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Hate-Speech Hypocrites

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Why is curtailing free speech wrong for Muslims and right for Western countries?

Hate-Speech Hypocrites

By William Saletan, Slate

Jews have too much influence over U.S. foreign policy. Gay men are too promiscuous. Muslims commit too much terrorism. Blacks commit too much crime.

Each of those claims is poorly stated. Each, in its clumsy way, addresses a real problem or concern. And each violates laws against hate speech. In much of what we call the free world, for writing that paragraph, I could be jailed.

Libertarians, cultural conservatives, and racists have complained about these laws for years. But now the problem has turned global. Islamic governments, angered by an anti-Muslim video that provoked protests and riots in their countries, are demanding to know why insulting the Prophet Mohammed is free speech but vilifying Jews and denying the Holocaust isn’t. And we don’t have a good answer.

If we’re going to preach freedom of expression around the world, we have to practice it. We have to scrap our hate-speech laws.

Muslim leaders want us to extend these laws. At this week’s meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, they lobbied for tighter censorship. Egypt’s president said freedom of expression shouldn’t include speech that is “used to incite hatred” or “directed towards one specific religion.” Pakistan’s president urged the “international community” to “criminalize” acts that “endanger world security by misusing freedom of expression.” Yemen’s president called for “international legislation” to suppress speech that “blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures.” The Arab League’s secretary-general proposed a binding “international legal framework” to “criminalize psychological and spiritual harm” caused by expressions that “insult the beliefs, culture and civilization of others.”

President Obama, while condemning the video, met these proposals with a stout defense of free speech. Switzerland’s president agreed: “Freedom of opinion and of expression are core values guaranteed universally which must be protected.” And when a French magazine published cartoons poking fun at Mohammed, the country’s prime minister insisted that French laws protecting free speech extend to caricatures.

This debate between East and West, between respect and pluralism, isn’t a crisis. It’s a stage of global progress. The Arab spring has freed hundreds of millions of Muslims from the political retardation of dictatorship. They’re taking responsibility for governing themselves and their relations with other countries. They’re debating one another and challenging us. And they should, because we’re hypocrites.

From Pakistan to Iran to Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Nigeria to the United Kingdom, Muslims scoff at our rhetoric about free speech. They point to European laws against questioning the Holocaust. Monday on CNN, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad needled British interviewer Piers Morgan: “Why in Europe has it been forbidden for anyone to conduct any research about this event? Why are researchers in prison? … Do you believe in the freedom of thought and ideas, or no?” On Tuesday, Pakistan’s U.N. ambassador, speaking for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, told the U.N. Human Rights Council:

We are all aware of the fact that laws exist in Europe and other countries which impose curbs, for instance, on anti-Semitic speech, Holocaust denial, or racial slurs. We need to acknowledge, once and for all, that Islamophobia in particular and discrimination on the basis of religion and belief are contemporary forms of racism and must be dealt with as such. Not to do so would be a clear example of double standards. Islamophobia has to be treated in law and practice equal to the treatment given to anti-Semitism.

He’s right. Laws throughout Europe forbid any expression that “minimizes,” “trivializes,” “belittles,” “plays down,” “contests,” or “puts in doubt” Nazi crimes. Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic extend this prohibition to communist atrocities. These laws carry jail sentences of up to five years. Germany adds two years for anyone who “disparages the memory of a deceased person.”

Hate speech laws go further. Germany punishes anyone found guilty of “insulting” or “defaming segments of the population.” The Netherlands bans anything that “verbally or in writing or image, deliberately offends a group of people because of their race, their religion or beliefs, their hetero- or homosexual orientation or their physical, psychological or mental handicap.” It’s illegal to “insult” such a group in France, to “defame” them in Portugal, to “degrade” them in Denmark, or to “expresses contempt” for them in Sweden. In Switzerland, it’s illegal to “demean” them even with a “gesture.” Canada punishes anyone who “willfully promotes hatred.” The United Kingdom outlaws “insulting words or behavior” that arouse “racial hatred.” Romania forbids the possession of xenophobic “symbols.”

What have these laws produced? Look at the convictions upheld or accepted by the European Court of Human Rights. Four Swedes who distributed leaflets that called homosexuality “deviant” and “morally destructive” and blamed it for AIDS. An Englishman who displayed in his window a 9/11 poster proclaiming, “Islam out of Britain.” A Turk who published two letters from readers angry at the government’s treatment of Kurds. A Frenchman who wrote an article disputing the plausibility of poison gas technology at a Nazi concentration camp.

Look at the defendants rescued by the court. A Dane “convicted of aiding and abetting the dissemination of racist remarks” for making a documentary in which three people “made abusive and derogatory remarks about immigrants and ethnic groups.” A man “convicted of openly inciting the population to hatred” in Turkey by “criticizing secular and democratic principles and openly calling for the introduction of Sharia law.” Another Turkish resident “convicted of disseminating propaganda” after he “criticized the United States’ intervention in Iraq and the solitary confinement of the leader of a terrorist organization.” Two Frenchmen who wrote a newspaper article that “portrayed Marshal Pétain in a favorable light, drawing a veil over his policy of collaboration with the Nazi regime.”

