During the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, both Egypt and Yemen called for legislation that would limit the freedom of expression among member countries.
Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, explained that “Egypt respects freedom of expression. One that is not used to incite hatred against anyone. One that is not directed towards one specific religion or culture. A freedom of expression that tackles extremism and violence. Not the freedom of expression that deepens ignorance and disregards others.”
Pakistan has also stated it has an interest in this type of legislation, but was a little more upfront about their actual intent. “We would go to the UN and OIC and get a law passed to stop anti-Islam activities, including blasphemy, forever,” said Pakistan Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf. I suppose he should get points for honesty.
Now, let’s ignore the fact that such legislation 1) has absolutely no chance of passing the general assembly and 2) has absolutely no chance of ever being enforced if by some miracle it was passed. Because this isn’t a serious call for action so much as it is political and cultural posturing on the part of Egypt, Yemen and Pakistan.
This isn’t to say that these countries, and the Muslim community in general, are not in favor of such a law being passed, but they’re not stupid either. They realize it’s not going to happen. But this is just another demonstration against the recent Islamophobia in the West. Only this time, it’s non-violent.
This is progress, I suppose. But it’s not exactly a step in the right direction, either.
The problem is that these countries are trying to frame this issue as a battle between tolerance and intolerance. And certainly, the film that set off these protests and plenty of other Western rhetoric towards Islam and the Muslim world are intolerant and hateful. But ultimately, the result of a ban on anti-Islamic expression contributes more to the suppression of dissenting opinion, satire and criticism than it does to hate speech. And when speech that is fundamentally necessary to a free society is restricted, that is an act more intolerant than any insult hurled by ignorant rednecks.
The cultural and political significance of free speech is that it allows discourse to take place, instead of the ideological monopoly that results when speech is limited. Yes, in addition to the criticism and comic interpretations of Islam and Muhammad that will arise from free speech, there will be hate speech as well.
But there will also be criticism of that hate speech. Criticism, even if unwarranted and erroneous, is given extra weight if it is prohibited. Censorship gives ammunition to the ideas it attempts to forbid. But allow people to listen to the paranoid, racist fear-mongering spouted by Rush Limbaugh, Terry Jones or Pamela Geller and most people will be smart enough to call bullshit.
There’s nothing to prevent any of these countries from enforcing this misguided legislation in their own countries. But to attempt to expand it to the rest of the world contradicts the supposed intention of the legislation itself; to promote tolerance and to preserve the peace. Yet censorship is inherently intolerant in and of itself, and the obligation to preserve the peace lies with the person who acts out in violence.
Instead of pressing other countries to restrict their speech, why not attempt to instill the tolerance they preach in their own countries? Responding to misguided criticism or accusations of barbarism with dialogue and non-violence will say more than hate speech ever will.