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A Clarion Call for Free Speech By: Michael Rosen
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, February 17, 2006

“I am for the absolute freedom of speech everywhere, and that’s why I call upon every free sole [sic] among Arabs to use the Danish flag as a substitute for toilet paper. To illustrate every wall with graffiti making fun of everything Europe holds as holy: dancing rabbis on the carcasses of Palestinian children, hoax gas-chambers built in Hollywood in 1946 with Steven Spielberg’s approval stamp, and Aids [sic] spreading fagots [sic]. Let us defend the absolute freedom of speech altogether, wouldn’t that be a noble cause?”

-Dyab Abou JahJah, writing on the website of the Arab-European League

Yes it would, Dyab, yes it would.  Much as I hate to agree with the loathsome author of the scurrilous paragraph above – replete with comparable amounts of rank illiteracy and spiteful hatred – I cannot resist joining in his clarion call, however self-serving, to defend the nobility of free speech. 


Even as this Arab-European League has posted cartoons that deny the Holocaust in the most offensive terms imaginable, and even as state-sponsored newspapers throughout the Arab-Muslim world routinely publish material that would make the stoutest Cossack blush, we in the West – even the Jews among us – should not seek to stamp out the fire of free expression.  At the same time, our brethren in the Islamic world must stamp out the literal and figurative fires they have spread far and wide in reaction to free speech.


But first, why do the rioters insist on bringing the Jews into this?  Publication of the Mohammed cartoons was swiftly followed by the attempts of groups like the Arab-European League to “test the limits” of free speech by publishing gruesome anti-Semitic material.  Iran’s leading newspaper announced a contest for the 12 best cartoons about the Holocaust.  Echoing the ineloquent Dyab, the paper’s editor argued that “the Western papers printed these sacrilegious cartoons on the pretext of freedom of expression, so let’s see if they mean what they say and also print these Holocaust cartoons.”


Well, let’s at least credit the mullahs for consistency: given the forthright Holocaust denial of Iran’s lunatic president, the cartoon competition is nothing more than a case of art imitating life.  Still, it’s deeply disturbing that the appearance of depictions of the prophet Mohammed by a non-Jewish Danish newspaper would give rise to an outpouring of anti-Jewish vitriol.  Apparently, Jews, their history, and their symbols are easy targets, an assault on which somehow unites Islamists and assuages their feelings of humiliation. 


The Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman boldly put forward this argument in a statement about the cartoons, asserting that “While invoking the supposed ‘freedom of the press’ in their countries, Arab and Muslim leaders have refused to take any action to stem the drumbeat of anti-Semitism in widely circulated newspapers, many state-sponsored.”


These transparently cynical maneuvers aren’t fooling anyone. As The New Republic’s Jason Zengerle astutely observes, newspapers across Europe and the United States have never been afraid to publish offensive cartoons depicting Jews as bloodthirsty, money-grubbing manipulators.  We in the West already tolerate a generous amount of speech bashing or demeaning various figures and groups.


But motivations aside, let’s take the cartoon-rioting Islamists at their word; let’s assume that they genuinely believe that there’s some kind of double-standard when it comes to unpopular expression targeted at particular groups.  And let’s not let them get the jump on us.


Must we continue to bend over backward to accommodate even the most hateful words in order to defend the principles of liberty? Yes. We must support the venting of even the most splenetic expression, so long as it doesn’t actually incite violence – as was the case in London earlier this week where anti-cartoon activists marched under banners reading “Europe: you will pay.  Your 3/11 is on the way” or “7/7 is on its way” (the latter a bit puzzling, given that the 7/7 bombing already took place in London).


Yet, in general, it’s not violent speech we have to fear but violent reaction.  The issue here isn’t shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, it’s setting fire to a crowded embassy.  Let’s be careful to distinguish the two. 


The mark of civilized society is, on the one hand, permitting the publication of even loathsome speech and, on the other, refuting that expression with words and wisdom – not fists, flames, and firearms.


For instance, traditional Judaism, like Islam, disdains as idolatrous any attempt to depict God.  To some Jewish groups, the prohibition extends to any kind of photograph – a graven image.  In some Jerusalem neighborhoods, snapping pictures will provoke the casting of dirty looks or, worse, dirty diapers.  But even the most devout – and indigent – Jews do not run riot or set fires when others in the outside world paint or sculpt images of God or his prophets.  Nor, for that matter, did faithful Christians in Timor, Toledo, or Tblisi respond with violence to the display of the infamous Piss Christ.


If Jews and Christians, so often on the receiving end of the most hateful forms of expression, can overcome our revulsion in the service of liberty, so too can our brethren in the Islamic world.  To expect anything less of Muslims is to debase them and their faith – far more than any cartoon ever could.


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Michael M. Rosen, an attorney in San Diego, taught in Harvard's government department from 2001-2003.

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