Sunday, September 16, 2012

Should Muslims Control Our Free Speech?

As Muslims around the world riot and attack U.S. and other Western embassies over an amateurish and murky YouTube video that insults Islam, serious discussion has erupted in the press dissecting the whys and wherefores of the explosion across the Islamic world.

A Forbes article, written by digital media observer Jeff Bercovici, attracted my attention because he seems to get the situation concerning social-media censorship exactly right:
[Google's] Censoring the video for a limited period of time and in a limited region no doubt looked like a common sense way to balance competing interests. It’s reminiscent of the compromise Twitter struck for dealing with legal takedown orders in foreign jurisdictions, which my colleague Kashmir Hill applauded as “doing censorship right.”
Even the staunchest of free-speech defenders recognize the difficulty of the dilemma Google faced. Kevin Bankston of the Center for Democracy and Technology told the Times he fears that Google inadvertently just told the world “that if you violently object to speech you disagree with, you can get it censored,” but still thinks the call it made is “kind of hard to second guess.” Eva Galperin of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, on the other hand, calls the decision “disappointing” and says, “I’m not sure they did the right thing.”
I’m pretty sure they didn’t. The problem is that for Google’s calculation to work, its actions need to be effective in dampening the violence. So far that hasn’t happened, and no wonder. More often than not, banning a piece of political speech is the surest way to amplify its power, especially when it’s speech that lacks much intrinsic power of its own.

The answer to the question in my title is a decided no, Muslims should not be ceded the right to control speech in the Western world even as they will succeed in fits and starts during these eruptions. The easily enraged, deeply ashamed and humiliated youth of the Arab world -- mostly unemployed and disenfranchised -- won't gain an understanding of the modern world overnight. Their psyches, already raw and defeated, will cause them to fly off the handle and attack the West, especially the U.S., at every perceived slight to their dignity. Why? Because they essential have none. The West, over the past decades of domination, have never granted the Muslim world the smallest shred of dignity. The memory of this humiliation will run deep for who knows how many decades to come.

George W. Bush didn't offer any respect to the Arab world with his "freedom agenda," corrupted as it was by death and domination, and Barack Obama's well-intentioned rapprochement, mixing as it did his Cairo speech with stealthy drone attacks, has so far had little positive effect.

And it's no wonder. The surgical removal of Osama bin Laden should have been a relief to the Pakistanis -- as deeply destabilizing as al-Qaeda's presence is, or was, in Pakistan -- but instead it was yet another horribly humiliating event. The U.S. doesn't care a whit about Pakistani sovereignty, and the bin Laden takeout demonstrated it.

Don't get me wrong. As a liberal progressive who's against the death penalty, I confess I'm ambivalent over bin Laden's death, even as I felt the same about Timothy McVeigh's execution. It's hard to get worked up over the human rights of people like them, putting the lie to the depth of my anti-death-penalty commitment. I'm (somewhat) ashamed of it, but there you are.

Free-speech zone at the DNC in 2004. What Bill of Rights?
Ambivalence toward our Western values is a strong current through these turbulent times. I should discuss it in greater detail in another post, but for now I'll say that it's easy to think, what the hell, Google should just remove the ridiculous video that has so unleashed the hatred and violence harbored in the hearts of Muslims throughout the world.

But no. We cannot afford to cede our free-speech rights to a culture that doesn't understand Western values even as it yearns to gain the freedoms the West offers. Some day, somehow, we in the West will find a way to win over the 1.3 billion souls who are held captive by religious values that doom them to living in the distant past. That day, regrettably, is in the distant future.

I should remind readers at this point that I find all religions to be based on superstition, and though some aspects of religious morality are worthy of adopting, I find religion, in the main, to be the cause of more death and destruction than enlightenment and liberation, let alone salvation. Please know that I hold Islam in no more contempt than I do any religion, whether it be Christianity, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism, for that matter. Yet people have a right to hold these beliefs, especially in modern nations where religion is not allowed to overwhelm secular matters.

