"No one has the right to a world in which he is never despised."

Why attacking free speech is an even greater blasphemy than a slur on the divine

Are you disgusted by the scenes of thousands of Muslims in more than 20 countries breaking into American embassies, shouting  "Death to America" in mass demonstrations, burning down schools and KFCs (of all things), and killing Americans over a stupid, cheesy 14-minute YouTube video called Innocence of the Muslims? I am. But why do you and I feel this way? In a word, blasphemy.

But hold on, isn’t that why the Islamist protesters say they are rioting? For example, Iranian Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezayee declared, "The Muslim world is outraged at the US for allowing the production of the blasphemous movie, which insults Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and depicts Islam as an oppressive religion." Mohamed Badie, the spiritual leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has called for the "criminalizing of assaults on the sanctities of all heavenly religions." He added, "Otherwise such acts will continue to cause devout Muslims across the world to suspect and even loathe the West, especially the U.S.A., for allowing their citizens to violate the sanctity of what they hold dear and holy."

So what is blasphemy?  Dictionary.com offers these two useful definitions: "Impious utterance or action concerning God or sacred things," and, "irreverent behavior toward anything held sacred, priceless, etc." Clearly, Innocence of the Muslims is blasphemous with regard to the first definition. I contend that the murders and riots by Islamist protesters are blasphemous in terms of a "sacred" value that modern Americans particularly cherish, freedom of speech and press.

As it happens, one of the landmark decisions on blasphemy laws by the U.S. Supreme Court was issued in 1952 in the case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson. In that case, the State of New York had banned the showing of the Italian neo-realist movie The Miracle on the grounds that it was "sacrilegious." For what it’s worth, sacrilege is defined as "the violation or profanation of anything sacred or held sacred." The Miracle depicted a man who wickedly impregnates a naive peasant girl who thinks she's the Virgin Mary by pretending to be Saint Joseph. In New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman denounced the film as "vile, harmful and blasphemous."

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision thoroughly vindicated the right of free speech, declaring, "From the standpoint of freedom of speech and the press, a state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them which is sufficient to justify prior restraints upon the expression of those views. It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures."

As far as I know, no Americans stormed the Italian embassy or firebombed an Italian restaurant to vent their anger at the showing of The Miracle.

Of course, not every American regards freedom of speech as sacred. Back in 1999, Dennis Heiner, a retired school teacher, defaced Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary at the Brooklyn Museum by smearing white paint over it. Ofili's work incorporated elephant dung and cutouts from pornographic magazines. Asked why he did it, Heiner replied, "It’s blasphemous." Cardinal John O’Connor denounced the painting as "an attack not only on our Blessed Mother, but, one must ask if it is not an attack on religion itself and in a special way on the Catholic Church."

An outraged Mayor Rudolph Giuliani cut off the museum's funding and sought to evict it from its city-owned building. A federal court ordered him to restore the funding and stop the eviction procedures on freedom of expression grounds. For what’s it worth, I saw that particular exhibition and thought Ofili’s painting was boring and ugly. Of course, if the government had not been in the business of spending taxpayer dollars on art exhibitions, much of the controversy could have been avoided. Heiner was fined $250 for his crime.

Which brings up the absolutely salient point that there is no U.S. government role in the creation of Innocence of the Muslims. In an editorial on September 12, the New York Times observed that "whoever made the film did true damage to the interests of the United States and its core principle of respecting all faiths." The makers of the video clearly aimed to incite Muslims, but they are under no moral or legal obligation to respect other people’s religious beliefs. Whatever damage to U.S. interests the film has caused among Muslims, the interests of U.S. citizens would suffer far graver harm if our government were permitted to engage in censorship.

As the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes plain, it is indeed a "core principle" that the U.S. government cannot favor one religious doctrine over any other and must respect everyone’s faith or lack thereof. President Thomas Jefferson expressed this view well in his 1802 letter to Danbury Baptists, "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."

