Matthew M. Hausman, J.D.
Originally published in the Arutz Sheva
Freedom of speech is taken for granted in western society, but it is an essential right that is necessary for the perpetuation of constitutional democracy. Unfortunately, it also seems to be an endangered species under stealth attack by extremism masquerading as diversity and tolerance.
As European courts enforce laws criminalizing the critical discussion of certain religions, and as the political left blames western society for inflaming Islamist passions by refusing to accommodate radical dictates, the right to speak freely is being threatened by a stultifying political correctness. What is being eroded are classical liberal values.
Nothing illustrates this better than a recent decision by the European Court of Human Rights affirming an Austrian court’s verdict against a woman for suggesting that Muhammad’s marriage to a young girl as recounted in Muslim scripture was tantamount to child abuse. The Human Rights Court held that her comments could be perceived as “an abusive attack on the Prophet of Islam” and thus were properly subject to prosecution under Austrian law.
The net consequence of this ruling, however, was to enforce an anti-blasphemy restriction against speech, though the offending words were uttered in a pluralistic country that supposedly values freedom of expression.
Although criticism of specific belief systems could certainly offend their adherents, empirical analysis or even disparagement of any faith would be perfectly legal in the United States, where free speech is constitutionally protected and government is prohibited from favoring or promoting any particular religion.
The Austrian law affirmed by the European Human Rights Court would be unenforceable under the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression and worship and prohibits the establishment of any state religion.
From an American perspective, restrictions on speech concerning Islam or any religion would be problematic because they implicitly imbue ideologies with human rights, though such rights adhere uniquely to human beings, not abstract ideas, beliefs or creeds. Human rights are not inherent in thoughts per se, but rather in the people who express them. However, the premise that belief systems possess innate rights can be used to silence divergent thought; and rendering criticism of particular faiths unlawful may force people to submit to dogmas that conflict with their own ethical or spiritual principles. Such overreach impairs the right to speak and worship freely while empowering ideological supremacism by eliminating public discourse.
Selective punishment of speech considered offensive to any faith community could encourage discrimination against people who believe differently.
Would such restrictions outlaw public criticism of Sharia by Jews and Christians who are deemed subjugated and inferior thereunder?
Would it be illegal for Jews to challenge those parts of Islamic tradition which hold that they are descended from apes and pigs or must be exterminated in the end of days?
It seems such laws could effectively require people to acquiesce to doctrines that are contrary to their own beliefs.
Those who support anti-blasphemy restrictions under the guise of hate-speech regulation do not truly respect or understand the freedoms that characterize western society While advocates may claim that laws penalizing disparagement of faith protect all religions, such laws never seem to be enforced equally. But regardless of whether they are applied generally or selectively, anti-blasphemy laws would not pass constitutional muster in the United States because they would require government involvement in ecclesiastical matters and potentially elevate certain faiths over others – all in violation of the First Amendment.
Regarding matters of faith, the First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These two phrases together comprise the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government from establishing a national religion or favoring particular faiths.
Those seeking to stifle criticism of religion undeniably include Islamists who are anti-Semitic and denigrate other beliefs as matters of doctrine. It seems ironic that secular proponents of speech regulations do not see a similar need to protect their own communities from radicals who promote anti-Semitism and hatred of western values, or who preach genocide and the destruction of Israel – a nation whose land they claim through past conquest and whose people they deem unworthy of respect or national autonomy.
Taken to its logical extreme, restricting the right to challenge supremacist ideologies would in fact insulate hateful words as long as they are uttered as expressions of faith. In addition, such restrictions would essentially require people to accord sanctity to doctrines they do not endorse and subordinate their spiritual ideals to those who consider them infidels.
According to common dictionary usage, “blasphemy” is irreverent behavior toward things held sacred, and “sacred” is defined as veneration by association with the divine. Consequently, sanctity is determined by ecclesiastical fiat, not objective universal standards. For words to be truly blasphemous, therefore, the speaker must recognize the sanctity of the target. But disrespectful conduct cannot be blasphemous in the eyes of the offender – no matter how rude, boorish, or insensitive – if he does not acknowledge the object of his derision as sacred. Thus, for example, non-Hindus who do not revere cows cannot be considered blasphemers for eating beef in India. Likewise, non-Jews do not sin by failing to observe Torah commandments binding only on Jews.
Proponents of speech restrictions argue that defamation of religion constitutes a human rights violation, but this is sophistry which assigns inalienable rights to concepts instead of the people who espouse them. And although anti-blasphemy apologists may claim concern for the integrity of all faiths, their lack of regard for Judaism and western religions is glaring. In fact, those who discourage critical analysis of Islam (usually progressives) generally show little respect for Jews or Christians – either in the west or in Sharia states where they and other religious and ethnic minorities are marginalized and oppressed.
Where is liberal European outrage over the persecution of Christians or Zoroastrians in the Islamic world? Why is there silence when Yazidis are murdered and their daughters forced into sexual slavery in Iraq or Copts are harassed and massacred in Egypt? Progressive society seems interested in protecting only one religion from insult and bestowing minority status on a global faith community that comprises nearly two-billion people and has a history of aggressive expansion.
Political correctness offers an apologetic buffer for the doctrinal rejection of western values, and its practitioners seem willing to run interference for absolutist ideologies that mandate the subjugation of nonbelievers. Suppressing speech under the guise of protecting religion might be consistent with rigid theocracy, but it is incompatible with the basic freedoms that define liberal democracy. And making it unlawful to question any specific ideology casts a repressive pall over individual expression and severely hampers the free exchange of ideas.
Free-speech advocates might recognize the threat posed by such laws, but few seem willing to challenge them for fear of being labeled bigots. This reluctance recalls past ambivalence regarding UN anti-blasphemy proposals that sought to impose international standards for curtailing speech. Over the years, various resolutions were proposed by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and endorsed by its political allies. Though western support had subsided by the time the Defamation of Religions Resolution was passed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2010, many progressives had until then voiced sympathetic understanding for its motivations, if not its substance. (Its non-Muslim state supporters included Bolivia, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Russian Federation, and South Africa.)
Leftist support for speech restrictions would seem to corroborate the existence of a “red-green alliance” between radical Islam and a progressive left that denounces Jews, Christians and western values, while ignoring repression of religious and ethnic minorities throughout the Arab Mideast. The point progressives conveniently ignore is that citizens in democratic society are free to worship as they choose.
It seems absurd when western courts effectively impose sanctions for the violation of imported sectarian standards that are contrary to mainstream cultural and religious norms. Though Islamists might consider “infidels” subject to the dictates of Sharia, the notion that people can be controlled by parochial laws foreign to them is presumptuous and inconsistent with liberal democratic values.
European willingness to curb unflattering or “blasphemous” speech is not based on tolerance, but instead seems compelled by deference to authoritarian doctrines and anti-western sensibilities. If the EU wants to maintain its liberal democratic traditions, however, it should make clear that while immigrants are welcome within its borders, they have no right to be insulated from speech they find offensive or to impose their religious standards on their host societies.