Muslim protests as a gauge of free speech

Most of the world's Muslims aren't violently protesting the anti-Islam video. And many Islamic leaders seek peaceful protest but not censorship. This may be a sign that free speech has gained as a universal right.

A Muslim man outside the US Embassy in Indonesia throws a rock at police during a Sept. 17 protest against an anti-Islam film.

Odd, isn’t it? An Internet service such as YouTube can quickly span the globe, carrying a video that belittles Islam, while in many countries, freedom of expression still has difficulty being accepted as a universal right.

This contradiction – more “speech” but not enough freedom for it – has been on full display during the wave of violent Muslim protests against that offensive video, a 14-minute movie trailer made in California.

While the killing of American diplomats and other ongoing violence dominates news of the protests, what is less noted is that most Muslims aren’t protesting. And many Islamic religious leaders are calling for people to protest peacefully, if at all.

Their largely unreported actions serve as a measure of how much free speech may finally be making inroads in parts of the world where such freedoms have been more alien than inalienable.

The protests are the most widespread since the Arab Spring began last year. Many are in countries just newly democratic. They are also in Muslim countries outside the Middle East that saw an end to autocratic rule in recent decades, such as Pakistan, Indonesia, and Afghanistan.

The concept of universal rights is not new, but those rights have been absorbed by much of humanity over the past half century. Many countries that joined the United Nations and gave lip service to rights have slowly been forced to honor them. And for good reason. Individual liberties, such as the right of free speech, religion, or association, reflect a view of individuals as inherently capable of self-government. The natural state of humanity tends toward more freedom, not less.

Last year, the watchdog group Freedom House found the percentage of people living in either a free or partly free country is 65 percent. In the past three decades, the number of countries in those categories has risen to 76 from 61.

Also last year, the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation, an alliance of 56 Muslim nations, was persuaded by the United States to give up its long campaign to have the UN outlaw blasphemous speech and instead accept a resolution that calls open debate of ideas as “among the best protections against religious intolerance.”

Free speech, or protection against government censorship, isn’t an easy right to uphold. In the US, the Supreme Court has limited it in some circumstances, such as cases where children might be harmed (pornography) or when purposely provocative speech can cause imminent harm (crying "fire" in a crowded theater). Europe has more restrictions, such as Germany’s ban against speech that denies the Holocaust. Western countries also have trouble trying to define “hate speech,” which is often a crime.

Even these limits on freedom of expression, however, are becoming more difficult to maintain when social media companies, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google’s YouTube, spread words and images so widely and so quickly. Their power to influence global events instantly even had President Obama asking Google last Thursday if its own rules would call for taking down the offending video.

Google declined the request but did remove the video in a few countries, for legal reasons in those countries or in hopes of preventing further violence. Facebook has the toughest rules among social media sites, banning hate speech or information that might aid terrorists.

The best antidote to offensive speech isn’t government censorship but better speech. To counter the anti-Islam video, for example, Muslims would do better to either simply ignore it or put forth views of Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance.

“There is little evidence to support the argument that prohibiting defamation of religions is an effective means of combating racial and religious hatred,” states Freedom House. “In fact, the application of blasphemy laws [against nonbelievers] appears to instigate and exacerbate communal conflict rather than prevent it.”

Using government to prevent insults to a religion runs the danger of government itself restricting free speech entirely. That’s hardly what most of humanity in the 21st century has come to want.

Melting ore to recover gold requires letting the dross float to the top where it can be seen for what it is. So, too, separating good ideas from bad ones requires the certainty that people can have a choice and will tend toward the good.

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