Let's Think

Where does the divide between freedom of and hate speech lie?

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The shooting last week in Dallas, Texas, of two suspected gunmen at an exhibition of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad raises the question: Where does the divide between freedom of speech and hate speech lie?

It is interesting that the particular event, at which cartoonists competed for a $10 000 prize for the best caricature of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad was held in response to and at the same site of an event in held in January and called “Stand with the Prophet”.

According to one report the “January event spurred the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), a group led by prominent anti-Islam activist Pam Geller, to organise the cartoon contest at the same location.

The AFDI is considered an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist and hate organisations. The AFDI appears on the Centre’s list of ‘hate groups’ and says about Geller: “She’s relentlessly shrill and coarse in her broad-brush denunciations of Islam and makes preposterous claims.”

Geller, who claimed last week’s event – “Jihad Watch Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” – was organised to “defend free speech” has a history of anti-Islamist activism that dates back to 2009. At the time she was leader of the movement against a mosque in Manhattan. She told the New York Times she believed the only “moderate Muslim is a secular Muslim” and that when Muslims “pray five times a day … they’re cursing Christians and Jews five times a day”.

The keynote speaker at the exhibition was Geert Wilders, a far-right Dutch politician who in 2009 was banned from visiting the United Kingdom after calling the Koran “fascist”.  

Deliberate provocation

It would seem as if some deliberate provocation was involved in the motivation behind the event in Dallas – and it would not be the first time.

In fact, the battle of recent years surrounding cartoons of Muhammad started in 2005 when the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons of the prophet. The paper’s editor said about the publication of the cartoons that it was “a deliberate attempt to poke a stick in the eye of Denmark’s Muslim community. To rouse them, to essentially prove that ‘unless you can put up with this, you don’t belong in Denmark’”.

In January this year, in response to the attack on the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo by Muslim extremists, the Christian Science Monitor, under the heading “Were Charlie Hebdo cartoons only about free speech? Maybe not,” wrote: “In retrospect ... the Danish cartoons picked up by Charlie Hebdo were always intended to be part of the provocative local anti-Muslim campaign sweeping Denmark, not a statement about free speech.”

And the US State Department in 2006 reacted to the Danish cartoon controversy by saying it supported freedom of expression but that “anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images”.

The Christian Science Monitor article also points out that the “Muhammad cartoon crisis actually began with Kare Bluitgen, a Danish Marxist author who is avowedly secular and anti-Islam. Mr. Bluitgen wanted to illustrate a children’s book on Islam that would depict the face of Muhammad, something that is offensive to orthodox Muslims.”

There are also plenty evidence that incidents like the campaigns by Jyllands-Posten, picked up by Charlie Hebdo play into the hands of recruitment drives of extremist and violent Islamist organisations.

And clearly Geller knew exactly what she was doing when she organised the exhibit, stating on her organisations’ website beforehand “we know the risks”, but the exhibit has to be staged.” After the shooting incident she said: “We were prepared for violence.”

Other side of the coin

The other side of the coin is that the atrocities perpetrated in the name of Islam around the world are very well documented and the voices of moderate members of the faith far too muted or absent in protest.

Akbar Ahmed, who chairs the Islamic Studies department at American University, told CNN that in the “context of Europe, where in many countries Muslims feel like they are besieged, these images are not seen as criticism but as bullying. Violence as a response is clearly wrong and disproportionate. However, it is not so much about religious anger as it is about vengeance.”

Frankly, this sounds much too much like rationalisation and is not good enough; no non-violent provocation can ever justify what happened at Charlie Hebdo or what was apparently planned in Dallas.

But that is a subject to be looked at in more depth on another occasion.

For the moment, we think, the moderate majorities in societies across the globe should ask themselves the question whether they can afford to allow hate speech to hide behind the skirt of freedom of speech.


Since I have penned this opinion piece, it has come to my attention that 210 writers who are members of the organisation PEN America dedicated to defending free speech have decided to boycott a gala dinner in New York at which Charlie Hebdo was to receive a prize for courage.

One of the organisers of the boycott, Rachel Kushner (whose surname just happens to share the Hungarian root of my own), said they object to the French publication’s “cultural intolerance”.

And Eliot Weinberger wrote in a London Review of Books blog post, that “for a bunch of white guys in a Catholic country, making fun of the pope is not the same as categorising a beleaguered minority in that country as moronic towel-heads”.

It would seem as though at least the debate is on about what should be the boundaries, if any, of freedom of speech.

Recommended additional readingTexas shooting is a pointless chapter in the story of intolerance and extremism


by Piet Coetzer

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