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Using free speech as a cloak for anti-Muslim bigotry


By Haroon Siddiqui

Toronto Star, January 14, 2015



There can never be any justification for murdering provocateurs or innocents. Take down their killers, if we must. Or round up the accomplices and throw the book at them.


That’s a statement of the obvious after the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the murder of four Jews in Paris for no other reason than that they were Jews.

So is the observation that the current proclamations of fidelity to free speech are riddled with ethical inconsistencies and reek of intellectual dishonesty.

Free speech is not an unfettered right, just as my right to swing my arm stops at your nose.

Free speech is circumscribed by laws of libel, hate and religious freedom. Also by self-restraint and public pressure, both reflective of our values.

We in the media and book publishing business routinely amend our words and axe them outright when lawyers tell us that what we’ve written may risk lawsuits.

Most European nations adopted anti-hate laws post-Holocaust to curb anti-Semitism, and rightly so. France’s is among the toughest.

France also limits free speech with strict defamation and privacy laws. In 1970, Hara-Kiri Hebdo, the precursor of Charlie Hebdo, was banned for mocking the death of Charles de Gaulle. In 2006, the French Catholic Church won a lawsuit against a fashion designer who depicted The Last Supper with semi-nude women instead of the apostles.

France’s anti-terrorism law severely curtails digital and other freedoms. On Tuesday, controversial comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala was arrested for “defending terrorism.”

In 2006, Britain sentenced historian David Irving to three years for denying the Holocaust, and jailed radical British Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri for inciting hatred against non-Muslims.

That same year, the world mocked Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s twisted idea of free speech when he organized an anti-Semitic cartoon contest in Tehran.

While Stephen Harper killed the anti-hate section of the Canadian Human Rights Act, he has retained the Criminal Code provision that prescribes up to two years in jail for spreading hate. He is also proposing new restrictions on free speech, to ban the glorification of terrorism and to insulate informants from public scrutiny.

Many of the world leaders who gathered in Paris last week in solidarity either muzzle free speech themselves or are close allies of regimes that jail and torture those whose words they don’t like. Harper’s two favourite governments, Ukraine and Egypt, have the most journalists in jail at this time.
Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning have been hounded and prosecuted for releasing accurate information. The Barack Obama administration has declared war on journalists who reported leaked national security information.

The International Convention on Civil and Political Rights defends free speech but it also requires states to prohibit “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatreds that constitutes incitement to discrimination.”

Besides the law, there is self-restraint.

International PEN, the leading advocate for free speech (with which I’ve been intimately involved), speaks in its charter of “unhampered transmission of thought,” but also insists that “since freedom implies voluntary restraint, members pledge themselves to oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood and distortion of facts for political and personal ends.”

Jyllands-Posten, the Danish daily that commissioned the Prophet Muhammad cartoons in 2006, rejected caricatures of Christ a year earlier, saying they were offensive and “will provoke an outcry.”

In 2008, Charlie Hebdo fired columnist/cartoonist Maurice Sinet, who suggested that Jean Sarkozy, son of the then president, was converting to Judaism for money. The editor who did the firing was Philippe Val, who had republished the Danish cartoons.

In the U.S., there’s no legal limit on free speech but there is in practice. Post- 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the media dished out embedded shock-and-awe jingoism, not journalism – suffocating timely critique of catastrophic foreign policy mistakes.

Critics of Israel are hounded, writes Michael Lerner, editor of the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun: “Various universities denied tenure to professors who had made statements critical of Israel. Hillel, which operates a chain of student-oriented Hillel Houses on college campuses, decided to ban from their premises any Jews who were part of Jewish Voices for Peace.”

Last fall, the Metropolitan Opera cancelled plans to simulcast to Israel and theatres in the U.S. its production of The Death of Klinghoffer, about the horrific murder of a wheelchair-bound Jewish passenger on the Achille Lauro cruise ship hijacked in 1985 by the PLO. Critics argued persuasively that the show may have been sanitizing Palestinian terrorism.

Sony Pictures, maker of The Interview, hadtoned down the movie even prior to the controversy about whether or not to show it.

Brendan Eich was fired as Mozilla’s chief executive because he once donated money to a campaign to oppose same-sex marriage. Earlier, Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar was pummelled for sporting an eye-patch with the word maricon (faggot).

Life is full of inconsistencies, sure. But trumpeters of free speech cannot be ignorant of all of the above. They are either exercising wilful blindness or arguing an abstract principle with no relation to reality.

For many, free speech is a cloak for anti-Muslim bigotry or just juvenile bravado. We cannot let them goad or bully us into deviating from a well-established norm: we must abhor anti-Muslim cartoons for the same good reason that we cringe at anti-Semitic nonsense or hateful caricatures of First Nations, blacks or gays.

We do so not to appease Muslims or Jews or others, or because we cower to murderers, but because we proudly stand on guard for the core values of our civilized polity.

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