How should a liberal democracy react to violent outrage over private citizens’ purported denigration of Islam? That question has preoccupied Western governments since Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for the killing of Salman Rushdie, the British author of The Satanic Verses, in 1989. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s publication of cartoons depicting Mohammed in 2005 reignited the issue, and the recent anti-American riots in Muslim-majority countries are but the latest example of this recurring phenomenon.
In general, the responses from Western governments have combined condemnations of violence with expressions of sympathy for Muslims and understanding of their sensitivity. In many cases, governments have distanced themselves from, or outright condemned, those who have crossed the invisible lines that spark protests by people who often have not read or seen the putatively offensive material. And while Western governments always condemn violence as indefensible, they nonetheless frequently blame those who have offended alongside the perpetrators of violence. When Western governments invoke freedom of expression, it is sometimes mentioned hesitantly, almost as a peculiar and regrettable feature of liberal democracy that ties the hands of otherwise sympathetic officials.
The Obama administration explicitly blamed the crude amateur film The Innocence of Muslims for sparking the riots and embassy attacks. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the film as “disgusting and reprehensible” and decried the denigration of religion. U.N. ambassador Susan Rice explicitly linked The Satanic Verses, the Mohammed cartoons, and The Innocence of Muslims, claiming that they had “sparked outrage and anger, and this has been the proximate cause of what we’ve seen last week.” The White House admitted to pressuring Google (which owns YouTube) to remove the film from the Internet.
Let’s look back to 1989 and the Rushdie affair. While Britain’s Conservative government expelled all Iranian diplomats following the fatwa against Rushdie and protected his physical safety, it felt no need to defend his right to free speech, as detailed by British author Kenan Malik in his 2009 book From Fatwa to Jihad. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stated that “we have known in our own religion people doing things which are deeply offensive to some of us. . . . We feel it very much. And that is what has happened to Islam.” As pressure mounted on the British government, Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe expressed “deep sympathy with the Muslims over the publication of the book” and “promised to explore the possibility of taking necessary steps under British law to resolve the problem created by the publication of the book.”
Much criticism has been leveled at the apologetic tone of the press release condemning “abuse of freedom of expression” that the U.S. embassy in Cairo issued shortly before a Salafist mob attacked it. But that statement is not much different from a press release that the U.S. embassy in Islamabad issued during the Rushdie affair. The embassy assured Pakistanis “that the U.S. government in no way associates itself with any activity that is in any sense offensive or insulting to Islam or any other religion.” No defense of First Amendment freedoms was forthcoming from President George H. W. Bush or Secretary of State James Baker.
When the “cartoon crisis” exploded in 2005, the Department of State said, “We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression, but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable.” This was an extraordinary statement, because incitement to religious or ethnic hatred is prohibited under international human-rights conventions and punishable in most European countries. Accordingly, the U.S. position could be interpreted as supporting the demands of Muslim governments that the editors of Jyllands-Posten be subject to criminal sanctions based on speech that in the U.S. would clearly be protected by the First Amendment, and that (as the Danish public prosecutor later determined) did not even meet the threshold required for charging the newspaper under Denmark’s hate-speech laws.
On February 3, 2006, a State Department spokesman modified the government’s position, stating that “while we certainly don’t agree with, support, or in some cases, we condemn the views that are aired in public that are published in media organizations around the world, we, at the same time, defend the right of those individuals to express their views,” and that “freedom of expression is at the core of our democracy and it is something that we have shed blood and treasure around the world to defend and we will continue to do so.” President George W. Bush tried to bridge the gap between these two widely differing official responses by saying, “We believe in a free press. . . . We also recognize that with freedom comes responsibilities.”
Consistent with its apologetic line in the Rushdie affair, the U.K. condemned the Danish cartoons. In the words of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, “There is freedom of speech, we all respect that. . . . But there is not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory. I believe that the re-publication of these cartoons has been unnecessary. It has been insensitive. It has been disrespectful and it has been wrong.” While the Danish government stood firm on freedom of expression at home, it gradually softened its stance abroad as the foreign reactions intensified. In January 2006, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen commented on the apology issued by Jyllands-Posten. While he highlighted the central value of freedom of expression, he went on to say: “I am deeply distressed by the fact that these drawings by many Muslims have been seen as a defamation of the Prophet Mohammed and Islam as a religion. I hope that the apology of the independent newspaper Jyllands-Posten will contribute to comfort those that have been hurt.”
