Will we acquiesce to terror and self-censor free speech?

But it is not just Islamic State and Iran that suppress freedom of speech. Almost every Muslim nation does it to one extent or another.

Arson attack on Hamburg newspaper that printed Charlie Hebdo cartoons. (photo credit: screenshot)
Arson attack on Hamburg newspaper that printed Charlie Hebdo cartoons.
(photo credit: screenshot)
“We are not all Charlie ... Certainly much of journalism is not Charlie ... CNN, the Associated Press, and the many other media organizations that are cowering before the threat of totalitarian violence represent something other than bravery.” – Jeffery Goldberg, The Atlantic, January 8, 2015
Tens of thousands of people in the Muslim Middle East have been jailed, tortured and killed for exercising free speech, for following a different religion, or for yearning for Western democratic protections. You would never know it from reading much of the American mainstream media, but there is no truly free Muslim nation in the Middle East, where freedom of speech and the press are not tolerated for long.
Journalists are jailed and tortured in the Palestinian Authority, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
All of these states have sharia law as part of their constitutions; freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and criticism are not welcome. Intolerance is the norm, and violence often follows. Our press, human rights organizations and academic campuses are complicit in failing to publicize these abuses. US President Barack Obama’s comments after the Islamist attack on freedom of speech contributed to the problem. He said that a commitment to free expression “can’t be silenced because of the senseless violence of a few.” A few? What planet is he living on? Violence against freedom of speech and thought is the norm in the Muslim world. This is not an indictment of Islam; it is the reality of how Islam plays out in the 21st century, unlike the practice of some forms of Islam in the Middle Ages. The suppression of freedom of speech, the press and religion are in large part why 200,000 Syrians were killed, and eight million have been made homeless.
But it is not just Islamic State and Iran that suppress freedom of speech. Almost every Muslim nation does it to one extent or another. Just ask the Baha’i in Iran, the Kurds in Iraq or Christians living anywhere in the Middle East.
In America, the media have been self-censoring information for years, so as not to offend Islam. This is because they choose not to differentiate between radical Islamism and the non-violent Islam of the majority.
So their default position is to claim that Islam is not involved in the radical extremism that infects a significant part of the Islamic world. They should heed the words of Bernard-Henri Levy in The Wall Street Journal: “Those whose faith is Islam must proclaim very loudly, very often and in great numbers their rejection of this corrupt and abject form of theocratic passion... Islam must be freed from radical Islam.”
The Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy of 2005- 06 inflamed the entire Muslim world with massive protests, and caused at least 200 deaths. American journalism was AWOL then in a bow to political correctness, as they are today by not publishing the Charlie Hebdo images. Unfortunately, many of today’s editors learned their political correctness while students at America’s monolithic-thinking academic institutions.
America has a rich history of embracing the “marketplace of ideas,” which demands that journalists publish offensive cartoons to allow the American people to decide for themselves among all of the messages in the “marketplace.” Editorials, op-ed articles, and analyses are the appropriate vehicles with which to argue whether any form of expression is offensive, or beyond the pale to the Muslim community.
The ACLU once argued for the right of American Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, a march that offended to the core the large population of survivors of the Shoah living in Skokie. Today, in contrast, the progressive far Left, whether in academia, media, or in human rights organizations, raises its voice only for causes deemed politically acceptable or “worth” defending.
Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is not among those causes. You won’t find them defending the rights of marginalized pro-Israel voices on college campuses, who regularly are shouted down by Islamist-sympathizing students and their organizations. Hypocritically and paradoxically, they defend the right to shout down pro-Israel voices as an expression of free speech; they have no problem suppressing speech that offends their political sensibilities. Anti-Semitism grows on campus with the silencing and intimidation of pro-Israel voices, with nary a Progressive defender in sight.
But can free speech go too far? Of course. If the speech bleeds into action it can and should be stopped. If the speech calls for immediate violence, is seditious, or otherwise poses an immediate danger to people, courts have the power to “stop the presses.” Editors should use the same barometer for self-censorship. Vigilance is needed, as the challenge to radical Islamism must not give succor to xenophobic and far-right groups that are not only anti-Muslim, but also anti-Semitic.
So what should be done? Publish the Muhammad cartoons, and the caricatures in Charlie Hebdo. Just as in the case of the North Korean threat against the movie The Interview, the best response is more access – not less access. Demand America’s universities protect the free speech of all voices on campus, and protect Jewish students from anti-Semitic attacks. Demand university professors protect the free speech of students who fear grade reprisals for speaking up to professors who impose their political agendas in class. Finally, demand that our media and journalists practice their professions honestly, by not editorializing our news, or suppressing controversial information.
The power of your voice may be ignored but not the power of your purse. Say no to limitations on free speech.
The author is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political and Information Network), a Middle East research analysis read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset, journalists and organizational leaders.