What’s Free Speech Got to Do, Got to Do With It?

Gah. What is it with people – Anne Applebaum being the latest – who claim that protests about defamations of Islam (the Pope’s typically idiotic ramblings being the latest example) are free speech issues? They aren’t. The concept of freedom of speech says that governments are not to censure citizens for expressing themselves. It’s a limitation on the power of governments, not anyone else. Which leads to the question – why is a dispute between a religious figure and the international Muslim community a free speech matter? Answer: it isn’t.
What it is is the latest case of overheated responses to Islamophobia overshadowing Islamophobia itself. Yes, violent protests are bad. But that doesn’t excuse Benedict or make him some sort of civil libertarian martyr. The real issue is that the world’s preeminent religious leader can get off making statements that could have been posted on Stormfront. That’s a problem, and it should be treated as such.
A side note: I get annoyed when writers (today is the LA Times‘ editorial page’s turn) act like Islam needs some sort of Reformation. One of the most interesting section of America at the Crossroads by Frank Fukuyama is when he quotes Olivier Roy’s argument that Islam is in one already. People seem to think of the Reformation as a time of moderation in Christianity. It wasn’t. Martin Luther and John Calvin were a lot of things, but they were not moderates. They differed from the Catholic Church, but in many ways they were much, much more conservative. Similarly, the leaders of the Muslim Reformation are not moderates either. They are either Shi’a fundamentalists (Sadr, Hezbollah, Iran’s leadership) or Salafists (al-Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas). But their more modern, personal Islam might well pave the way for a moderate and even liberal Islam. Who knows: in a few years, we might have the Muslim equivalents of Unitarians and Quakers.

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