Beyond the court’s docket, you’ll find more prosecutions of dissent. A Swedish pastor convicted of violating hate-speech laws by preaching against homosexuality. A Serb convicted of discrimination for saying, “We are against every gathering where homosexuals are demonstrating in the streets of Belgrade and want to show something, which is a disease, like it is normal.” An Australian columnist convicted of violating the Racial Discrimination Act by suggesting that “there are fair-skinned people in Australia with essentially European ancestry … who, motivated by career opportunities available to Aboriginal people or by political activism, have chosen to falsely identify as Aboriginal.”

My favorite case involves a Frenchman who sought free-speech protection under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights:

Denis Leroy is a cartoonistOne of his drawings representing the attack on the World Trade Centre was published in a Basque weekly newspaper … with a caption which read: “We have all dreamt of it … Hamas did it”. Having been sentenced to payment of a fine for “condoning terrorism”, Mr Leroy argued that his freedom of expression had been infringed.

The Court considered that, through his work, the applicant had glorified the violent destruction of American imperialism, expressed moral support for the perpetrators of the attacks of 11 September, commented approvingly on the violence perpetrated against thousands of civilians and diminished the dignity of the victims. Despite the newspaper’s limited circulation, the Court observed that the drawing’s publication had provoked a certain public reaction, capable of stirring up violence and of having a demonstrable impact on public order in the Basque Country. The Court held that there had been no violation of Article 10.

How can you justify prosecuting cases like these while defending cartoonists and video makers who ridicule Mohammed? You can’t. Either you censor both, or you censor neither. Given the choice, I’ll stand with Obama. “Efforts to restrict speech,” he warned the U. N., “can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.”

That principle, borne out by the wretched record of hate-speech prosecutions, is worth defending. But first, we have to live up to it.

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

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  • @Perry Oxide,

    No, that’s not what I said. I said the man in the video is comparing denying the Holocaust to criticism of religous figures or religion in general. It’s a false comparison, because Holocaust denial could only be seen as ‘coddling’ Jews, if denying other Holocausts was permissable. There is a law against Genocide denial. Holocaust denial isn’t the same as insulting Judaism or Moses. Moses is freely insulted in the West, as is Judaism. Ditto Christianity and other religions. Or to put it another way, the Holocaust denial law doesn’t mean it extends to banning criticism or insulting Judaism or Moses, or Christianity and Jesus, or other religons. The dominant religion in the West is Christianity, that’s why I used Christianity as the measuring stick.

    His comparison would only be a valid one if insulting other religions was not allowed. Doesn’t France, and the USA and the West in general permit insulting Christianity? Judaism?

    I said nothing about ‘incitment to violence’ I was talking of criticism of religion. If criticisng religious figures is ‘incitement to violence’ then criticising any other religion would be ‘incitement to violence’.

    To my knowledge ‘incitement to violence’ is already illegal in the West? It certainly is in the countries mentioned above, by the man in the video, France, USA.

  • Perry Oxide

    @Jewish Israel: So, you’re saying members of an oppressed group targeted by hate speech have only themselves to blame if the larger society hypocritically permits it? By that reasoning, Kristalnacht was the result of Jews’ failure to “work hard” to get the German government to outlaw such anti-Jewish incitements to violence.

    After all, the Germans had, by that time, already overcome quite a few obstacles to pass legislation helping to lift Germans from second-class status and even to restore dignity to ethnic Germans in places like Sudetenland. Clearly, such laws were within the “legal framework” available to Jews at the time, so was it just laziness or what?

  • @Critical Dragon

    I had to comment on the video. The man in the video makes a flawed conclusion based on flawed comparison. He compares bigotry against religion as being the same as denying a genocide. He should compare Holocaust denial, to the denial of another Holocaust not to bigotry against religion in this case Islam.

    Not just Holocaust but Genocide denial is a crime in some European countries. See here for instance:

    Another flaw in his argument is the assumption that the West ‘coddles’ speech against Jewish Holocaust denial but freely allows screeds against Muslims. The truth is Jews had to work hard to get Holocaust denial made illegal. Besides, the same countries where it is illegal to deny the Holocaust, it is illegal to deny other genocides too.

    His comparison would be spot on if for example he had said that a country where it is illegal to deny the Holocaust accepts say, Bosnian Holocaust denial. That would be a fair and true comparison, not the one he made in the video. That is not to demean or belittle his concerns, just that for his accusation to be true, he would need to show that a country permits insulting Islam but not Christianity. He talked about the protests in France against depictions of religous figures being banned and then questioned why they criminalise Holocaust denial. It’s comparing apples to oranges.
    If he is speaking about religious bigotry he should compare it to another religious bigotry that is allowed, that would be a fair comparison not make a comparison with Holocaust or Genocide denial.

