I have an essay in the current print edition of World Affairs which is now online outside the pay wall. Here's the first part:
“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” —Thomas Jefferson
Free speech is under attack in the West, and it’s under attack from abroad. For years radical Islamists have targeted embassies abroad and individuals at home for “insulting” the Prophet Muhammad. And now diplomats and heads of state from Islamist countries are using international oganizations to pressure the West to criminalize blasphemy and are even lobbying for a global censorship regime.
The most recent assault began in Cairo on September 11, 2012, when a deranged mob attacked the US Embassy, breached its walls, and hoisted the black flag of al-Qaeda. Similar scenes of violence and mayhem broke out from Tunisia to Indonesia. Allegedly—although not in the case of the attack in Benghazi that led to the assasination of Ambassador Christopher Stevens—because an Egyptian-American Copt no one had ever heard of before uploaded the trailer for an amateurish anti-Muhammad movie called “The Innocence of Muslims” to YouTube.
The United States government went directly to cringe mode and spent as much time condemning the video as it did the mob.
It started with an official announcement on the Twitter page of the US Embassy in Cairo: “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others,” the message said. The White House distanced itself and said that response was neither official nor authorized, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said something similar a couple of days later. The video, she said, is “disgusting and reprehensible” and “we absolutely reject its content and message.”
There’s no point defending the video aside from its right to exist. I’ve seen it. It’s ludicrous. Clinton’s reaction is normal. But there’s a problem. She’s the chief diplomat of the United States. Condemning random trash on the Internet isn’t her job, not even in response to an international incident. Her statement should have been the same as if an Oscar-winning film inspired a riot.
“There are more than three hundred million ways in which Americans expressing themselves might give offense to those who make it their business to be offended,” Lee Smith argued in the Weekly Standard. “Is the White House going to put every American crank on speed-dial so it can tell them to shut up whenever a mob gathers outside a US embassy or consulate?”
Islamist governments sensed weakness, an opening, an opportunity. The United States was saying they had a point! So they took the next logical step.
Just weeks after the riots, the freshly chosen presidents of Egypt and Yemen took to the podium at the United Nations and demanded that blasphemy be outlawed everywhere in the world, including in the United States. “Insults against the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, are not acceptable,” said Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. “We will not allow anyone to do this by word or by deed.” “There should be limits for the freedom of expression,” added Yemen’s president, Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi, “especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures.”
Saudi Arabia went even further and advocated an international censorship body to crush blasphemy on the Internet. “There is a crying need for international collaboration to address ‘freedom of expression’ which clearly disregards public order,” the government said.
That’s where things stand. Condemning what they call widespread “Islamophobia,” religious authoritarians are asserting themselves, both violently and diplomatically, while the West cowers and says they’re right to be angry. Hillary Clinton even says she personally shares their anger.
This will not do. It will not do at all. Instead, the United States should go on the offensive and demand that blasphemy be legalized in every country on earth.
This Islamic jihad against free speech started in 1989, when Iran’s tyrant Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the murder of British novelist Salman Rushdie because the author supposedly blasphemed the Islamic religion in his novel The Satanic Verses. Dozens of people connected with him, his book, and his publisher were attacked—some even killed—in countries as far away as Japan. Bookstores in the United Kingdom and United States were firebombed. The British government took the threat so seriously it provided Rushdie with an around-the-clock armed security detail, and he had to live in hiding under an assumed name for years.
Though the Rushdie affair looked like an extreme outlier event for a while, it turned out to be only the prologue for an ever more sordid drama. In 2004, an Islamist fanatic stabbed Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh to death right out in the open on an Amsterdam street in retaliation for a short film called Submission that Van Gogh made with Somali-born feminist and Dutch member of Parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The killer used a butcher knife to pin a note to his corpse that said Hirsi Ali was “next.” She stayed on in the Netherlands under armed guard for a while, but later had to move to the United States.
The Van Gogh murder inspired a wave of attempts on the lives of more “blasphemers.” An assassin attacked Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard in front of his granddaughter in his own house with an axe. Terrorists from a number of countries, including the United States, conspired to kill Swedish artist Lars Vilks. Seattle Weekly cartoonist Molly Norris entered the FBI’s witness-protection program after American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (whom the United States later atomized with a Hellfire missile) placed her on a hit list for suggesting that cartoonists all over the world should draw the Prophet Muhammad on the same day.
Those incidents targeted individuals, which is bad enough. But then six years ago, Middle Eastern outposts of the Western democracies came under fire. In early 2006, riots exploded across the Muslim world after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. The Danish embassies in Pakistan, Syria, and Lebanon were attacked. A mob set the embassy in Beirut on fire. The Danish and the Norwegian embassies in Damascus were set on fire. More than one hundred people were killed.
That was the prologue to the recent unpleasantness that started in Cairo. It took a while, but the worldwide anti-blasphemy campaign has finally mushroomed into a serious menace. The aggressive demands of the Saudis, Egyptians, and Yemenis to use the law and the police to smash what offends them everywhere on the planet is what we all should expect since Western governments are not fighting back with strong and unequivocal support for free speech.
The other side has the momentum right now. Brazil banned “The Innocence of Muslims” outright. A court went so far as to order the arrest of Google’s highest-ranking executive in the country since YouTube, which Google now owns, refuses to take down videos when it’s told.
The California branch of the phony civil rights group CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations) now openly says it wants blasphemy banned in the United States. “There should be laws against hate speech that leads to violence or criminal activities,” said Rashid Ahmad, the founder of CAIR’s Sacramento chapter. “Because of the film we’ve lost so many lives—the filmmaker has blood on his hands.”
Feeling that they have the wind at their backs, ten thousand Muslims protested Google’s London offices for failing to censor the film. Sheikh Faiz al-Aqtab Siddiqui spoke at the rally and made what is perhaps the most absurd argument yet. “Terrorism,” he said, “is not just people who kill human bodies, but who kill human feelings as well.”
Let’s pretend, just as a thought experiment, that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution doesn’t exist, that the American government could ban blasphemy if it felt like it without getting mauled by the Supreme Court and the public. Now imagine the size of the repressive bureaucracy required to scrub not just YouTube but the entire Internet, including all national media from the New York Times to your mom’s Facebook page, of everything that might offend mobs waving terrorist flags.