The timid and defensive response of leading Western governments contrasts with that of Muslim governments and religious leaders. In addition to Iran’s recently renewed call for Rushdie’s murder, several Muslim governments have demanded the prosecution of the editor responsible for publishing the Mohammed cartoons and the director of The Innocence of Muslims, as well as apologies from Denmark and the U.S. In 1999, member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation initiated a decade-long campaign at the U.N. to prohibit defamation of religion, a campaign that centered on alleged offenses against Islam and ignored those against other religions. It is clear that a large part of the protests in Muslim countries should be attributed to agitation by governments and religious organizations that have exploited religious feelings for their own purposes.
It is also indisputable that a sizeable number of people in Muslim countries feel strongly about the need to protect Islam from being denigrated. But this fact should not affect the way Western governments react to demands that they criminalize or apologize for their citizens’ purportedly anti-Islamic expressions. Blaming violence on those who offend religious feelings, and shying away from defending freedom of expression, only lends credibility to the grievances of those who riot. Not only is such a strategy irreconcilable with freedom of expression — The Satanic Verses, the Mohammed cartoons, and The Innocence of Muslims violate no laws in the countries where they were produced — it is also manifestly ineffective in both calming violence and achieving long-term understanding between Muslim societies and liberal democracies. The press release from the U.S. embassy in Cairo did nothing to stop the frenzied mob, and less than 24 hours after Secretary Clinton had issued her condemnation of the film, violence spread to dozens of other countries, where some protesters burned effigies of President Obama and American flags and violently attacked U.S. facilities.
What these equivocating statements have done is to leave an impression among citizens of Muslim societies that American politicians are weak and ineffective — willing but unable to stop inflammatory expressions — instead of helping them understand that that is not the business of the state. Governments and civil society in Muslim countries should receive a clear message that freedom of expression is a cornerstone of liberal democracy, more important than protecting the religious feelings of believers — and, crucially, they should be told why that is so. This should not be a difficult job. Contrary to the common claim that with so many diverse societies in the world freedom of expression must be restricted to accommodate everyone, free speech is a necessary precondition for peaceful coexistence.
One need only compare the countries where the violence broke out with the countries where the offensive material was produced. Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Sudan all impose severe restrictions on freedom of expression, whereas Great Britain, Denmark, and the U.S. do not. It was in the former countries that protests turned violent, whereas Muslims in the latter countries — with some distressing exceptions — showed their disdain through peaceful demonstrations. Freedom of expression and religion allows Muslims in the West to express such grievances, and indeed to practice their faith in peace, whereas the denial of these rights has seen religious minorities subjected to both official repression and vilification in the very countries where protests are most violent. In societies where citizens are used to being exposed to different ways of thinking, ideas that are hostile to other citizens’ religion, politics, or philosophical outlook generate debate and expanded awareness rather than violence. The mayhem in Libya, Egypt, and other societies provided an opportunity for the West to broaden understanding, but it was squandered by pandering that reinforced misunderstanding.
Western states should therefore state unequivocally that they feel as strongly about protecting and preserving the right to freely express one’s opinions as Muslim governments feel about protecting Islam. After all, if you find someone’s conduct objectionable, you are likely to criticize it even if the perceived wrongdoer offers a justification of his actions. Insisting on the importance of freedom of expression may enlighten Muslim governments about the workings of liberal democracy and civil society, and if we can strengthen freedom of expression and access to information in countries such as Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, it may reduce violence by giving vent to anger and frustration.
As was true during the cartoon crisis, the current protests against The Innocence of Muslims are in no small part fueled by inaccurate rumors and deliberate falsehoods, such as the apparently widespread beliefs that the U.S. government sanctioned the movie and that Jewish donors funded it. Strengthening freedom of expression and access to information would limit the ability of nefarious religious leaders and governments to incite violence with such propaganda. A new approach based on a principled defense of free speech may not pay off in the short term. But if Western states are serious about protecting free speech, it is the only sustainable long-term strategy in a world where 60 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute and anybody can spread his or her viewpoints globally with the touch of a smartphone.
— Jacob Mchangama is managing director of the Freedom Rights Project, director of legal affairs at the Danish think tank CEPOS, and external lecturer in international human-rights law at the University of Copenhagen.