    Muslims can work hard too, and get any law they want recognised if it is within the legal framework. He should be questioning why Muslims havn’t done that, instead of accusing the West of coddling Jews when the reality is that Jews worked hard and faced many obstacles in getting this law recognised.

  • @Ilisha

    If you or anyone else here is interested, here’s a recent video on this very subject by SamiZaatari

    Free Speech and Muslim Protests

  • AbbeyRoad

    The only way not to insult the prophet is by hiding the truth, it means just holding on to a delusion, in the end it does not really help anybody. The facts testify against him anyway.

  • Sarah Brown

    One or two quibbles aside – I agree with the article. i think it’s worth – and this relates to Tinka’s point – distinguishing between different publishing contexts. The tabloids in the UK never say anything which I would dream of wanting to censor on, say, a blog – nowhere near – yet I think their standing/reach makes their tendentious coverage of stories relating to Muslims/Islam a valid concern. I’m not sure how to deal with this exactly and other sections of the media err in other directions, eg bias against Israel.

  • Hard Core Atheist

    “criminalize psychological and spiritual harm” caused by expressions that “insult the beliefs, culture and civilization of others”

    As a serious question, aren’t there many examples of this in the Middle East against non-Islamic faiths? How would a law like this ever get put into practice when countires completely deny freedom of religion?

  • Gellerban

    There is something awful wrong with any ideology that needs criticism to be silenced! Limiting free speech shows you don’t have counter-arguments. Which any ideology validity void.

    This video makes it perfect clear:

    [Links to hate sites and videos they produce are not allowed]

  • HGG

    “If we’re going to preach freedom of expression around the world, we have to practice it. We have to scrap our hate-speech laws.”

    Yes, by all means. As repugnant as I find Holocaust denial, there shouldn’t be any laws against it any more than personal decency.

    I find it extremely sad that the response to the international incident is a move towards curtailing freedom of speech.

  • @mindy1 Yep, I got it.
    (With regard to the earlier hyperlink, to me it illustrates incontinent freedom of speech leading to harmful social consequences i.e. human (child) abuse.)

    I think that Freedom of Speech is just a tool, like a knife it can be used for good or bad purposes.

    Absolute freedom to use a tool can be harmful e.g. stabbing someone, while relative (regulated/controlled/limited) freedom can be a healthy Golden Mean e.g. a surgeon performing an operation.

    Personally, I feel the US political scene appears to be politicizing & polarizing everything based on zero-sum ideological games, with toxic extremes of violent political rhetoric. Too much freedom without any moderation is feral, like sugar sweet in balance, but bitter if unrestrained.

  • Reynardine

    Tinka, I don’t know where you’re writing from, but a great deal of what you’re referring to is not pure speech. Mindy was right that the treatment meted out to that girl was criminal child abuse, and several tortious acts besides. The U.S. Code makes discriminatory conduct both a civil and a criminal offense, and both procuring it and conspiring in it are included. But under ordinary circumstances, mere expressions of opinion, including criticism of however ignorant or unfair a nature, about groups, nations, or public figures cannot be publicly or privately suppressed. A mere look at the spoiled squalls and SLAPP suits coming from “Christians”, Geller fellers, commercial enterprises, and Rush Limbaugh should enlighten you as to the reason.

  • mindy1

    @Tinka, I would call that child abuse, not free speech, because the father is trying to shame and hurt his child. I meant political speech, opinions, anything along those lines. i just want the ability to msay what I want about current affairs, and not have to worry that I will be punished for it.

  • @mindy1
    Re: “Unless it is said with the intent to start a riot, or to cause imminent physical harm, I do not think speech should be curtailed.”

    Then am I right in thinking that you must think this must be protected & approved of?

    How about slow systematic demonization of a community as opposed to a rapid one?

    With regards to allowing incontinent speech, how about allowing teachers to swear at infants & repealing the state & company secrets acts in all countries. Hey, why pick & choose just speech, why not free expresion with regards to incontinent acts too. Say & do what you like? Surely absolute Freedom is the totem that must be worshipped?

  • mindy1

    Unless it is said with the intent to start a riot, or to cause imminent physical harm, I do not think speech should be curtailed

  • Reynardine

    We need to be consistent, and at the same time there is a line. That line is incitement to criminal violence, not as a distant hypothetical, but as a clear and present danger. Similarly, where group libel has been egregious and as a result, members of the group suffer criminal violence, the injured parties should have a civil cause of action. Note that I am speaking of “immutable groups”, such as ancestry, race, religious affiliation or lack thereof, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or *past* membership in any group, as the past is immutable.

  • @Ilisha

    I don’t think its right for either Muslim societies or western societies to curtail free speech in an attempt to stop people from being offended. I oppose all hate speech laws, but even the united States could do a much better job protecting the free speech rights of everyone. A lot more needs to be done to protest the hate speech laws that unfortunately exist throughout Europe.

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