My public debates at universities, TV and Radio shows on the topic of freedom of speech can be found here.
I recently spoke at two debates (at Keele University and Kings College London, University), on the subject of Freedom of Speech after the recent movie insulting Muslims and Islam; and I’ve been motivated to put my thoughts on ‘paper’ regarding some basic intellectual arguments about the limits of Free Speech, and against the Freedom to Insult people’s beliefs.
The purpose of free speech, when expressing opinion, is the pursuit of truth. That is all, nothing more. For it has no other rational purpose it can serve. All speech that expresses opinions must be allowed so that all ideas can be heard and to give the best chance for one of them to contain a weight of truth. Based upon this undisputed reason, how can anyone justify the right to use their speech to insult, degrade and humiliate another human being (and their identity)? Gratuitous insult offers no truth, or intellectual weight, and offers nothing to society except hate, rancour, emotional suffering, harassment, depression and divisiveness.What rational benefit can gratuitous insult serve humanity? To what good does it direct us towards? Surely if something yields no benefits, and only offers harm and negative experience to human life, should it be tolerated amongst a society of civilised human beings?
The Fallacy of the Liberal Counter-Argument of Free Speech due to Individualism
Some Liberals argue that insult should be allowed because it is an expression of ‘individuality’, and ‘individuals must be allowed to flourish outside of social constraints’. If this is so – why does the individual require other humans in order to manifest their ‘individuality’? Surely, according to this logic, the individual would not require a legal right to insult others, because ‘as an individual’ they could simply insult people and their beliefs in their own head and be content with that! As Liberal theory states, ‘Individuals’ do not need society to make them individuals. So in essence, why can’t they just be happy keeping their insults to themselves, why need a right to express their vitriolic language in public?
I could even counter that ‘freedom to insult’ actually hampers the flourishing of individuals according to Liberal theory itself! Surely an individual who wishes to express their ideas and opinions, but is fearful of public backlash and insults, has their individuality restricted? One could also say that giving people the right to gratuitously insult others and their beliefs causes unnecessary suffering to the targets of these attacks, and also diminishes their social respect in society from others. Of course, this is but one of the many contradictory issues with Liberalism. This is primarily due to Liberal theory being deeply flawed in its dogma about humans being ‘individuals’ and not also social creatures. Anyone who has studied psychology and sociology would obviously realise how humans are not not ‘individuals’ in the Liberal sense. Humans neither made themselves, nor educated ourselves from first principles – but relied on others for theses things. Humans still rely on others for social comfort, material help and intellectual help – hence humans are by nature, social creatures. If our true nature was to be anything but social creatures who ‘need to be freed from social constraints’ (as the Liberal Utopia desires), then solitary confinement would be the happiest place on earth for the human! (I know Liberals may argue that being in a prison is a restriction of Liberty. However, would life be happy for a human to live alone in a deserted wilderness, even if they had food, water, heating and entertainment?).
There is no argument to show that people should be given the right to insult and abuse others. However, the unrestricted freedom in their speech to express a sincere intellectual opinion should be granted to everyone – but no one should have the right to insult others or their beliefs – which as we know, define who they are more than superficial things, like skin colour. Insulting a belief does not change people’s minds about it when they believe their ideas are right – instead, it only makes them more entrenched to defend it, and retaliate – since it is human nature to demand respect for oneself, and one’s beliefs are a fundamental part of someone’s personality. So knowing this, how do Liberals see any benefit coming from a state of affairs more akin to a school playground, than to a noble and enlightened human society?
The Islamic Position is Freedom for Intellectual Expression – not any wanton speech
The intellectual superiority of Islam’s solutions to human problems is clearly demonstrated in this matter. The Prophet Muhammed (saaw) invited Christians from Najran to come to his own Mosque and debate Islam. After three days they expressedly rejected him as a Prophet of God, which also implies they viewed him as a liar. What did the Prophet Muhammed (saaw) do? He simply finished the debate on amicable terms, and even allowed them to pray their Christian prayers in the Mosque before returning home (as it was quite late). This is the example first set by the Prophet Muhammed (saaw) and continued throughout the history of Islamic Civilisation where public discourse, debate and even books critical of Islam were published.