This wall of separation is largely responsible for the relative social peace our religiously diverse country enjoys. A comparison of the Hudson’s Institute’s Index of Religious Freedom for countries in the Middle East and North Africa with the World Bank's indicators for political violence and for voice and accountability finds that the lack of freedom of religion and speech goes hand-in-hand with social violence and political instability. Where church (mosque) and state are entwined, social and political violence are far more common.

In an op/ed for the Arabic news service Al Jazeerah, Palestinian journalist Khalid Amayreh declares both the film-makers and protesters "wrong" and admits that Muslim demonstrators "overreacted." Amayreh then writes, "Having studied at and graduated from a number of American colleges, I realize how most Americans are jealously fanatical about preserving and clinging to their constitution, especially the First Amendment." So far, so good. He continues, "However, Americans and others westerners ought to understand that the religious and cultural traditions of other people, e.g. Muslims, ought to be respected as well. The First Amendment must not be used as an excuse to offend Muslims and their faith, as well as other religious traditions."

Cultural understanding is not a one-way street. Muslims have a responsibility to understand and respect the cultural traditions of Americans. It is evident that despite his years in the United States, Amayreh does not truly comprehend American core values when he says, "In the final analysis, my right not to be offended and insulted overrides a scoundrel's right to malign the Prophet of Islam in order to satisfy his sick Islamophobia." No, it does not. As the United Nations representative for the International Humanist and Ethical Union, Austin Dacey, persuasively argues in his insightful book, The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in the Age of Human Rights, "No one has the right to a world in which he is never despised." Instead, what each of us has is an uninfringeable right to denounce and ridicule scoundrels in public. That’s a right that every human being should be allowed to exercise.

So how should Americans think about and react to this current outburst of Islamic violence and hatred? First, the only task that American officials have is to explain that the American government does not endorse any religious or anti-religious views and that Americans are free to say any damned thing that they want. If foreign governments cannot or will not defend the lives and property of Americans living in their countries, officials and citizens should leave and take their foreign aid and investments with them.

Second, we must never reward violence. "We can understand the practice of violent retaliation against sacrilege as analogous to the violence employed by terrorists in pursuit of a political goal, or by kidnappers and extortionists in pursuit of personal gain," argues Dacey. In such situations, government officials properly adopt the "No Compliance Principle" – they do not give into the demands of the terrorists and kidnappers. Doing so will simply encourage others to engage in terrorism and kidnapping later. Similarly, refusing to comply now with the demands by violent Islamists to shut down free speech will prevent even more harm in the future. "By adopting a presumption of refusing to comply, and being seen to refuse to comply, we are doing what we can to uphold the rule of law and to contribute to a culture of open public discourse, in which no lawful expressive acts are prevented by threats of violence," explains Dacey.

Reverence for free speech ultimately protects the free exercise of religion. If a believer cannot speak in defense of his faith, then he has no real freedom of religion. That is why an attack on free speech is a greater blasphemy than is an insult to the divine.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Cultural understanding is not a one-way street. Muslims have a responsibility to understand and respect the cultural traditions of Americans.

    Unfortunately, ever since Edward Said, this doesn't seem to be the case. To ask that Muslims understand and respect the cultural traditions of anyone is seen as 'Orientalist'. And you don't want to be seen as an Orientalist, do you Ron?

  • Killazontherun||

    More than any other factor, Hamas, PLO, Israel, Edward Said is the reason Palestinians can't have nice things.

  • Brutus||

    Bernard Lewis still lives!

  • Pro Libertate||

    I'm biholier.

  • jester||

    Good stuff. No having it two ways.Hello.

  • Tman||

    Jesus, can we please STOP with the whole "These riots were caused by a 14 minute Youtube video" meme?

    Anyone who truly believes that this video is what is causing the current unrest in the middle east should be forced to read Matthew Yglesias columns until their brain starts leaking out their ears.

  • BarryD||

    True also.

