Freedom of speech: Blasphemy and the press

A safe place for speech

Back in 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published an article entitled “Muhammeds ansigt” (“The face of Muhammad”), referring to the Prophet Muhammad. Along with it, they published 12 cartoons, many of which depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a demeaning way. After many other newspapers, mainly European, reprinted these cartoons (along with ones in Muslim countries like Libya, Jordan, Yemen and Malaysia), protests were held around the world with some of them turning violent. Embassies were burned down and about 150 people were killed.

Why was there such an outrage against these cartoons? For Muslims, it is prohibited to draw or depict the Prophet Muhammad or any other Prophet – such as Jesus or Moses – for that matter. This is out of respect to the Prophets and to avoid idolatry. But it is not the first time the Prophet has been drawn. There are many books that have drawings of the Prophet, written by both Western and Muslim scholars. In fact, there is even a carving of the Prophet Muhammad sitting atop the United States Supreme Court in Washington, DC.

For many reasons, people in the Middle East and Muslim majority countries are not used to free and open speech and criticism of authority figures; especially not the beloved Prophet. So for a population who rarely reads criticism of their authority figures, the mere thought that someone had insulted their Prophet, combined with the frequent images of dead Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, only added fuel to the fire – hence the resulting outrage.

In America, however, there is considerable emphasis on the freedom of speech outlined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. But in light of these events and similar ones, should the First Amendment ever be limited to exclude the freedom to insult religious beliefs, or to commit blasphemy (something still forbidden in many European countries)? Should these kinds of actions be made explicitly illegal?

The First Amendment is an all encompassing principle. Though it forbids the government from promoting or prohibiting the practice of religion, it also forbids the government from making laws that abridge the freedom of the press. It is no accident that these two clauses are contained within the same Amendment.

America is a great country because the government recognizes that its citizens have certain inalienable rights granted to them by their Creator – even if that leads to denial of said Creator. As such, there are a number of reasons why the press should be able to criticize, insult, curse religion and even to make blasphemous statements.

The first is that the courts and the government would be deciding what beliefs constitute a religion and what do not. How would they go about “approving” religions? And when they do approve a religion, would that mean that all other beliefs are open season for the press? Would there then be an approved list of religions every year? What would the criteria be? This power could be used by the majority to suppress unpopular beliefs held by minorities. How would they draw the line between criticism and insults? Should there be a line drawn?

Obviously there are many problems with the government defining what is “religion” and what is not. Meddling in religious affairs goes against the spirit of the first clause of the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. It can surely be argued that by recognizing a certain set of beliefs as a religion and different set of beliefs as not a religion, the government would be “respecting an establishment of religion.”

The second problem lies in determining what is blasphemous or insulting. Will the courts determine this on their own? Or will they look to religious scholars for blasphemy criteria? If it’s the former, what will they base their criteria on? Government and courts are not qualified to determine insulting material.

If it’s the latter, which religion will they follow? Different religions have different views on blasphemy. Something that may insult one group may not be insulting to another group. Even different sects of the same religion have different opinions on the same issue. For example, most Sunni Muslims reject any depiction of prophets, but some Shiite Muslims have no problem with respectful depictions of them. There will be no way to please everyone.

Obviously having the courts determine the criteria for blasphemy and then prosecuting people based on it, is unconstitutional. It becomes law that promotes religion, which is in direct conflict with the first clause of the First Amendment. Simply put, people have the right to say what ever they want.

Finally, and most importantly, people should have the right to question religious institutions. Not only should they be able to question religious institutions and scholars, but they should be able to insult and commit blasphemy, because after all that is what this country’s founding was based on. The Founding Fathers were considered heretics and spoke up against the Crown. The Pilgrims were ousted from England because their beliefs were different.

Censoring this type of speech puts a plug on the marketplace of ideas. It is this type of speech that makes broader discussions possible. Discussions on religion and violence should be allowed so that people can freely convey their thoughts.

Though I want to be able to say all sorts of blasphemous things, it is my refusal to make such statements that makes me a believer. I want to have the right to say God does not exist; however, having that right does not mean I will exercise it. I may not agree with what someone says, but I will surely defend their right to say it. Just because we have the right to do something does not mean we have to do it.

The Prophet Muhammad himself was often called a liar. Yet he did nothing to his accusers or defamers, replying only that “you have your beliefs and I have mine.” In the spirit of this response, it should be left up to the free market of discourse to choose what is censored and what is not.

Ammar Alo, a past president of the University of Toledo MSA, is a third year law student at Ave Maria School of Law, proud father of one girl, and a practicing Muslim.