How would you react if you came to learn Western Muslim leaders had stated, “We don’t support the views of the Ku Klux Klan, but we defend their right to walk down the streets of Baltimore and yell the “N” word at will – that’s their right”?  What would you say if they issued a press release stating, “We don’t support the views of Neo-Nazis, but we will defend their right to promote a pro-white anti-immigrant agenda”?

Myself, I’d be perplexed.  Those mentioned are clearly bigots, and the least of their crimes is hate speech.  Why would Muslims stand by bigots and defend their right to spread bigotry and hatred? The good news is that no Muslim organization or leader (to my knowledge) has done such for the aforementioned organizations.

Muslims Don’t Just Condemn Everything — They Defend Your Right to Everything!

The bad news is that the recent shooting at the Draw Muhammad Day event, thrown by anti-Muslim bigot Pam Geller (of the known hate group Stop Islamization of America) and the American Freedom Defense Initiative, has demonstrated an acute confusion between being forced tolerate a law vs providing a defense of it when it is exercised in an immoral and atrocious manner.

Rather than simply leaving it at “She and her group can do what they want under the law”, we have individuals stating, “I defend her right to free speech”.  Let’s be more explicit so the implication of what we’re saying is clear and practical rather than abstract and theoretical – “I defend the right of the bigot Pam Geller’s right to mock, to denigrate, to make fun of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and whatever way she wishes that is supported by the law.”

So the law gives bullies a right to bully others – why are we defending the right of the bully to bully?

Some Disclaimers Before We Dig Deeper

Conversations around such issues tend towards the counterproductive because they tend towards accusing leaders and activists of character weaknesses which are used to construct ad hominem arguments.  Having seen years of discussions tend towards the negative, let me offer the following disclaimers:

  • Disclaimer 1: I do not consider the people who are advocating these positions as sellouts.  They are not suck-ups, weak, or anything of the sort.  They are the people that are out there and speaking on our behalf when surreal event after surreal event piles on us, and I for one am thankful for what they do.  I am most certainly not with those who casually throw out the munafiq label.  My comments are directed at ideas, principles, and actions and meant to be constructive.  The examples used are simply demonstrative of points I’m making, not what I think our fellow activists actually believe or would support.
  • Disclaimer 2: I believe that the individuals who have stated such are doing the best they can to shield the greater community from further negative scrutiny, loss of rights, and far more.  Again, we owe a debt of gratitude to those activists and leaders who are daily on the forefront fighting to protect the rights and livelihoods of Muslims in the West.  I believe even in this case, they are acting with the best of intentions with these imperatives in mind.  If anyone has to deal with harassment, threats, and vitriol from such people personally, it’s those on the proverbial front line defending us.
  • Disclaimer 3: It must be repeated that these activists do not support the bigoted comments of people like Pam Geller – they find those comments as abhorrent and detestable as the rest of us.  What they are defending is not the statements, but the right under the law to make such statements, so please make sure that distinction is understood.

Having said that, let’s examine why it is problematic to defend a person’s right to hate speech.

Misunderstanding the Virtue of Tolerating vs Defending a Right

It is considered a patient virtue and a sign of intellectual consistency when a person can say, “I disagree with you, but I’ll defend your right to say and hold the views that you have, as horrible as I think they are.”  Thus, the left-leaning ACLU has no problem, in principle, defending Rush Limbaugh’s right to free speech, though much of it has been damaging war propaganda during the Bush years that has contributed to millions dead abroad in Iraq and Palestine, not to mention the race- and gender-baiting.

At a higher level, the idea is this – if we don’t agree with things people say or do, as long as what they do is within the law, we should be willing to defend their right to do whatever is within the law.  Is that really a virtue?

Let’s put that to the test – until last month Denmark, among other EU nations, held laws allowing for the existence of bestiality brothels, stating such activity was legal unless the activity caused physical harm to the animal.

During the time this was “the law”, would anyone have said, “I completely disagree with this act, it is abhorrent, but I respect and will even defend the right of people who take part in this”?  I would imagine not – what you would have said was, “That’s disgusting, and the laws need to be amended so that such disgusting, perverted behavior is permanently illegal and violators are severely punished.”

Some of you may even take a different tack and try saying, “These discussions are apples and oranges anyway, you can’t compare bestiality with hate speech.”  The example is used to demonstrate a larger point – when the law allows people to engage in acts we find abhorrent (sex with animals, mocking the Prophet (PBUH), using the N word, etc), we shouldn’t defend the right of the individual to continue in their disgusting action – we should be willing to say the action itself is immoral, it is wrong, and the law is wrong and needs changing.

What we can say is that while the law is in place, we will abide by it, and allow others the ability to practice is it, but we should never say we will stand to defend their right to practice whatever disgusting thing the law allows.  We can tolerate their practice of the law, but not condone it – we should oppose it and put ourselves forward as proponents for changing or refining the law to something better than what it is.

There is No Virtue in Discriminatory Hate Speech

The right to discriminatory hate speech should not be defended, but condemned.  I repeat, the rightto do so needs condemnation, not just the actual speech itself.  The right of groups to promote ethnic, gender, religious, and other types of bigotry should be curtailed and not seen as a virtue as even some of our supporters in academic circles, such as Dr. Brian Levin, see it.

