February 17, 2015

Islamic Extremism and Freedom of Speech

Photograph of RMIT Muslim students praying out...
Photograph of RMIT Muslim students praying outside. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I'm inclined to agree with this post by Sean McGuire (My Secret Atheist Blog). Freedom of speech does apply to forms of speech we do not like, including that which comes from Imams who oppose democracy, civil rights, and other Western values in the name of Islam. I have written about how the real test of someone's commitment to free speech is not speech with which they agree but speech they find reprehensible. Much of what Hamza Chaoui fits that description for me. But like Sean notes, Chaoui has the right to express his views. And I agree that having them out in the open where they can be rebutted is preferable to alternative like trying to suppress them through legal sanctions.

Of course, none of this means that I particularly enjoy the prospect of defending Chaoui's speech or that I do not struggle with doing so. I don't like it one bit. I view it as necessary even though I feel a certain amount of revulsion at the same time. This sort of inner conflict is one of those important reminders that defending the freedom of speech is rarely easy. Then again, I guess most important rights are not easy to preserve.

I watched a video on YouTube recently that reminded me of just how difficult this sort of thing can be. It was a recent BBC documentary, produced after the Charlie Hebdo murders in France, called "The Battle for British Islam." I've embedded it at the end of this post. While it made for some difficult viewing, I'm glad I took the time to watch it.

The video brought up many unpleasant and conflicting emotions for me. It was great to see intelligent, articulate Muslims speaking out against the anti-democratic values expressed by Muslim extremists. It is clear that many of the Muslims living in Western democracies have embraced democratic values as much as anyone else, consider themselves citizens of the countries in which they reside, and oppose Islamic extremism just like the rest of us.

At the same time, the presence of some Muslims living in Western democracies who are actively seeking to undermine democracy in favor of Islamic theocracy is a disturbing reality few of us seem to want to acknowledge. That some of these anti-democratic Muslims have been able to skillfully exploit some of the rights we have - even though they oppose such rights - to accomplish their goals is a scary prospect. And yes, the fact that some secular persons living in the West will quickly dismiss this entire documentary as "Islamophobia" without bothering to think about the implications of what it suggests is cause for concern.

For the record, bigotry against Muslims exists and can certainly be problematic. Some people are determined to make false statements which are then generalized to all Muslims (e.g., "Muslims are terrorists"), and this is bigotry. Moreover, there is little question that this sort of bigotry can motivate hateful acts committed against Muslims. But the existence of bigotry against Muslims does not mean that all criticism of what Muslims do, say, or believe is motivated by bigotry. As long as we remember what bigotry means and do not confuse it with criticism, it should be easy to spot the difference. Bigotry motivated by religion is still bigotry, and no amount of "Islamophobia" changes that. And so, the problem does not rest with all Muslims; it rests with those Muslims who seek to replace democratic societies in the West with the sort of repressive theocracies one finds in some Middle Eastern nations.

The question for secular persons living in Western democracies is how we can best provide effective opposition to the stains of anti-democratic Islamic extremism that threaten us without trampling freedom of speech in the process. This is not an easy question, but it is one we should be asking ourselves.



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