    They were caused by Barack Obama's naive belief that he could quietly and, to an extent, secretly use drones to target and kill people in the Middle East, and nobody would care.

    Now I think that a lot of them needed killing (not collateral civilian deaths of course). But it was ridiculous to believe that the US could conduct wars without anyone noticing. A Nobel Peace Prize winner ought to have known better, anyway...

  • Tman||

    I don't know if you caught this yesterday BarryD, but it's worth relinking.

    Stephen den Beste discussing the parallels between the was against Japan in WWII and the current war against fanatical Islam.

    http://denbeste.nu/cd_log_entr.....slam.shtml

    I happen to be an atheist but I don't intend to impose atheism on anyone else. My nation is secular and democratic, but I don't think that as a matter of principle we should go out and force the world to become democratic and secular or die at our hands.

    On the other hand, I do believe that my system, while imperfect, is still better than any other known one, and in the long run I think it will dominate the world. I think this will be a good thing.

    I, too, am a cultural chauvinist. I feel no shame in that. But I'm not militant about it, and I'm willing to tolerate other chauvinists as long as they don't become militant. This war was thrust upon us by militant Islamic extremists, whose belief system cannot tolerate mine to exist.

    For my system to continue to exist, theirs must be changed. This is not a war of faith on my side, it's just a practical necessity. They need not give up Islam, but their fundamentalism will have to be destroyed. Islam must become tolerant, because as long as it is not we will continue to have wars with them.

  • BarryD||

    Thanks for the relink. I didn't catch it before. That's an excellent way to put it.

  • Barack||

    But have you all forgotten about Mitt Romney's Gaff?
    Look over here! Mitt made a Gaff!

  • ||

    Hey if anyone is going to jump on the band wagon with this kind of stuff it will be Ron.

    He is the same guy who every time a physiological study of "conservative vs liberal vs libertarian" accepts it whole cloth rather then throwing it out as "medicalization of descent" propaganda.

    Anyway it isn't all bad...just look as it as an excuse Ron used to allow him to talk about violent threats to free speech.

  • BarryD||

    Lyrics from the Broadway hit of the decade so far...

    *****

    When God fucks you in the butt (Hasa Diga Eebowai!)
    Fuck God back right in his cunt (Hasa Diga Eebowai!)

    Hasa Diga Eebowai! (Fuck you, God!)
    Hasa Diga Eebowai! (Fuck you, God!)

    *****

    It's not just about America's core values, or anything esoteric or philosophical. It's who we are. We mock sacred cows, every day. Even religious nuts do it. In fact "religious nut" is a very common American vernacular term we apply to each other.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Muslim hysteria is the hysteria of a culture than has no answers for, and no real place in, the modern world. The enormous oil wealth of a few Middle Eastern nations insulates them from having to make any tough choices about Islam and contemporary society. It is not an accident that Saudi Arabia is the single country in the world that has not adopted modern dress, nor is it an accident that one of the strongest tendencies of reactionary Islam is to force women back into traditional garb (guys, for some reason, are allowed to go modern). Islamic fundamentalists pour out an unending stream of "blasphemy" against Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism, which they feel it is their divine duty to produce. The notion that they should judge themselves by others' standards is in itself blasphemous. Of course, if the U.S. would get out of Afghanistan, end its rubber-stamp support for Israel, and generally stop trying to exercise "leadership" in the Middle East, we wouldn't make such convenient targets. The "angry young men" of Islam might start directing at least some of their ire at the leaders who serve them so ill.

  • BarryD||

    I doubt it.

    But we could possibly offer Greece a big fat bailout if Greece will take our place as whipping boy. We'll provide them with drones, and YouTube, and whatnot, and they'll agree to go and piss off the Islamic hordes.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    It is not an accident that Saudi Arabia is the single country in the world that has not adopted modern dress,

    I think it has more to do with the fact that their traditional thobe is a lot more comfortable in the hell-desert they call a country than so-called "modern garb".

