May 13, 2015 | The Washington Times

The Fine Line Between Free Speech and Provocation

Rights are like muscles. If not exercised, they atrophy. Freedom of speech, a right guaranteed by the First Amendment, is the most fundamental of rights. Without it, how do you even defend your other rights?

Today, free speech is under assault – in many instances with assault weapons. I have long argued that this trend traces back to 1989 when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, issued a fatwa, a religious decision, calling for the assassination of Salman Rushdie, whose novel, “The Satanic Verses,” he considered insulting to Islam. In effect, he was proclaiming that Islamic law as he interpreted it must henceforth must be obeyed not just in Iran and not just by Muslims but by everyone everywhere.

Mr. Rushdie believes the threats against him have created “a long-term chilling effect” and a “climate of fear.” Books “critical of Islam would be difficult to be published now,” he has said.

Perhaps because Mr. Rushdie is a famous artist, support for him has been widespread. More controversial was the 2005 decision by the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, to publish a dozen cartoons depicting Muhammad.  Protests erupted. Embassies and churches were attacked. Hundreds were killed.

The actress Vanessa Redgrave, a prominent voice on the left, was among those who argued that freedom does not apply to speech that is “blasphemous and destructive in a rotten way of other people, in other words, racist. I mean, those cartoons, for instance, that have shocked us all were racist. They were fascist in character, the cartoons of the Prophet with a bomb on his head. I mean, that’s a very rightwing paper, Jyllands-Posten, and it’s not surprising that they published those cartoons as a sort of provocation.”

Five years ago this month, Seattle Weekly cartoonist Molly Norris organized a “Draw Mohammed Day” in support of free speech.  She was soon on al Qaeda’s hit list. According to her employer, the FBI advised her to change her name and go into hiding – which she did, giving up her job, friends and home. If a civil rights activist had been threatened by the Klan, or a gay activist by a fundamentalist Christian militia, would federal law enforcement have responded the same way?

Last week, the PEN American Center gave its Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, the leftist satirical weekly that had published cartoons of Muhammad – in response to which jihadis forced their way into the publication’s offices guns blazing.

But more than 200 writers signed an open letter disassociating themselves from the award, arguing that that the magazine's drawings of the Prophet “must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering” to French Muslims who are “marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises.” 

They made clear that they were not condoning mass murder. But they also made clear that they don’t rule out abridging free speech.  By so doing, they are both abandoning Western, Enlightenment values and undermining those Muslims who hope one day to see freedom take root in societies shaped by Islam’s various colonial enterprises.

Jeffrey Goldberg argues in the Atlantic that “some on the left are happy to support Islamists — even Islamist terror groups — simply because they stand in opposition to the West.” His admirable intent is to persuade his fellow progressives that it is “an act of bravery to write in opposition to religious fundamentalism in the face of fatal violence” – even when the fundamentalism in question is Islamic.

If that’s right, should there not be support as well for Pamela Geller and other organizers of the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest in Garland, Texas which ended with a police officer using lethal force to prevent jidhadis from raining bullets on those assembled? According to New York Times editorialists the answer is no because that event “was an exercise in bigotry and hatred” and a “blatantly Islamophobic provocation.”

Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t but how is that relevant? In 1978, neo-Nazis wanted to march through a largely Jewish neighborhood of Skokie, Illinois, a neighborhood where many Jewish Holocaust survivors lived. This was an unambiguous exercise in bigotry and hatred. Nevertheless, the group’s right to free speech was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union – and by the Times which editorialized:  “Free speech must be demanded for all … If the rights of those whom civil libertarians have most cause to despise are slighted, then everyone’s rights are placed in jeopardy.”

OK, but isn’t there, as CNN’s Alisyn Camerota put it, “a fine line between freedom of speech and being intentionally incendiary and provocative”? No, there is not.  As the Times used to understand, free speech must include provocative speech, speech by provocateurs, speech by people whose opinions and motives may be offensive, bigoted and even hateful.

There can be no exceptions to protect the sensibilities of those perceived as “marginalized, embattled, and victimized,” nor to mollify Islamic State terrorists — who have issued a communiqué threatening to “slaughter” Ms. Geller — and such characters as Anjem Choudary, the British Muslim activist who on television last week asserted that by now everyone should understand that drawing Muhammad “carries the death penalty in Islam.” His further implication: Islamic law now applies to everyone everywhere. Obey or die.

Exactly what Ayatollah Khomenei told us after the Islamic Revolution. Should we resist? Or should we give in — hoping that will appease rather than embolden those intent on our destruction? As you consider these alternatives, recall what the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire taught in the 18th century: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times. Follow him on Twitter @CliffordDMay

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