Should we Censure Religious Extremists?

This afternoon I had lunch with Amos N. Guiora, professor of Law at J.S. Quinney Law School, University of Utah, and fellow Ann Arbor, Michigan native. We discussed his new book Freedom From Religion: Rights and National security. I must say Guiora speaks with a candidness that is both provocative and disturbing. In his book he addressed the issue of Religious Extremism.

In his view extremism emerges when a “doctrine of certitude” is disseminated throughout a religious body by religious leaders who use it to promote a narrow and violent stream of the religion.

This extremism can be seen in I. Beliefs - Which he argues can’t be changed II. Conduct - Which shouldn’t be changed and III. Speech - which he argues must be censured.

The of proposition of censure is surprising coming from Guiora. The First amendment is something of a sacred cow in constitutional law. So how does a law professor get to this point?

Today he laid out his case clearly. Religious terminology is full of deep and nuanced language. Often a religious leader can say something that is coded and dangerous. Guiora gave the example of a Fatwah as something that is not a direct order for assassination, but is interpreted as that by some in the audience.

We also discussed many of the ways that internal censure has failed. He gave the institutionalized statutory rape of the FLDS, and their practice of abandoning teen boys in Salt Lake City as one example. I must confess these are topics I know little to nothing about. He also spoke about honor killings within Muslim families, the “lost boys of Minneapolis”, the prayers for Obama’s Death by some, and the role of Radical Judaism in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

I agree with Guiora that there may be some sort of censure of extremism required, and I do realize that internal moderation has not and will not be effective. BUT I’m not sure his means are a good solution. I don’t think we should ever put censure in the hands of the state.

Guiora argues that we should expand the definition of a “clear and present danger” established by Schenck v. United States. Thus the State would means by which extremism is defined by each society.

Guiora believes this is necessary because “the greatest threat to civilized society is religious extremism.” I would argue that this may just put the government itself in a position where they become the most clear and present danger.

It’s a difficult issue, and we haven’t even begun to talk about what this sort of legislation would to to religious communities. There is already too much of a strong human tendency to marginalized those seen as “the Other.” I believe this idea may cause much more injustace then it prevents…. What do you think?

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  • Dave Hasey

    The question that must be asked (and answered) is "How do we define religious extremism?" A secondary questions is "Who has the power to make the decision?" This is where talk of censureship can have real consequences. For instance, does the mere fact that a person may be anti-abortion or anti-gay make them an extremist? If a person in power felt thus, what affect could that have on any form of dissention? I'm sure that to the Judaisers the Apostle Paul was a religious extremist. How easily can censureship also be used against political dissent? It seems that it is very easy to open Pandora's box here. Where do you draw the line!!!

  • io

    I would be comfortable with my government interpreting some acts of speech as incitement to commit a crime that are not *literally* requests to commit a crime, but are in a form that is widely understood within the speaker's community to be incitement at least to some known segment of the audience (if not in those words). So, if a religious leader censures someone in a form known in that community as an endorsement of violence, I would like to see that leader prosecuted.

    Beyond that, I am opposed to Guiora's proposal on the grounds that it is absolutely unsafe to vest all types of authority in any one place, including the State.

  • Jim

    Censure free speech? No $#%^ing way. The first amendment is vital to the freedom and health of the United States and as annoying and sometimes dangerous it is to have to listen to hate filled verbal bile people need to be able to say what is on their minds.

    Prosecuting people based on the idea that some people will take their words as a go ahead for acts of violence is an extremely dangerous concept bordering on Orwellian "thought crimes". If the DA can prove conspiracy charges then go ahead but saying people can be held accountable for the actions of those who listen to their words is ridiculous unless you can prove intent to commit a crime.

  • Dave Hasey

    One of the major problems I see with this is that if an "extremist" from one side of an issue gains power, then anyone disagreeing with him/her falls under censureship, and anyone agreeing with him doesn't. I'm sure that in some circles the inflammatory words of Jeremiah Wright and Al Sharpton could incite some to violence. Should they then be censured? On the other side, can we say that because George Tillman was shot, that all condemnation of abortion should be censured? I think not. The end result is fear – fear to have any opinion at all lest it offend someone.

  • Jim

    Amen, Brother.