    Jus' sayin'

  • BarryD||

    Yeah. A lot of our modern garb is shit. The men's business suit, for example, is really silly, as are women's pumps.

  • newshutz||

    Don't tell women that pumps are silly.

    I really appreciate how they help the women's movement.

    At least when I am walking behind them.

  • Lisa||

    In Saudi Arabia, a woman will get arrested if her face and hair isn't covered. I doubt it's because the government is concerned for their protection from the elements.

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    The "angry young men" of Islam might start directing at least some of their ire at the leaders who serve them so ill.""

    Will never happen so long as there exists one single Jew on the planet.

  • Killazontherun||

    over a stupid, cheesy 14-minute YouTube video called Innocence of the Muslims?

    Am I the only one who found the movie to be charming and enjoyable? It's the small things that you watch for that pay off, like the look on their faces when Hot Surfer Dude Mo says, 'both!'

  • Killazontherun||

    BTW, I haven't seen any reaction out of Hollywood. If any one knows how to do a stupid and cheesy blasphemy, well they got the market cornered.

  • Killazontherun||

    Movie sucked the big one, pretty cool trailer though.

  • PuffoPadrino||

    I'm just waiting for the gritty re-boot.

  • jacob the barbarian||

    You know, I do not recall the Catholics, Baptists and Evangelicals pouring out into the street to burn the movie theaters over that one. I wonder why?

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    They were too busy burning American embassies and McDonalds, duh!

    Why would they limit their protests to the specific theaters where the movie they objected to was being shown? That shows a lack of vision.

    Your modern rioter realizes the interconnectedness of everything. If someone in the U.S. leaves a coffee ring on a copy of the Koran, rioters will not only burn down every Starbucks and napkin-manufacturing plant they can get their hands on, they will burn down embassies, Verizon shops, and every store which sells apples, because apples remind them of the red, white and blue.

  • blcartwright||

    "Of course, if the government had not been in the business of spending taxpayer dollars on art exhibitions, much of the controversy could have been avoided."

    Absolutely correct!

    "An outraged Mayor Rudolph Giuliani cut off the museum's funding and sought to evict it from its city-owned building."

    Giuliani sought to do just this, disentangle the city government from the private expression of the artist. He did not seek to have the artist find or arrested, or have the piece of art destroyed or banned - simply that the city would not be a host or contribute financially to the artist or work of art.

    "A federal court ordered him to restore the funding and stop the eviction procedures on freedom of expression grounds."

    It was the court who erred. The artist still had the freedom to express himself, but he did not have a right to receive government subsidies. A lack of subsidy does not equal a ban on the activity. Advocates of "free" birth control make the same error.

  • Ron Bailey||

    blc: One other point - the federal judge looked at the contract that the city of New York had with museum. That contract explicitly left to the museum the discretion about what could/would be exhibited. Surely government officials don't get to void contracts they signed whenever they become displeased?

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    That's what California pensioners are saying...Bankruptcy is no excuse!

  • Sevo||

    "Giuliani sought to do just this, disentangle the city government from the private expression of the artist."

    You'd have a point if he did this absent his concern for what one 'artist' did.
    He didn't. He pulled the plug when he didn't like the content of *one* piece.
    Fail.

  • Lisa||

    "Cultural understanding is not a one-way street. Muslims have a responsibility to understand and respect the cultural traditions of Americans."
    What if their culture involves being intolerant towards non-Muslims? Where does that leave us?

  • Tman||

    It leaves us with few options that don't include the ole "do that again and your city will lie in ruins in a matter of hours" college try.

    You are right of course that their culture not involves being intolerant towards non-muslims, but actively encourages it. They will never change sufficiently until they experienced total annihilation and humiliation of their fanatical culture. Appeasement and various calls to get along are simply a giant waste of time.

  • Sevo||

    Same question, see above:
    "They need not give up Islam, but their fundamentalism will have to be destroyed. Islam must become tolerant, because as long as it is not we will continue to have wars with them."

    den Beste presumes Islam can and does exist absent the intolerance. Evidence suggests otherwise; at its core, Islam *is* intolerance.
    I'm still waiting to hear 'moderate' Muslims condemn the attacks, but I'm not holding my breath.

