The Dangerous Side of the Free Speech Debate

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Originally published in the Huffington Post

With last week’s release of Charlie Hebdo’s newest edition, marking the one-year anniversary of the infamous terrorist attack on its offices that killed 12 people, once again the debate about free speech has been ignited. In its recent publication, the editors at the magazine decided to take aim at all religion and blame God for terrorism. But this time, the debate is joined by other incidents which bring new light, depth and even danger to the conversation about the use and defense of free speech.

For instance, the day before this publication, 78-year-old Pastor James McConnell was cleared of hate speech charges after a three-day trial for his 2014 sermon accusing Islam of being “heathen,” “satanic” and a “doctrine spawned in hell.” Of course, his acquittal has been heralded as a victory for free speech. There was wide debate regarding why this pastor was arrested for his expression of free speech while others argued about the offensive nature of his comments.

As a devout and outspoken Muslim, I know his comments are based on hearsay and ignorance about Islam instead of its actual teachings, but there is no reason for Pastor McConnell to be imprisoned for his words. He has the legal right to express his disagreement with other religions and to choose to use fear as a tool to convince his church members to never consider studying Islam. No matter how distasteful it is to use fear to keep his membership from dwindling, there is no reason for him to face legal punishment. I don’t mind disagreement with my faith, but of course those criticizing it should expect that I will also use my speech to address those criticisms. As I have spoken and written about on numerous occasions, true Islam does not call for any punishment for offensive speech.

More dangerous, however, are those who leverage the controversy around the new Charlie Hebdo magazine and the arrest of Pastor James McConnell to empower their staunch argument for free rein to openly mock, ridicule and offend people of religion in general and Muslims in particular. Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at City University London, is one such person and wrote an opinion piece arguing “Free speech should provoke. It might offend; it might be unfair; and it could well engender prejudice. But it’s the penalty we must be prepared to pay for the right to freedom of expression.”

I strongly disagree with the assertion that we should herald and celebrate the use of speech that engenders prejudice and provokes a dangerous environment. Historians who have studied gross atrocities committed against ethnic communities have uncovered that such persecution had its origins in hate-filled and divisive speech that mocked, insulted and provoked those communities.

Long before the Holocaust, Jews were mocked, offended and ridiculed by speech that was intended to engender prejudice. This “free speech” not only culminated in one of the ugliest moments in human history with the Holocaust but also in the pogroms in Europe – where Jews were repeatedly rounded up to be killed or have their homes burned. They were completely banned from England for centuries. I am frankly shocked that Professor Greenslade supports such speech that contributed to the death of millions of Jews. Let’s not forget our own history in the United States when provocation, mockery, fear and mistrust was expressed against the Japanese, culminating in the U.S. government uprooting an estimated 120,000 Americans and shipping them off to remote, military-style internment camps for three years – for no other reason than that they were at least one-sixteenth (6%) Japanese heritage.

How can anyone with any sense of integrity defend the expressions of “free speech” that were used to engender prejudice that led to the demonization and then persecution of innocent human beings? How can we let such so-called “free speech defenders” control the narrative with their rhetoric of the right to spread prejudice and mistrust? Is not the preservation of innocent lives the highest priority?

These promoters of prejudice will certainly claim that I am attempting to strip them of their rights and liberties. So let me be crystal clear: I am not calling for legislation that would ban such speech – primarily because I don’t believe the government should have to make laws telling us to not be stupid. I truly believe that human beings are good people. I believe here in my country that Americans are moral people. And instead of stooping to the level of hate-mongers, we as a society must be willing to push back against such divisive speech aimed at any group – just as we would push back against racist, homophobic or anti-Semitic speech that only serves to engender prejudice.

Provocative and incendiary speech is the greatest insult to the idea of free speech. We, as a society, must do better and recognize that our strength lies in being a moral force – in elevating our civility to the highest levels possible, as opposed to sticking to the bare minimum the law permits.

As an American and an Ahmadi Muslim, you will find in me a commitment to counter the narrative of hate and extremism. Just as the Khalifa of Islam, His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad, has taught us, we cannot defeat extremism and evil by following an ideology that serves only to demonize and insult others. Rather, we counter extremism and its ilk with better, more compassionate and more pluralistic concepts that are universal to all people – respect, integrity, and justice.

About the author

Harris Zafar

Harris Zafar serves as National Spokesperson for Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and is author of the book “Demystifying Islam: Tackling the Tough Questions.” Harris addresses issues facing Islam and the Muslim world in various media and also elucidates the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s nationwide efforts towards pluralism and understanding. As National Director of Faith Outreach for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, he encourages Muslim youth, in particular, to speak out about the true, peaceful and tolerant teachings of Islam.

Harris is a frequent speaker and lecturer about Islam at conferences, universities, schools, churches and other public events. He has spoken in cities such as London, New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Seattle and Portland. Harris is also an Adjunct Professor at two colleges, teaching classes about Islam. He has appeared on several national and local news programs to provide commentary on current issues from an Islamic perspective and to explain what Muslim Americans are doing to combat intolerance.

His approach to religion is based on rational discourse and justice.

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By Harris Zafar