In some recent internet articles, a number of American writers criticised and ridiculed me for arguing that Muslims have a legitimate right not to be offended by Islamophobes and other provocateurs just as Americans have a constitutional right to free speech, including the right to offend and despise others.
One writer argued that there was no such right not to be offended. Claiming “no one has the right to a world in which he is never despised,” the writer went as far as arguing that attacking free speech was even a greater blasphemy than a slur on the divine.
Furthermore, the writer went on, saying that “Amayreh doesn’t truly comprehend American core values when he says that ‘in the final analysis, a Muslim’s right not to be offended and insulted overrides a scoundrel’s rightto malign Muslims’ religious symbols.’ “
A second writer urged President Obama to refute my defence of Muslims’ rights not to be offended.
Well, Americans seem to have a world of their own just as we have a world of our own. Moreover, many Americans seem to harbour a certain subconscious conviction that non-Americans should unreservedly adopt, or subject themselves to, American values. That was the tacit message communicated ad nauseam by numerous Hollywood movies for many decades.
This condescending perception, often encapsulated in the Yankee slogan, “The American way,” is a natural symptom of American cultural imperialism and megalomania.
Americans constitute a mere five per cent of humanity, and as such have no right to impose their values on the rest of humanity, however logical and rational these values may sound. There are other peoples in this world, including some 1.6 billion Muslims who adore and love their religion and Prophet.
I know freedom of speech is a sacred value in the United States and many other countries. However, just as American libertarians insist that no other value should be more paramount than this value, we expect the same Americans to understand that other peoples in other parts of the world have equally paramount values, including religious values.
In Matthew 5:29, it is said that “and if thy right eye offends thee, pluck it out, and cast it away from you.”
This biblical quotation should demonstrate that my argument about the right not to be offended is not far fetched and inherently incompatible with Western thinking.
Jesus never really maligned the religious symbols of other people. And the Quran urges Muslims not to “insult those whom they (disbelievers) worship, idols besides God, lest they insult God wrongfully without knowledge” (Al-Anaam,108).
Interestingly, blasphemy laws appeared in Western societies long before they appeared in the lands of Islam.
But all this talk may be virtually inconsequential to self-absorbed libertarians who think they are correct and everyone else is wrong.
According to America’s fanatical libertarians, Americans have an inherent and absolute right to free speech, which conceivably includes hate speech, incitement to murder, defamation and besmirching people’s images and reputation.
Yet, we see American culture and media have a zero tolerance for critics of Israel and Zionism, particularly in the American arena, which really draws a huge question mark over Americans’ commitment to true freedom of speech.
I am not an advocate of hate speech even under the rubric of free speech. Hate speech could easily lead to mass murder and genocide. We should all remember that before there were Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen and Treblinka, there was Mein Kampf as well venomous anti-Jewish Nazi propaganda.
Needless to say, it was this virulent propaganda that desensitised Europe and much of the Western world to the systematic extermination of European Jewry and others.
In my humble opinion, free speech that is likely to lead to the loss of life is not worth protecting and defending. In the final analysis, a human being’s right to life is more important than a human being’s right to absolute, vulgar hate speech.
Yes, the two rights need not always be in a state of conflict. However, when a purported right has the potential of decimating the other more natural right, the right to life, there should be no question as to where our attention should be focused.
And as we all know, the matter is not merely academic, as recent events in parts of the Middle East have demonstrated.
There are, of course, those who claim that hate speech wouldn’t have to lead to bloodshed. Well, this might be true if the rest of the world adopted the American value system and believed in the First Amendment as God-incarnate. But to the chagrin of our American friends, the world is too diverse to adopt the American way and adhere to the American Constitution as the ultimate religion of mankind.
This shouldn’t mean though that the world is doomed to everlasting cultural confrontations. Conflicting cultural values need not evolve into wars of cultures or even worse, religious wars. A certain compromise solution ought to be found whereby a delicate balance is struck between the world’s various value systems, including the right to free speech versus the right not to be offended by hate speech.
In the final analysis, we have to give due consideration to the magical word: Respect. I realise how difficult it would be to legislate “respect” among heterogeneous communities let alone among diverse cultures.
Nonetheless, the present situation between Islam and the West where one group of people must be offended and insulted on the grounds that another group of people has an allegedly absolute right to free speech cannot be maintained. The global village has become too small to allow fanatical and unbridled American libertarianism to demean and insult other cultures.
In a nutshell, free speech, though not an absolute value in itself, is a positive value and ought to be protected and defended; but hate, malicious and vulgar speech is a negative value that ultimately leads to bloodshed and war.