal in Germany; under the ‘no defamation’ standard that they would like us to adopt, it would be illegal in the U S as well.

Not that I would ever propose such a constitutional change. Religions, at least in the Western Tradition, hold that they are true and that other faiths, to the extent they differ, are therefore wrong. What is the point otherwise? From a strategic point of view, of course, Christians should not try to bring Muslims to Christ by means of videos of the sort that provoked the riots, or cartoons where the Prophet Muhammad has a bomb in his hat, or whatever. Those are most unlikely to be appealing or winsome to the people we want to reach for Christ. At the same time, though we ourselves do not want to engage in preaching of that sort, forbidding it would make an awfully fine line between what is forbidden and what we are trying to say; a lot of arguments today are not about the content of things but their supposedly ‘inappropriate tone’. And for a lot of people, content that is inherently displeasing or disappointing to them is automatically a harsh ‘tone’, no matter how it is said. For example, some hold that to believe in the historic position that most cultures have held concerning same sex marriage constitutes ‘hatred’ no matter what. And similarly many Islamists hold that to reject the Islamic faith is to demean it. Similarly many Christians might hold that ultimately to reject Christ is to insult God. But Christians have 300 years of persecution at the beginning of the Church in their DNA, and while we have been guilty from time to time of persecutions and power plays [I traveled this summer through areas that had been basically laid waste by the Teutonic Knights in the Middle Ages in the name of Christ] we have this important historical memory to go back to. And we have recently occasionally gotten outraged and boycotted and picketed the odd film, but we would no longer contemplate trying to forbid anti-Christian films by law.

We should take the position that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and that we are not going to modify our free speech traditions for their comfort, or anyone’s comfort. At the same time, we must remember that other parts of the world are not going to follow the same view, and that trying to force it on them by ‘democracy building’ or ‘state building’ is probably not going to work.

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