  • jacob the barbarian||

    The Koran has a number of verses that command violence toward non-muslims. It also commends that true friendship with non-muslims is a sin. Not sure what a post-reformation Islam would look like, but it appears that a large stick will be needed to get them there.

  • CatoTheElder||

    Excellent observations on the current lunacy.

    One of the peculiar ironies of all this is that the same Voltaire-quoting, phony liberals who ridiculed GWB for saying that "They hate our freedoms" are now effectively making the same argument.

    I suppose, though, that the phony liberals would argue that they're more nuanced than W; that their nuanced argument is, instead, that "They hate people we also disagree with for exercising their freedoms."

    Of course, both arguments are nonsense. They hate the US government because the US government is meddling in their affairs to the extent of killing and maiming people in the process.

  • CampingInYourPark||

    "They hate the US government because the US government is meddling in their affairs to the extent of killing and maiming people in the process."

    I agree that this is part of the cause of "hate" but the US government has meddled in the affairs of many places without having the result of being perpetually "hated" by the prevailing religion there, so there must be some other factors involved. Maybe a factor is the antagonism between liberal social freedoms of the West and Muslim social restrictions.

  • Numeromancer||

    Most of the “phony liberals” I've seen are claiming that the video isn't protected as free speech and that the film-makers should be jailed for inciting violence.

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    "Of course, both arguments are nonsense. They hate the US government because the US government is meddling in their affairs to the extent of killing and maiming people in the process."

    No, see, THIS is the argument steeped in downright nonsense. There's no shortage of Islamic countries that we've never set foot in that still want us completely annihilated. Salman Rushdie did not have a fucking fatwah issued on him because he was after Arab oil. Kurt Westeergard was not nearly hacked to death in his own home nor Molly Norris forced to give up her entire life and go into hiding because our government feels the need to involve itself in the Midle East. Women are not stoned, beheaded or raped to death on a routine basis because Islamists are accepting and open folks who are just sorely misunderstood because of the dropping of US bombs and spy drones.

    What you're spouting is exactly the self-serving apologism that lets these people know they can get do whatever the fuck they want and get away with it, provide they make somne rumblings about the US and the Zionists.

    Killing -or calling for the murder of someone- simply because you don't like what they have to say, think or what they do with their body is EXACTLY that; a hatred of the ability of others to freely express themselves. If you think the overreactions from the Muslim world are based on anything except innate atavism, I highly reccomend you actually read the Quran.

  • blcartwright||

    "Of course, if the government had not been in the business of spending taxpayer dollars on art exhibitions, much of the controversy could have been avoided."

    Absolutely correct!

    "An outraged Mayor Rudolph Giuliani cut off the museum's funding and sought to evict it from its city-owned building."

    Giuliani sought to do just this, disentangle the city government from the private expression of the artist. He did not seek to have the artist find or arrested, or have the piece of art destroyed or banned - simply that the city would not be a host or contribute financially to the artist or work of art.

    "A federal court ordered him to restore the funding and stop the eviction procedures on freedom of expression grounds."

    It was the court who erred. The artist still had the freedom to express himself, but he did not have a right to receive government subsidies. A lack of subsidy does not equal a ban on the activity. Advocates of "free" birth control make the same error.

  • Sevo||

    "Giuliani sought to do just this, disentangle the city government from the private expression of the artist."

    You'd have a point if he did this absent his concern for what one 'artist' did.
    He didn't; he pulled the plug when he didn't like the content of one piece.
    Fail.

  • jason||

    I think this is game of internal politics in every country or it can be America or anywhere violence is happening.

  • NotSure||

    Its not about "cultural understanding", its about simply not watching something that you don't want to. If America was dropping leaflets on Muslim nations saying how bad Mohammed is, thats one thing, but having to actively click on a link for a youtube video that upsets you, then you only have yourself to blame for watching something upsetting.