Calat Alhambra in Spain: the caliphate at its zenith.
As promised, here's a bit about why the Arab world is so easily offended. I point you to an article in the Washington Post entitled, not surprisingly, "Why is the Arab world so easily offended?" It's written by Fouad Ajami of the Hoover Institution. It's a good read and makes its case quite convincingly. It explains how the dynamism of Islam broke out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century and conquered a vast region that stretched from Persia in the east to southern Spain in the west. It reached great heights and great achievements before falling over the next centuries into utter defeat and decline. Ajami explains:
Even as Arabs insist that their defects were inflicted on them by outsiders, they know their weaknesses. Younger Arabs today can be brittle and proud about their culture, yet deeply ashamed of what they see around them. They know that more than 300 million Arabs have fallen to economic stagnation and cultural decline. They know that the standing of Arab states along the measures that matter — political freedom, status of women, economic growth — is low. In the privacy of their own language, in daily chatter on the street, on blogs and in the media, and in works of art and fiction, they probe endlessly what befell them.
Sony building, Ginza, Tokyo. How the West was really won.
As much as I can understand their rage and even appreciate the legitimacy of their resentment of the West's role in their decline, I uphold the rights we've gained and the progress we've made, sometimes at the expense of the rest of the world. This rest-of-the-world has a right to abhor the price they've paid for the West's ascendency, but we should hope Arabs and the wider Muslim world might consider breaking out of its (somewhat self-inflicted) shackles in a peaceful way, much as the East -- India, China, Japan, and Korea -- has done. Japan, for example, discovered that it's easier to conquer the West with commerce than planes and tanks. Let's hope decades from now some historian will tell the tale of how the Arab world rose again, peaceably, to take its place in a healthy, sane, and modern world. The journey might be long, but it's one they need to take.

It would be a good, first step to stop calling us infidels. But, nonetheless, I do wish them well.

Note. Sorry for that irresistible snark there at the end, but, as the Japanese say, shou ga nai (it can't be helped).

Note II. I'm no Middle-East expert, and I've been to the region just once, in 1954 at the age of 5. We stopped at Somalia (actually at Djibouti, then in French Somaliland) and Alexandria, Egypt. But I clearly remember that all passengers were warned to stay below and away from the portholes as we made our way up the Suez Canal, just as we were warned earlier in the journey when we made our way upriver toward Saigon, Vietnam. We were in a French ocean liner, and both the British and the French were then despised for their roles in partitioning much of the Middle East. Thus my understanding of how the Arabs might feel towards us is buttressed by this early, indelibly imprinted impression.

Beyond that, my years living in Japan helped me understand that there are civilizations that are not like ours. The Japanese are not carbon copies of Western minds, but they're enough like us to essentially share our basic values, though there still are a very few fanatics that would threaten to blow you up for disrespecting the Emperor. Understanding that bit of Imperial cultism helps me understand how an Arab might feel toward his prophet.

By this I mean I get it. I find this kind of nonsense intolerable, however, in a modern world. Still, I get it, and I have a basis for getting it.


  1. Hi Calvin,

    Although I do generally agree with everything you noted, I do have to digress a bit from your point.

    In your post, you make a point to say that the Arab world wants to be like the west, but how do you know this? This remark seems to come from a very westernized, if not, nuanced rendering of how the Middle East works.

    1. Free speech must be preserved; however, you cannot yell "FIRE!" in a crowded movie theater. During these times, there must be middle ground for the sake of innocents being killed and maimed.

      Couple lack of education, poverty, hunger, and religious zealots -- I don't care what religion it is -- there is going to be a response with violence.

    2. Josh,

      I believe the line you're referring to is "We cannot afford to cede our free-speech rights to a culture that doesn't understand Western values even as it yearns to gain the freedoms the West offers."

      I've often heard Arabs in the street -- as well as their Western educated brethren -- talk about yearning to throw off the yoke of repression and become more democratic. The trouble is with democracy come challenges, like dealing with freedom of speech and religion. It's nearly impossible to reconcile the two -- think Iran -- but there's no question they seek to have the democratic freedoms we have.

      As a matter of fact, it's the support of dictatorial regimes that al-Qaeda condemned in the West. They've only imagined what they'd do if they had democracy in the place of dictatorship. I hope they figure this out in decades, not centuries.

      Thanks for your comment.

    3. Anonymous,

      I agree that religious zealotry leads to violence. That's why I don't like religion. I agree that Western freedom of speech leads to Muslims crying "Death to the infidel!" But we can't give in to them. We can, however, consistent with our values, avoid yelling "Fire!" in their faces.

      Thanks for your comment.