“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.