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Incendiary speech

In the 'cartoon controversy,' principles of free speech and mutual respect collide.
By Forrest Church
3.6.06

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Protesting the Danish cartoons

A February 10 march in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, protested cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

If you’re on the lookout for some literary swordplay to add a splash of color to Lent, may I suggest Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s new swashbuckler, Purity of Blood. The novel’s subtext is serious enough that at the end of six sword fights you won’t pinch yourself for having completely wasted your time. Set in the early 17th century at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, the purity in question turns on the blood of third- and fourth-generation Roman Catholics whose religious practice disguises the taint of their Jewish heritage, a human stain that can only be atoned for—in the eyes of God’s henchmen—by an auto-da-fé.

Pondering the pyre—a dozen bodies having been sacrificed in whole burnt offerings—one swordsman sighs to another, “At any rate, it was the will of God.” Diego Alatriste, the half-redeemed, sad-eyed hero of the book, does not reply. “God’s will or the Devil’s,” he mutters to himself. The narrator, who as a boy barely escaped the flames, presents the author’s view, a bit of modernist wisdom that is still not commonplace today:

“Worst of all is the person who acts as exegete of The Word—whether it be from the Talmud, the Bible, the Koran, or any other book already written or yet to come. I am not fond of giving advice—no one can pound opinions into another’s head—but here is a piece that costs you nothing: Never trust a man who reads only one book.”

I read that and, as a good Unitarian, approved heartily—too heartily, perhaps.

For me to denounce the violence triggered by the most extreme of today’s fundamentalists is, in this publication anyway, to flatter the converted. My damning an absolute that you abhor is no more likely to produce an added ounce of virtue to the world than my extolling the glories of sobriety to a group of friends who despise the taste or effect of alcohol. In fact, the contrary may prove true. Even as prohibition encouraged criminality without diminishing the urge to drink, damning suicide bombers without examining our own absolutes and the ways in which they may unintentionally provoke the very actions we rightfully disdain is like bathing in a light whose very brightness leads us to forget that an unclouded sun casts the longest shadows.

So let’s begin where we are and focus on our own blind spots—on, say, the liberal democratic absolute of free speech. We lazily imagine liberty to be a virtue, but it is not. More even than it is a right, liberty is an instrument; libertine and libertarian spring from the same root. Like free markets, free expression can have immoral and amoral as well as moral consequences. Mindful of this, one limitation we place on the right of free speech is the freedom to shout “Fire” in a crowded theater—because we understand how dangerous such reckless provocation can be. No one would be burned to death by someone merely shouting the word, but people could be trampled to death. Cast in Biblical terms, “Thou shalt not kill” trumps “Thou mayest say anything thou wilt.”

Following the logic of this principle, the best argument for banning hate speech is not that it expresses hatred but that it fans hatred. Think about the Holocaust deniers. Four centuries after the Spanish Inquisition and almost three-quarters of a century after the Holocaust, being vividly acquainted with the history of the Jews most of us understand how the reckless spread of bigoted lies and hateful caricatures reinforces bigotry and foments hate. We can easily connect the dots from anti-Semitism to suicide bombers.

The resulting picture is why—though it may devolve into silliness—the taboo against hate speech on most college campuses, and new laws in many Western countries against hate speech cannot glibly be dismissed under the condescending rubric of political correctness. A historian who confessed denying that there were gas chambers in Auschwitz was sentenced in Austria on February 20 to three years in prison. The severity of this sentence may make civil libertarians cringe, but, after years of education, many of us finally understand why laws against denying the Holocaust end up on the books. We are sensitive to how self-perpetuating myths feed the scourge of anti-Semitism. We know by heart how words as well as sticks and stones break bones, how the hate speech that once ignited furnaces today provokes not only stone throwing but also suicide bombs. When religion is involved, hate speech kills. It always has. And it likely always will.


Under any definition, satiric cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad can certainly be classified as hate speech. Yet one Western paper after another raises (as they would never do about ridiculing the Holocaust) the totem of free speech as a sacred absolute in secular democracies. If we were less provincial in our religious understanding and less parochial in our appreciation for religious history—if we knew as much about Islamic history as we do about recent Jewish history—we would surely feel the horror most Muslims feel when confronted by irreverent cartoons of the prophet’s sacred image. Unlike representations of Jesus (which the Christian faith encourages, again to the point of silliness), in Islam representations of Muhammad, however reverent, are taboo, a desecration of the faith. We talk blithely about free speech even as we speak proudly about mutual respect, but when the two principles collide—when to speak freely is to be disrespectful—at the very least we must be prepared to connect the dots between untrammeled Western freedom of expression and riots throughout the Middle East.

