Free Speech in Contention: On Offense, Faith, and Democracy

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December 9, 2020

                                                                                                by Wissam Nasrallah

I can still remember the day when my mother could not find Danish butter in Saudi supermarkets as a result of a boycott against Danish products by many Arab and Muslim countries after dozens of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad were published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005. In Lebanon, the Danish consulate was ransacked by angry protestors, while the Norwegian and Danish Embassies in neighboring Syria were torched.

More recently in France, five years after the deadly Charlie Hebdo attacks, Samuel Paty was beheaded for showing cartoons of the prophet Muhammed to his students during a class on freedom of speech. The ensuing campaign to boycott French products in Muslim countries after President Emmanuel Macron refused to denounce the cartoons shows that old wounds are still not healed. These wounds go as far back as 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa condemning Salman Rushdi to death for publishing his novel The Satanical Verses.

These unfortunate events show that there does not exist a common understanding of freedom of speech and how far it can reasonably go. What is free speech? Why is it so controversial? Why does protecting it matter? How should it impact our lives as Christians?

  1. What is free speech?

According to Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of speech is a right “to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789, which is part of the French Constitution, adds that the manifestation of a person’s opinion should “not disturb the public order established by law” and that every citizen “shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law”. In the US, freedom of speech is protected by the 1st Amendment of the constitution, albeit with a more absolute language: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech”.

While the general principle of freedom of speech seems to be clear and straightforward, in practice legislators and courts have struggled to determine what exactly does not constitute protected speech. With varying degrees, commonly accepted limitations include incitement to commit violence, defamation (libel and slander), obscenity and child pornography. These limitations reflect what John Stuart Mill calls in his essay On Liberty, the “harm principle”: free speech that harms others should be limited.

  1. Why is it so controversial?

In the case of the caricatures of the prophet Muhammed, many Muslims find the drawings to be particularly offensive in the way they depict him. Indeed, Muslims see the attack on their prophet, whom they seek to emulate and upon whom they invoke blessings at least five times a day, to be gratuitous, insulting and humiliating. The impulse of people to defend what is sacred to them is understandable given that it constitutes an important part of their identity. Furthermore, many denounce that such caricatures perpetuate racist stereotypes of Muslims, especially in Europe. Additionally, many Muslims feel there exists a double standard when it comes to Islam given the intolerability of anti-Semitism and the apparent tolerance of Islamophobia. Finally, this topic has been a handy tool for national leaders who are losing steam politically or are looking to galvanize their bases. This was the case with Ayatollah Khomeini when he issued his deadly fatwa or currently with Turkey’s President Erdogan, who is looking to portray himself as the defender of Islam. Ironically, such leaders seem more concerned about what is published by an unpalatable and indecent newspaper on the verge of bankruptcy in Paris than the tragic plight of Uighurs in China or the Rohingya people in Myanmar.

In the US, recent controversies on university campuses as a result of restrictions on freedom of speech by non-platforming controversial speakers has taken the debate even further. In their eye-opening article, The Coddling of the American Mind, Lukianoff and Haidt highlight the growing culture of “safetyism” on university campuses that aims to safeguard the emotional well-being of increasingly fragile students.  This is done by “scrub[bing] campuses clean of words, ideas and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense”. This is the case of “microaggressions” which are “small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless”. In some instances, such policies and ever-expanding list of taboos create a culture of self-censorship and fear from being “cancelled out” on social media by student-led kangaroo courts.

Christians have also had their share of controversy on matters of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. In France for example, state secularism professes tolerance but is in practice intolerant towards opinions and convictions in the public sphere that refer to any kind of religious morality. This dominant worldview seems to have granted itself the monopoly of public speech under the disguise of neutrality even though neutrality does not exist on many issues. Christian beliefs like the exclusivity of salvation through Christ, the need for repentance of sins, and the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman are not considered politically correct. Should they therefore be censored and barred from the arena of public debate?

  1. Why does protecting it matter?

Many insist that the only speech they wish to subdue is the hateful kind. However, what constitutes hateful? How do we narrowly define it in order not to fall prey to subjective feelings and perceptions? How can lawmakers regulate speech while not prohibiting controversial and provocative ideas to be shared? How can we avoid a “tyranny of silence” that stems from the fear of offending someone? Is offense a good enough reason to censor speech? How can there be progress if we are not exposed to different ideas and opinions, if we are not challenged and provoked? Is tolerance only towards speech that we like?

The debate about whether freedom of speech should be limited in order to not offend religious beliefs has been heavily debated at the UN for many years. In 2011, Resolution 16/18 was passed that allows criticism of religion but condemns discrimination or to attack people on the basis of their religion. The same principle can be applied to other issues pertaining to sexual or social morality for example.

In his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argues that silencing the expression of an opinion is a disservice to humanity: “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error”.

However, critical theorists like Richard Delgado will retort that the marketplace of ideas is skewed in favor of the powerful (the concentration of media ownership is one example) and that good ideas don’t necessarily discredit bad ones. This is especially true in a polarized society in the age of social media where free speech is not being used for healthy and meaningful discussions and debate. Oftentimes, free speech is used as a smokescreen for racism, uninhibited prejudice and to vilify and mock people with opposing views. In the US, authentic outspokenness in recent political debates has only increased the “acceptability of prejudice” amongst the population as explained by social psychologist Chris Crandall.

