“Freedom of expression doesn’t mean the right to offend”; Dutch government bracing self for violent Muslim protest to anti-Muslim film

False. Freedom of expression does entail freedom to offend. In fact, in many ways freedom of expression is the right to offend. No one ever fought for the right to say nonoffensive things. No one ever censored nonoffensive statements.

The ludicrous suggestion that freedom of expression does not apply to offensive statements—it sounds even more ridiculous in this phrasing, doesn’t it?—was made by Dutch Foreign Minister, Maxime Verhagen, as she spoke of concerns of violence from offended Muslims over a soon-to-be-released “provocative anti-Muslim film by a radical right-wing politician who has threatened to broadcast images of the Koran being torn up and otherwise desecrated.”

Jason Burke of The Guardian reports

The Dutch government is bracing itself for violent protests following the scheduled broadcast this week of a provocative anti-Muslim film by a radical right-wing politician who has threatened to broadcast images of the Koran being torn up and otherwise desecrated.

Cabinet ministers and officials, fearing a repetition of the crisis sparked by the publication of cartoons of Muhammed in a Danish newspaper two years ago, have held a series of crisis meetings and ordered counter-terrorist services to draw up security plans….

Geert Wilders, one of the nine members of the extremist VVD (Freedom) part in the 150-seat Dutch lower house, has promised that his film will be broadcat—on television or on the internet—whatever the pressure may be. It will, he claims, reveal the Koran as ‘source of inspiration for intolerance, murder and terror’.

Government officials hope that no mainstream media organisation will agree to show the film…’A broadcast on a public channel could imply that the government supported the project,’ said an Interior Ministry spokesman.

During a visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week, Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria, said that, were Wilders was seen to tear up or burn a Koran in his film, ‘this will simply mean he is inciting wars and bloodshed… It is the responsibility of the Dutch people to stop him.’

Quick question: At what point will Westerners stop rewarding these theocratic dogmatic terrorists? At what point do we say “No, you are not going to tell us what ideas we can and cannot criticize. You are not the arbiters of what is and what is not okay to say.”

I understand that there is a complex historical-political background to these frustrations on the part of Muslims. I’m aware that Muslim history has included bad run-ins with secularism that give good reason for Muslims to be skeptical of secularism and to have an Us-Them mentality. Nader Hashemi argues that “in contrast to the West where secularism is broadly associated with progress, pluralism and democracy, the Muslim experience with secularism (with a few exceptions) has been the exact opposite”.

I am also familiar with research by people like Scott Atran on the role of the sacred in cultural conflicts. Clearly, the Islamic world views Islam and the Koran as sacred. It is known that offenses to the sacred can inspire strong reactions.

Given the Islamic world’s less-than-favourable brushes with secular nations, and given that they tend to identify themselves as individuals and as a community with Islam, there are very serious issues that need to be dealt with expediently and thoroughly. All sides will have to be willing to listen, be honest, respect the humanity of the other side, and be willing to make sacrifices. This is the intergroup side of what is required. There is also an intragroup and individualistic side of the issue: people and societies need to stop identifying themselves with rigid beliefs.

As I have written elsewhere, it is dangerous for individuals and groups to commit themselves to particular beliefs. Such commitment constitutes the attachment of great emotional weight to external and potentially vulnerable entities. The insecurity of such entities inspires insecurity in individuals and groups, and this can lead to drastic measures as people desperately struggle to keep their personal and societal infrastructures of identity, meaning and morality in place.

A hallmark of wisdom and wellbeing is one’s ability to be autonomous; to have an internal locus of control, strength, and meaning. When individuals and groups tie their sense of identity, meaning and morality to rigid belief structures, vulnerability, insecurity and dogmatism are always at arms length. This is a threat to all of us, as individuals, groups, and increasingly as a global society. This is a message that needs to be communicated widely and repeatedly. As people, we need to realize that we are not our beliefs. We are also not our possessions, our nations, our subculture, or our professions. We are ourselves and we are all living beings just trying to live a secure and meaningful life. Our implicit and explicit clinging to our beliefs, social rank and so forth are sources of anxiety, mindlessness, life-wasting distraction, and social turmoil.

While the problem with free speech regarding Islam rests on a complex contemporary and historical socio-political landscape, I still personally do not endorse rewarding threats and violence. This is rewarding the bully and blaming and punishing the victim. By censoring speech against Islam, we only endorse the view that Islam is beyond criticism, and that it is a respectable thing to commit oneself to one’s beliefs and be willing to respond violently to criticisms to the belief. When we stop talking, we stop growing. When we delude ourselves into thinking that particular beliefs are special, are beyond criticism, and that it is a good thing to identify with one’s beliefs, we are shooting ourselves and our progeny in the foot.

Given that noted ex-Muslim critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is on self-imposed exile in the US due to a fatwah, has been reported by the Guardian as having criticized the soon-to-be-released anti-Muslim film as provocative, there is reason for pause. If Hirsi Ali—who has written extensively against practices in the Islamic world and has even co-produced a short film, Submission, which got co-producer Theo Van Gogh killed—is criticizing the film as provocative, it probably is. However, this only speaks to the importance of detachment from personal beliefs. A criticism of a belief, book, tradition or religion is only provocative to the degree that individuals and communities internalize and take personally the criticized set of ideas and practices.