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When this is said, free speech advocates as well as bigots are quick to point out that you can’t ban speech simply because you’re offended, and I largely agree with this.  However, discriminatory hate speech is a subset of all types of offensive speech.  For Venn diagram aficionados, it’s the smaller circle contained in a bigger circle.  It is some, but not all types of offensive speech.

Discriminatory hate speech should be criminalized.  Dr. Levin states the following in his article:

What separates Geller from the terrorists who attacked her venue is not hate but violence. In the United States the Supreme Court has, over recent decades, fully protected the expression of viewpoints that are offensive, bigoted and even provocative as long as they do not constitute a genuine threat. Funeral protestors, homophobes, flag burners, anti-Semites, and Geller do not, and should not, need government approval to hawk their hateful wares in the marketplace of ideas, nor do we need to buy it. I am far more concerned about terrorists, as well as religious, government, and academic institutions, limiting my right to free speech than I am about the purveyors of hate exercising theirs.

What Dr. Levin and the Supreme Court fails to realize is that discriminatory hate speech is the dehumanization of people, particularly minorities, in an effort to marginalize them, take away their rights, and in many cases cause violence and death to them.  In the case of Geller et al, it is clear why they say Islam is not a religion belief  but a political system – the purpose is to take away the religious rights of Muslims.  It’s not simply constructive dialogue or a scholarly view with substantial research and backing.  Hate speech is a tool used to subjugate, harm, and traumatize people.  That it leads to either lone-actor or state-sanctioned violence is undeniable and the examples are many, from Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Japanese internment to bigots like Michelle Malkin making the case for profiling Muslims (acknowledging that it is a human rights violation, but hey, we did it justifiably [according to her] with the Japanese, let’s just do it again).

How can you not see the free use of discriminatory free speech as anything less than constituting “…a genuine threat”?  We’re grudgingly arriving at a tipping point where we finally understand socio-political grievances are the cause of terrorism and not Graeme Wood’s “ISIS is Islamic…very Islamic” take on the world.  Why are we not able then to make the connection between the hate speech that catalyzes the war drums?

So How Should We Respond?

I largely agree with what has already been said – that we don’t support vigilante action from the Muslim community – we don’t support individuals attempting to take the law into their hands and causing harm to others.  That since the law allows hate speech, people are allowed to peddle it.  At the same time, we should be at the vanguard of promoting better laws rather than accepting them because others tell us these values are virtuous.  There is no virtue in allowing hate speech, either from majorities towards minorities or vice versa.  On the contrary, they are the proverbial “Fire” in the theater, speech that has a high likelihood of causing the physical harm including the loss of life.

So am I saying we should advocate changing the law?  That’s very ambitious and a lifetime undertaking – I’m not saying we can or should.  What I am saying is that you should know, in principle, your own values with respect to the law and articulate your position against it as such.  In other words, we should be able to say, “I do not believe in the legality of hate speech.  I do not believe in the legality of calling African Americans the “N” word, I don’t believe in the legality of the religious bigotry of Pam Geller or Geert Wilders (here or abroad), I don’t believe in the legality of any type of stated bigotry, especially of minority groups who are harmed, intimidated, and marginalized because of it.”

After that, I would expect rote memorization of every nasty quote she and her supporters have made in speeches and online to be recited for full effect.  Any time an interview occurs, this person is a racist and a bigot, here’s what they say, I don’t support what they say or their abuse of free speech to push bigotry.

Final Thoughts

We need not resort to violence to defend the Prophet (PBUH), nor should we defend the right of others to attack him as a roundabout way to defend him or ourselves.  A better defense is a strong offense – turn the discussion back on the bigots and make them have to defend their bigotry and don’t be afraid to respectfully break with our allies, stating that their values, while well-intended, have far-reaching consequences that net-net are more harmful than beneficial.

Additionally, bigger picture, we as Muslims ought to consider what our own fundamental values are – is unrestricted free speech one of our principles?  Do we hold to the idea that the more offensive speech is, the more right it has to be protected?  These are not difficult questions to research and answer, but the answers may be difficult to digest if we attempt to make our value system appear as though it fits neatly and cleanly within another.

Simply ask yourself if Islam condones racism or racist speech.  The Prophet (PBUH) said in his final sermon:

“There is no preference of an Arab over a Non-Arab or a white over a black or a black over a white except by the (degree) of piety .”

To put it in modern terms, a person is not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  How about religious bigotry, does our faith condone insulting other faiths or their gods?  Allah says in the Qur’an:

And do not insult those they invoke other than Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge. Thus We have made pleasing to every community their deeds. Then to their Lord is their return, and He will inform them about what they used to do [6:108]

I can go on, but the point is that unrestrained free speech is simply not one of our principles.  We ourselves do not stand for and condone discriminatory, insulting hate speech in our faith, and we ought to provide our perspective and elevate the discourse rather than giving the impression that we are content with the right of dialogue to wallow in the sewers of bigotry and hatred.

Muslim Matters | Photo by Steve Rhodes