Nonetheless, mitigating the potential abuse of free speech by imposing censorship is itself vulnerable to abuse and can therefore lead to greater harm. This is critical given that freedom of expression underpins all other democratic freedoms, including freedom of religion. This is why punishing abuse should be a posteriori, after the fact, on clearly defined terms. For example, you prevent drivers from exceeding a speed limit by installing radars rather than preventing the car from exceeding the limit.

Furthermore, public authorities should also play a more proactive role in making sure all people groups and minorities have equal access to freedom of expression. As Christians, we should advocate for a level playing field and equal access to public debate of all beliefs and convictions whether we are the majority or the minority.

  1. Christian practice of freedom of speech

Having the right to free speech does not mean you can use it without responsibility. As the apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 10:23, “all things are lawful, but not all things build up” while Proverbs 17:27-18 teaches us that “the one who has knowledge uses words with restraint”. Knowing the danger of the tongue, king David asked the Lord to “set a guard over [his] mouth […] to keep watch over the door of [his] lips (Ps 141:3).

In fact, the Bible regulates our freedom of speech: we are not to use God’s name in vain (Ex. 20:7); we are not to “bear false witness” against our neighbor (Ex. 20:16) ; we are to put away from our mouth “anger, wrath, malice, slander and obscene talk (Col 3:8) ; we are to “speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2). And when we do speak, our speech should “always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col 4:6). However, these safeguards should not prevent or inhibit us from speaking the truth even if the content of our speech might rub people in the wrong way (but we can always control and polish the form!).

Practically speaking, we should take the path of persuasion rather than provocation fully knowing that easy speech is not guaranteed, as David French warns. We need to show empathy and understanding when a person argues out of personal experience without foregoing the need for rational and reasonable argumentation. In addition, we need courage and wisdom to speak out when we know our ideas are worthy of consideration. Martin Luther did just that and by doing so brought about The Reformation.

Furthermore, as Christians, the Bible entices us to speak up for the voiceless even when it is not the popular thing to do, as reminded by Proverbs 31:8-9: “open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy”.

Finally, the restrictions we might impose on ourselves cannot be imposed on society at large as discussed in the previous section. In other terms, while I might not caricature the prophet of Islam, I will not prevent others from doing so.

May God grant us wisdom to navigate through these troubled waters.

For brevity purposes, I did not tackle in this blogpost the issue of free speech in Lebanon and the wider Arab World. As Christians in the Middle East, how are we to approach freedom of speech in a highly religious and sometimes explosive context? As the article in Christianity Today by Jayson Casper shows, there is no consensus on the topic. What is your take?

6 Comments

  1. Charles Costa says:

    I wonder if part of the controversy is seeing the line between verbally attacking a person or attacking an idea. This article is a job well done.

  2. Thank you, Brother Wissam, for the finest, best researched article on Free Speech I have ever read!

  3. Brian Kiser says:

    Great article, Wissam.

  4. Brent Hamoud says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful analysis Wissam. You have done the grunt work of setting the background for a productive discussion on the freedom of speech!

    This post leads me to think of our context in Lebanon as a possible optimal place for Christians to practice free speech, particularly about Islam. On the one hand, there is institutionalized freedoms of expression that are rather robust. (The Lebanese can legally speak freely on a wide range of dicey issues, which is one reason for its rich heritage of press, literature, and thought in the Arab World.) On the other hand, Christians do not speak from a position of dominance and strength; they must be very mindful in their speech- especially about Islam and Muslims- because the implications can be direct and unsavory. This combination of institutionalized freedom and effective restrictions fosters a strong sense of responsibility, even humility, when expressing thoughts and opinions. Do you think these two-hands of free speech allow for a better implementation of this right in Lebanon? I believe it leads to careful consideration of what can be said and how, and this results in fruitful and thoughtful discourse.

    Perhaps a future post can analyze Lebanon as a unique (even exemplary) context of freedom of speech. Is this freedom here becoming more robust, or is it eroding?

  5. Very good response, Brent. Thanks!

  6. najoieessai1 says:

    Indeed, a very well researched and written essay/opinion about freedom of speech.
    Several important observations are included.

    In principle, whether one is free or not to speak his or her mind up about any issue, is question that yields to a big yes.

    However, a review of instances where freedom of speech leads to violence and riots yields to a more “conservative” answer.

    A quick reflection about reasons behind unexpected and unexplained violent reactions indicates that freedom of speech could turn “bad” when the “timing is wrong” i.e. when the statement or opinion is given amidst an environment of tension, conflict, etc. Expressing opinion could also yield to violent reactions when it is deemed to be intentionally insulting.

    This is not to say that violence when we don’t like or don’t approve of an opinion or statement is justified. It is simply not acceptable and wrong.

    The occurence of violence in reaction to an opinion expressed openly could highly indicate an alarming state of things in the society or community. It could be a sign of a state where there is a high level of animosity and maybe mutual distrust when it comes to the speaker’s intention.

    So, yes, we have a natural right to freedom of expression, and we want people to express their opinions. But in times of unrest maybe it is wise to be cautious and pay attention to what we say or what we do, especially when we know that we could easily be misunderstood. This is hard, but this is the only way to escape escalation of violence and being trapped in endless cycle of retaliation, which could easily lead to unmendable rifts.

    It is sad to know that someone is capable to kill an authority or a role model (in this case a teacher) because of taking the freedom to use illustrations to explain an idea … But this is the time when a person is called to turn to what the wise religious leaders preach i.e. controlling one’s reactions, not being violent under any pretense, and even turning a blind eye … proving that we trully trust God to somehow guide humans towards the righteous path.

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