  • Ron Bailey||

    NS: Excellent point.

  • Numeromancer||

    The Muslim world is outraged at the US for allowing the production of the blasphemous movie, which insults Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and depicts Islam as an oppressive religion.

    Most irony warms my heart, but this just gives me heartburn.

    Oh, and “Amen!” -- The Choir

  • jg5||

    A good title for an article in reply to this one might be: "It's unreasonable to expect a world in which there are no consequences to your words or actions". Freedom of speech does not exist in an idealistic, consequence-free vacuum, protected by the 1st Amendment. We are free to choose, yes, but not free of the repercussions. Freedom of speech does not trump freedom of belief or religion, it tests it, hones it; it's an instrument, a dowser of our soul and our core beliefs, not an end in itself.

  • Ron||

    Without freedom of speech there is no freedom of religious choice. Which interestingly enough fits in with what both Islamist and phony liberals want. Phony liberals want all those who disagree with them to shut up and most are atheist who would be happy to side with one group, Islamist, for the short term, to silence Christianity. Islamist on the other hand will use the usefull fools, the phony liberals to accomplish their goals eliminate infidels. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, until I no longer need them that is.

  • jg5||

    I still think freedom of speech and freedom of religion are on two different levels. You can choose to believe what you want even if you can't express it openly. Of course any rational, fair person is against this kind of oppression. An example is what happened in Spain around the Inquisition. Muslims, if they wanted to stay in Spain, were forced to say that they accepted Christianity, but many of them still secretly and privately clung to their religion. This frustrated the church so much that most of the remaining Muslims were finally expelled. Speech is an outward expression, but belief is deeper.

  • BoxyBoxyBoxyBoxy||

    I don't think anyone here is suggesting that people should be protected from ALL consequences of speech that they make, although I have read of such stupidities elsewhere. Violence in response to speech is going to happen (although I don't think it actually happened here in response to this movie), but that doesn't make it OK for the government to condemn, blame, or punish the speech.

    Also, I don't think freedom of speech and freedom of religion can ever truly be in conflict.

  • toolkien||

    While there is no absolute bright line where freedom of speech ends and negligence begins, suffice it to say that we simply can't allow ourselves and our culture to be reduced to walking on eggshells around a psychotic hothead(s). We have to push very far on what we are allowed to say, and defend that penetration, or we will be right up against the borderline between what we are not allowed to say (or to do) and what we MUST say (or do). If we are reduced to hand wringing silence because they'll get really, Really, REALLY mad, not just rhetorically mad, then we lose. If we're going to go through the bother of defending freedom of speech on shore and piss off whichever domestics as the price of freedom, then we same people had better be prepared to champion the cause when the ante us upped by culturally psychotic people. Freedom has to be defended with resolve in tight situations, it's not an abstract notion for classroom debate which runs yellow when the going gets tough.

    In the end, who should be controlling the narrative here? I certainly don't vote for rabidly superstitious psychotics. I don't vote for the "ixsna the asphemybla" crowd. I don't even endorse the producer of the film. But I won't use Force against him, and if punches start being thrown, I'm not joining the psychotics or the cowards.

  • Vader||

    "Back in 1999, Dennis Heiner, a retired school teacher, defaced Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary at the Brooklyn Museum by smearing white paint over it. Ofili's work incorporated elephant dung and cutouts from pornographic magazines. Asked why he did it, Heiner replied, "It’s blasphemous." Cardinal John O’Connor denounced the painting as "an attack not only on our Blessed Mother, but, one must ask if it is not an attack on religion itself and in a special way on the Catholic Church."

    An outraged Mayor Rudolph Giuliani cut off the museum's funding and sought to evict it from its city-owned building."

    One of these things is not like the others.

    Hint: If I tell the world that Ofili's work is a pile of avante-garde crap, I am exercising my right of free speech, and am abridging no one else's rights.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement