Perspectives: Free speech is a two-way street

Perspectives: Free speech is a two-way street August 7, 2008

Back in 1989, when the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses sparked a new phenomenon of protests from Muslims – particularly by those in the West – I was a student body senator at the University of California at Berkeley, where the Free Speech Movement was born in the 1960s. Two bookstores were firebombed – apparently in retaliation for the book – though without a claim of responsibility. Along with several other Muslim students, I appeared on local television to denounce the bombings and state our belief that while Muslims could understandably be offended, no one had the right to impose censorship or intimidate others with threats to their safety or property.

That situation put us in the unique position of being targets of abuse by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, who either painted us as whitewashing a desire to impose our beliefs on others (this from the public in general) or apologizing for a legitimate Muslim rage, regardless of whether it had crossed the line into violence (this from fellow Muslims). It was a paradox that has repeated itself many times in the 20 years since, most recently with the Danish cartoons and the violent reactions that some Muslims around the world had to them.

Some of the more abrasive encounters between Muslims and others during this time have not centered around politics or foreign policy, but rather in this arena of free expression. Muslims have naturally taken exception to the way their faith has been portrayed by some artists, writers, and academics. Non-Muslims have, in turn, criticized some books by Muslims that are offensive, along with the institutions that sell them (as have we, incidentally). In both cases, people often talk at and over each other rather than to each other. Ideas are not exchanged, and the cycle continues unabated.

So why do Muslims appear to be so sensitive about what the media says about them? Muslims have generally felt embattled during the past few decades as their media image becomes increasingly unrepresentative of the average Muslim. As they struggle against this imagery, they are told that the pre-requisite for changing it is for them to meaningfully change the behavior of extremist Muslims, who exist far outside their sphere of influence – often a half a world away. Muslims in this position feel they have no other choice but to push back harder against portrayals that are insulting or misrepresenting. Some, unfortunately, push too far. But Muslims aren’t alone in this. Voices that seek to marginalize the presence of Muslims in public discourse routinely do the same.

Two recent examples illustrate this: the attempts by New York congressman Peter King and others to have “Why Islam” ads banned from NYC subways (based only on the reputation of an external supporter of them) and calls by some to prevent publication of the forthcoming book Jewel of Medina. Neither effort has succeeded in effectively dealing with controversy, which will remain dormant only to reappear another day.

Watching this exchange over time has taught me that the best response to free speech is simply more speech in return. Anyone should have the right to publish whatever they want about Islam or Muslims – even if their views are offensive – without fear of censorship or retribution. Muslims, however, shouldn’t be expected to be passive consumers of these views. An offended Muslim has the right – indeed, the responsibility – to vigorously critique anything written about them or their religion, provided they do not cross the line into intimidation and coercion. In an ideal world, both parties would open their minds enough to understand the other point of view.

Getting people on both sides of this equation to follow these guidelines will take a lot of reconditioning. But the alternative – a hyper-sensitive Muslim community that is unable to constructively respond to external criticism (or internal criticism, for that matter), coupled with a journalistic/artistic/secular community that feels genuine fear and is prevented from free expression – cannot be an option. We are witnessing today the stagnation and increased misunderstanding that comes from a stifled discourse.

Ultimately, no one has the absolute right not to be offended, nor does anyone have the right to live without the uncomfortable opinions of others. This is true whether it concerns flag burning (which should harm nothing other than a piece of cloth) or non-Muslim views of the Prophet Muhammad (which should not have an impact on a Muslim’s sincere belief). Religion and a universal sense of civility both dictate that emotions be kept in check to preserve social order. In such an environment, the freedom to speak openly – and all the benefits that come from it – can flourish.

To move forward, we all need to develop thicker skins, more open minds, and a common understanding of the principles of free speech, such as those that influenced me as a student and allowed me to subsequently influence others. Only then will everyone – Muslim and non-Muslim – be able to progress their societies and simultaneously preserve their rights.

(Photo: Michael Bina via flickr under a Creative Commons license)

Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of

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