Ken at Popehat has an amazing compilation of ‘The Year in Blasphemy” where he basically lists every documented case he could find of someone being accused of blasphemy or punished for it. It’s a must-read (actually, Popehat is a must-read full stop).
Money quote, which should be tattooed on every apologist for radicals:
There you have it — a year of what Eric Posner might call “other values and the need for order,” a year of what Anthea Butler might call incidents of people being “inflamed,” a year of what Garrett Epps might say are different understandings of freedom and different views of the “essence” of free speech, a year of the competing “international norms” referred to by Professor Peter Spiro. These are the values to which we, as Americans, are invited to yield.
I think not.
As the Posners and Butlers and Eppses and Spiros of the nation have begun to speak in the wake of Benghazi, others have refuted them. Some have pointed out a truth illustrated by this year of blasphemy: anti-blasphemy laws are a tool for religious majorities to suppress religious minorities, and a mechanism for the more powerful to oppress the relatively powerless, and tend to be used in a lawless manner resembling modern witch hunts. That is the norm we are asked to embrace.
The “witch hunt” verbiage is particularly apt. As you read over the list, the thing that jumps out is how arbitrary this is. Basically, these Islamist governments (and, to be fair, a handful of Christian fundamentalists) arbitrarily crack down on anyone who catches their attention. All you have to do to ruin someone’s life if accuse them of slandering Muhammed or defiling or Quran or having a smart look on their face during prayers. And then the full power of the religious state comes down on them, resulting in prison, lashes, ruination and sometimes death.
(A lesser version can be seen in laws in places like the UK which punish people for saying offensive things on the internet. Popehat again, on the case of Michael Woods, now sentenced to three months in jail for making sick comments about a murdered girl. As noted in the link, this law is applied completely arbitrarily. A million bad comments can go by without a trace. But if you hit a celebrity or a high-profile criminal case and your comments happen to get the attention of the media … well, enjoy prison.)
We simply can not waver in our defense of the First Amendment. To falter even for a moment is to invite the fanatics in, to give them the power to single out a citizen and destroy his life; perhaps because of something he said but more likely because he happened to piss them off. While Obama’s speech on this subject to the UN was problematic, there was one passage that was worth quoting:
I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws: our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech. Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. Moreover, as President of our country, and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so. Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views – even views that we disagree with.
We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our Founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views, and practice their own faith, may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities. We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech – the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.
I know that not all countries in this body share this understanding of the protection of free speech. Yet in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete. The question, then, is how we respond. And on this we must agree: there is no speech that justifies mindless violence.
I quoted Salman Rushdie some time ago. Worth quoting him again:
Of the current confrontation, [Rushdie] says, “I think it’s very important that we hold our ground. It’s very important to say, ‘We live like this.’ ” Rushdie made his post-fatwa life in America in part because he reveres the freedoms, including the freedom, not so protected in other Western democracies, to say hateful, racist, blasphemous things.
“Terrible ideas, reprehensible ideas, do not disappear if you ban them,” he told me. “They go underground. They acquire a kind of glamour of taboo. In the harsh light of day, they are out there and, like vampires, they die in the sunlight.”
Bookmark that Popehat post. Read it any time you waver in the defense of free speech. Because if we ever give in, that’s the kind of world we will live in: a world where neighbors can accuse neighbors; a world where the socially and politically powerless can have the power of the state turned on them; a world in which law is even more arbitrary and oppressive than it already is; a world in which women and child can be beaten, lashed, assaulted and even killed with the smiling approval of the state.