I am not suggesting that hate speech justifies violent retribution, only that, in today’s tinderbox, the resulting insult can easily kindle it. That Muslim rioters are practiced in hatred especially against Jews—witness only the rhetorical sewage spewing out of Iran—is more obvious and no less deplorable. But in deploring the obvious, we might begin to acquaint ourselves a little more closely with the encompassing ignorance that shadows almost everything we know about Islam. We might condemn the rioters in terms they would more easily understand, and in so doing join our voices with those in the vast moderate to conservative Muslim community who are not only speaking out but who also are far more intimately threatened by the spreading wildfire of violence throughout the Islamic world than my congregation in Manhattan will ever be.

We might, in short, take a leaf from Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s book, What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America. Rauf is chairman of the Cordoba Initiative; its mission is to heal the relationship between the Muslim World and America. In deprecating violence, he draws not from Western traditions alone but from the Qur’an itself. In a “call to conscience” he issued after the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Iraq two weeks ago, Rauf invokes “the Islamic ethical imperative, which commands us to show compassion toward our fellow human beings.” He cites “the Qur’anic command to be respectful of others’ religious sensibilities, and to not mock those who worship other than the One God, unless they curse God out of their ignorance [6:108].”

This Qur’anic injunction supports religious freedom of conscience, with but a single caveat—hate speech. We should make ourselves familiar with it. Rauf writes:

“More odious than the destruction of property, which is . . . a major sin in Islam, is the willful creation of human strife, sectarian hatred, social turmoil and mayhem. The Qur’an condemns this mortal sin, calling it fassad fil’ard. It equates those who commit this major crime with having killed all of humankind [5:32-34] and promises them a grievous punishment in the hereafter and deserving the worst penalty if caught in this life.”

And did you know that the Qur’an “urges us to respond to evil by doing what is more beautiful in behavior, so that the person with whom one bears enmity transforms into a close friend [41:34-36]”? Rauf writes: “This is the Islamic ethical imperative, to transform hatred into compassion.”

In every scriptural tradition there are texts that sanction terror. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” Jesus tells his disciples [Matthew 10:34], who generations later followed his injunction by sponsoring the crusades. And there is this from the Hebrew Psalms:

Fair Babylon, you predator,
    A blessing on him who repays you in kind
    What you have inflicted on us;
    A blessing on him who seizes your babies
    And dashes them against the rocks! [Psalm 137:8-9]

Appalled by its letter, modern secularists have stashed away more than enough ammunition to dismiss any of the world’s scriptures, but until they begin to appreciate the redemptive value of the spirit that teaches Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike to reconcile with our enemies, the most enlightened skeptic will continue to be as much a part of the modern world’s problem as they are of its solution.

One final suggestion. If our leaders hope to stem religious violence, renaming the war on terror the war on “radical Islam,” as our president has recently done, or even the war on “radical Jihadism” is to objectify evil in terms sacred to hundreds of millions of people. To put this language in perspective, a war declared on Christianity, no matter how one should choose to modify it, would rightfully incite a Christian backlash. We needn’t sacrifice principle in being careful about what we say, simply remember that words are heard differently by different ears. The most powerful nation in the world can choose either to lead a religious crusade or to walk beside all the world’s peoples in a shared intolerance for the wanton, indiscriminate violence that terrorism, no matter what cloak it wears, inflicts on everyone.

None of this comes easily or naturally to us. But as we educate ourselves, mindful of our ignorance and with it our inevitable insensitivity, we might at least be careful about what we say. Words spoken carelessly by so-called enlightened individuals who couldn’t possibly imagine that anyone in his or her right mind could care so deeply as to take violent offense add oil and bodies to already burning pyres. In short, when elevated onto the secular altar of freedom of expression and exercised with casual, ignorant disregard for deep religious feelings, whether it kills its object or inspires its object to kill, anti-religious hate speech must share with religious hate speech the burden of responsibility for the ongoing tragedy of internecine violence in our ravaged world. We may be as horrified by the latter as we are accustomed to the former, but the damage inflicted by both is absolute.


Adapted from a sermon preached February 26, 2006, at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City. The passage from Matthew 10 is quoted from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America; used by permission, all rights reserved. The passage from Psalm 137 is quoted from the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh, © 1985, 1999 by the Jewish Publication Society.

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