Free Speech: A New Trigger for Global Crisis

A different version of this essay was published in the Huffington Post, September 19, 2012.

The hate-mongering film produced by an extremist anti-Muslim individual in the U.S. (who is also a convicted criminal) has triggered anti-U.S. violence around the world by hate-filled Muslim extremists. Among the tragic victims so far are four dead U.S. diplomats, including the Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stone, and the fracturing of hoped-for good will between the West and countries of the Arab Spring. The fact that most governments and citizens in the West supported the cause of democracy and human rights in the countries of the Arab Spring shows that there is a growing clash of extremists rather than a clash of civilizations.

The film in question, whose purpose was to incite hate, was fraudulent even to the American actors involved, who were not aware of its purpose, nor that words were dubbed to make deeply insulting statements about the Prophet, the most sacred figure in the Islamic faith. However, such vile expression designed to stir up hate is protected under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. There are some exceptions to that protection, but they are very limited. In contrast to Canada (where the wilful promotion of hatred against identifiable groups is subject to criminal prosecution), in the U.S. the most heinous expressions are protected—such as those used by neo-Nazi groups against racial and religious minorities, and the waving of hate-filled signs at military funerals. Even the burning of a sacred religious text by a Florida pastor was deemed to be protected under the U.S. Constitution.

“In this gap of understanding and knowledge lies the potential for recurrent global crises pitting the violence of extremists against the representatives and institutions of the U.S. and other Western nations.”

In Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects publications that stir contempt or ridicule for certain religions and minorities in a manner that falls outside the parameters of the criminal code or human rights legislation. Such publications can still stir up violence against Canadian individuals and governments in other parts of the world.

However, in much of the Islamic world there is no such legal or constitutional protection of hate propaganda. Indeed, the reverse is true: blasphemy laws are used in places such as Pakistan to shut down real or perceived slights against the religion. Extremists in some of the Muslim world (who are not the majority) care little for the fact that the majority in the U.S. and other Western countries detest the use of such hate-mongering by their own extremists. And sadly, even the majority in some countries are unaware that the U.S. government is constitutionally restrained from stopping such attempts to stir up hate; hence they do not grasp that a pathetic and vile film does not represent the government, let alone the views of the American people.

In this gap of understanding and knowledge lies the potential for recurrent global crises pitting the violence of extremists against the representatives and institutions of the U.S. and other Western nations. There is an urgent need for leaders in all of these countries to demonstrate to their own moderate majorities that the extremists in their midst should not be allowed to speak for them. There is also an urgent need to isolate, disrupt and prevent these extremists from creating the unrest that now threatens the stability of so many countries, and indeed the world.

The U.S. Embassy in Cairo, besieged by the violence of the extremists, summed up the call to action that must now be taken up by leaders from the West and the Islamic world alike:  “We firmly reject those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.” The extremists on the other side who use such abuse to instigate hatred against an entire country and peoples should also face the condemnation of their fellow citizens.

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