I haven’t turned on the TV yet today, to see how the unrest in the Middle East is progressing, but as of yesterday, there was rioting and burning of American flags in 21 countries, in protests against America. The Jewish newspaper Haaretz has an article which says that the film, which sparked the riots, was made by an Israeli filmmaker who has gone into hiding.
An article on the Weekend Edition of Counter Punch, entitled The Reality Behind the “Free Speech” Argument America and the Muslims, written by Esam Al-Amin, explains the importance of current events, relative to America’s freedom of speech.
This quote is from the article written by Esam Al-Amin which you can read in full here:
…. But on a more basic level, does the West really believe in free speech or does it apply a double standard when it comes to Muslim sensibilities? Let’s check the record.
In the private sector, when Google was asked to remove the highly inflammatory YouTube video, it immediately and correctly cited its long established policy of supporting freedom of speech, including all despised speech (though it reluctantly agreed to suspend it in Egypt and Libya.) But as the Jewish Press reported on August 1, Google had no problem removing 1,710 videos and closing their affiliated accounts because “A substantial number of those videos concerned Holocaust denial and defense of Holocaust deniers.” According to the newspaper report, Google “closed the user’s account within 24 hours” of receiving the complaint by a group that monitors anti-Semitism in Australia.
In July 2011, Facebook was pressured by Israeli authorities to close the accounts of many Palestinian activists. Israel complained that the activists were coordinating their plans to travel to Israel and cause disruptions. In reality, the activists were trying to make a strong political statement online. Needless to say, the Israeli government could have easily rescinded any visas it might have issued to these activists or prevented any person from entering the country had they actually traveled. There was no call for incitement or violence by the activists to justify closing their accounts.
People in the U.S. may not be aware of these incidents where hate or disfavored speech was taken down. But many people in the Muslim world are aware of such interventions that run contrary to stated principles. Plausibly, they wonder, if foreigners such as the Attorney General of Israel or an Australian monitoring group can get Google or Facebook to shut down videos or close accounts, how can one argue that the President or the Secretary of State cannot make similar requests? They also recall that in 2009 Secretary Clinton intervened and prevailed over the executives of Facebook and Twitter on behalf of the activists of the so-called Green movement in Iran. This is not an argument to advocate closing down accounts or removing videos but simply to illustrate the hypocrisy and double standard practiced by public officials and business conglomerates when dealing with Muslim concerns.
Furthermore, many European countries enacted laws in the past three decades that criminalize any speech or writings that question the official accounts of the Holocaust. In 1996 French philosopher Roger Garaudy published his book, The Founding Myths of Modern Israel. Critics charged that his book contained Holocaust denial and consequently the French government indicted him, and shortly thereafter, the courts banned any further publication of the book. In 1998 Garaudy was convicted, sentenced to a suspended jail sentence of several years, and fined forty thousand dollars.
In 2005, English writer David Irving was apprehended in Austria on a 1989 arrest warrant of being a Holocaust denier. He was subsequently convicted of “trivializing, grossly playing down, and denying the Holocaust,” and sentenced to three years imprisonment.
Moreover, British Muslim Ahmed Faraz was sentenced in Dec. 2011 to three years in prison in London after being convicted of “disseminating a number of books deemed to be terrorist publications.” The publication Faraz was convicted of distributing in his bookstore was the 1964 book, Milestones, written by the late Egyptian author Sayyed Qutb.
But the U.S. government’s recent record is far more alarming. In fact, since 9/11 draconian sentences have been handed down on the account of what traditionally was considered pure first amendment activities.
In one case involving American-born Tarek Mehanna, Yale Professor Andrew F. March wrote in the New York Times, “As a political scientist specializing in Islamic law and war, I frequently read, store, share and translate texts and videos by jihadi groups. As a political philosopher, I debate the ethics of killing. As a citizen, I express views, thoughts and emotions about killing to other citizens. As a human being, I sometimes feel joy (I am ashamed to admit) at the suffering of some humans and anger at the suffering of others.” He further wrote, “At Mr. Mehanna’s trial, I saw how those same actions can constitute federal crimes, because Mr. Mehanna’s conviction was based largely on things he said, wrote and translated.”
What these examples and many others illustrate is that the protection of the constitutional freedoms of speech, expression, and association are used selectively in the U.S. on the basis of political judgments. American officials, public intellectuals, and opinion makers revel in invoking the first amendment as an inviolable principle when Islam or its sacred symbols are attacked, and then find rationalizations and loopholes when American Muslims engage in objectionable free speech activities. However, this double standard is not lost on the majority of people in the Muslim world and across the globe.
The criteria to judge whether a society values and respects free speech is when the most vulnerable members of society, those who might be the targets of the majority, can feel safe and free to say what they think when they want on any subject without fear, intimidation or negative repercussions. In other words, to know whether America today honors free speech one must ask one hundred random American Muslim activists that question to get the real answer.
In a nutshell, America shall only have credibility as a champion and guardian of freedom of speech and expression when the thoughts, speeches, writings, fatwas, translations, poetry, and web browsing of Mehanna and his colleagues are not criminalized. Only when they are set free can America reclaim back the mantle.