Muftic: US, Europe and freedom of speech
The shootings in Denmark and the attacks in Paris against Charlie Hebdo had much in common. Both targets were writers or publications that published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed and they were twinned with a deadly assault on a Jewish site.
Differences between Europe and the United States reacting to the shootings revealed different interpretations of freedom of speech and press.
We in the U.S. cannot be smug; we have and will have homegrown terrorist attacks by those disaffected, whether in Oklahoma City or Boston. The U.S. mainstream media would not, had not, and did not publish cartoons offensive to Muslims. We know we have the freedom to do it, but we also know we have the choice, respect, and responsibility not to do it.
On the other hand, Europeans had no qualms about a press offending anyone. They had the freedom to do it and they felt a need to continue so they would not be cowed by fear. The Je Suis Charlie demonstrations in Paris delivered that defiant message.
There was an instructive exchange on MSNBC Morning Joe in mid-February between the hosts and an editor of the newspaper in Denmark who had published cartoons offensive to Muslims. Both saluted the shared values of freedom of the press but differed about the approach.
The Americans talked about taking into account the feelings of those who were the object of the hate speech. The Danish publisher said he was exercising his right of freedom of the press, would not be cowed by fear, and “we should get a ‘thicker skin’”.
Some governments in Europe suppress any display of expression of faith in the name of fairness including banning wearing headscarves, burkas, stars of David, or crosses in schools. Their minorities feel such laws, however, communicate they and their religions are not welcome. U.S. freedom of expression and speech means that all may wear symbols of their religion.
Our tradition of tolerance and respect is actually a new phenomenon and it was born of a multi-cultural, multi- racial society with a 200 year history of intolerance and discrimination. With new generations a consensus of most of us believe that discrimination and hate speech are wrong.
That awareness was not caused so much by fear of violence as it was a sense of fairness and doing what was right. We did not ask media or those who resented discrimination to get a thicker skin. Instead individuals, media and political institutions, shouldered the responsibility not to publish or spout hate speech. Some laws and court decisions interpreting the Constitution support the action.
True, attitudes of some are still evolving. A fraternity’s racist chant in March resulted in the University of Oklahoma’s administration taking swift action, expelling the fraternity and the instigators. What happened in North Carolina recently when three Muslim-American students were shot dead was especially significant and encouraging because it came spontaneously from the hearts of fellow non-Muslim students. The world saw television reports of the thousands who demonstrated out of sympathy with the victims as they filled a sports stadium in solidarity.
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