It will not be cheap to stand up for free speech. It will cost money to protect against violent responses. There likely will be damages incurred—physical and psychological. Lives will probably be lost. On the other hand, it has been said that the cost of liberty is eternal vigilance. Many, including Theo Van Gogh, have declared that they would rather die than live without their freedom. While the costs to standing up for our freedoms will be substantial, the cost of the alternative is our freedom. The more that Westerners acquiesce to the demands of those who want to restrict us, the stronger and more encompassing these restrictions could become.

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Update: This post was recognized as the #1 atheist blog post for January 20, 2008 by SocialRank.com‘s atheist blog-reviewer, ChallengeReligion.

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10 Responses to ““Freedom of expression doesn’t mean the right to offend”; Dutch government bracing self for violent Muslim protest to anti-Muslim film”
  1. Cody says:

    A person does not have the right to never be offended. If something offends you, you simply ignore it. It’s really simple. I do it all the time. I don’t understand why people insist on making a big deal out of something that shouldn’t be.

  2. planetfitnesssucks says:

    Because, Cody, those Muslims are INSANE!

  3. Stoobs says:

    That something offends a person is not a flaw of the thing, but of the person. Legislation aimed at keeping people from being offended is doomed to fail, because there are no limits on what people may choose to be offended by. The only way to deal with such people is to desensitise them, by repeated application of massively and gratuitously offensive material.

  4. biggooch says:

    What is the problem of expressing there rite to free speech. If the muslim world does not like this production then just ignore it. If you people keep on getting upset because people show what they see, then you should have a debate on the matter. But what I see and here is that the muslim world cannot except the truth, maybe. Don’t go around and try to take out someone. The rest of the world will most likely not take your side or veiw. And we all know what will happen in the long run. The muslin race will be locked out of the rest of the world,in a nice way of saying

  5. Thinkomatic says:

    Freedom of expression IS the freedom to offend.

    Justice Robert H. Jackson, chief justice at the Nuremburg Trials, said: “The price of freedom of religion, or of speech, or of the press, is that we must put up with a good deal of rubbish.” –

    Moslems believe they have a unique human right: the right to be free from hearing criticism.

    Anyone who violates the freedom from criticism Allah gave Moslems, should be killed.

    Fitna is one of the most important concepts in Islam, but it is a totally alien concept to Western philosophy. The concept of fitna totally abnegates our notions of free expression or logical discourse. The concept of fitna subjugates all thought to the method of Mohammed.

    ‘Fitna’ is any disagreement with Mohammed. More precisely, ‘Fitna’ is any islamicly-incorrect thought which is communicated to others in the public domain.

    Mohammed discovered a brilliant way to criminalize differences of opinion with himself. He called his invention ‘fitna’ and made it the worst crime in his new religion. Any utterance that ‘tests’ Mohammed’s method is a chargeable offence and a capital crime if it persists. The religious charge of blasphemy veils the serious political charge of treason against Mohammed.

    Mohammed is Allah’s vice-regent on earth. Not only does Mohammed define the truth, but he has a right to punish those who disagree. Moreover, Mohammed is both the constitution and the Islamic state. By disagreeing with Mohammed, you are calling him ‘wrong’, ‘in error’ or worse yet ‘a liar’. That is slander and character assassination, but it is also the crime of treason against the Islamic Nation.

    The Koran tells us that words disputing Mohammed/Allah are more criminal than the deed of murder. This does not make sense.

    Obviously, something else is going on under the blanket of religion. That something is a political doctrine called ‘supremacism’.

    Assassination is the normative punishment for the crime of fitna. Killing a critic of Islam is a “good deed”, since it restores the honor of Allah/Mohammed and removes the threat of fitna from the community. Any Muslim is free to carry out the death sentence in the matter of fitna. In Sharia-dominated countries, no punishment will be given and the killer will be a hero. As well, the assassin is guaranteed entry to the highest rank in paradise.

    Jihad is holy violence. Violence is the way Allah removes fitna, removes the dross from pure Islam and removes the infidel scum from the earth which is owned by Mohammed.

    The infidels are to be brought under the control of the Islamic state in thought, word and deed and they are given no choice in submitting to it or not. Allah commanded violence so the infidels will be forced to receive the divine benefit of Islam…‘even if the infidels are averse to it!’ (Koran 9:33)”

    Islamic governments know fitna control is needed before discriminatory Sharia law can be fully implemented and jihad can go ahead. They seek to shut down the freedom of UN diplomats to discuss any human rights aspect of Islam. They cast a veil over Islamic discrimination against women and minorities in view of the radical claim that Muslims have a superior, unique human right that infidels do not possess.

    The Islamic right to censor ‘fitna’ trumps gender equality, freedom of expression, freedom to change one’s religion and other freedoms. In law, this specious argument is called ‘special pleading’. It is pure dualism and supremacism. In essence, this makes Shariah law superior to the UDHR and enshrines Islamic discrimination in the name of human rights.

  6. Mikey says:

    Haven’t seen too many Christians blowing up themselves lately.

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