However, Islam prohibits gratuitous insult – but it doesn’t just do this for things Islam holds dear, but gives this as a right for all faiths and beliefs that others hold dear – even ones considered abhorrent by Islam. The most abhorrent concept to the pure monotheism of Islam, is the existence of polytheism. But even with Polytheism, Islam holds a principled stance of restriction against insult. The Quran understands human nature when it says:
‘But do not revile those [idols] whom they invoke instead of God, lest they revile God out of spite and in [their] ignorance: for, good in their eyes, have We made the traditions appear unto every community’ – translation of Quran 6:108
The basis of Islamic free intellectual discourse is expressed in this hadith, which does not grant just speaking one’s opinions as a right, like in Liberalism, but Islam actually goes a step further and describes it as a duty:
‘”Verily, fear of people SHOULD NOT stop a man from speaking out the truth [when] he knows [it].‘ – narration of the Prophet Muhammed (saaw)
Western Governments also Prohibit ‘Free Speech’
Now the usual response by defenders of ‘Freedom to Insult’. They argue that it is impossible to ban ‘Insult’ because people take offense in different ways and courts ‘simply couldn’t adjudicate over these cases’. This is a sneaky argument they use, because Insult depends on the intentions of the person issuing the insult NOT whether or not Offence is taken. By steering the argument towards ‘offence’ they hope to subvert it. However simple rational observation can tell the difference between an insult and a comment that unintentionally causes offence. In fact, most Western legal systems prohibit this too! Here are some examples:
United States of America
In USA there are many laws on the local state and local ordinance level that restrict speech to some degree. However, there are federal exceptions to the rule allowing speech where violence isn’t specifically advocated. The first of these is the prohibition on ‘fighting words’ defined as “insulting or ‘fighting words,’ those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” are among the “well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech the prevention and punishment of [which] … have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem.”.
Of course, the U.S.A also allows states to prohibit “obscenity”, which carries a definition that includes use of “community standards” to judge whether something (albeit related to a sexual nature) was “obscene or not. This test of “obscenity” includes a test that doesn’t protect a publication under “freedom of expression” if it “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value”. (see Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973))
United Kingdom (Great Britain)
In the UK, all speech is prohibited which ‘incites’ racial hatred, and hatred of a group based upon their sexuality. In these laws, the words ‘insult’ are mentioned – and prohibited by it.
Public Order laws – especially in the UK – also prohibit public insult, and Sexual Harassment laws in the UK even prevent perpetrators from ‘conduct…done with the purpose of, or have the effect of, violating your dignity, or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’ – even if such an environment was unintended by the ‘offender’, so be-careful what you wear in the office lest someone find it creates an offensive environment!
Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 holds it to be an offence to send by means of a public electronic communications a message or other matter that is ‘grossly offensive or of an indecent, [or of] obscene…character’
England also has laws protecting the sanctity and respect due to its courts. Under the Contempt of Court Act (1981), it is a criminal offence to: ‘wilfully insult the justice or justices, any witness before or officer of the court or any solicitor or counsel having business in the court, during his or their sitting or attendance in court or in going to or returning from the court; or…otherwise misbehaves in court’.
Further, an individual can launch a civil tort against someone else who has ‘inflicted intentional emotional distress’ upon them by ‘an act or omission’ and sue them in court.
And, of course, there are now revenge porn laws in the UK, that prohibit the publication of private pictures of someone else, without their consent – if intended to cause them distress.
France, Germany and other European Union countries
France and many European countries have similar bans on speech – including insulting the French flag, holocaust denial (and publishing the Swastika Image in the case of Germany). So much for the impossibility of outlawing ‘offensive speech’.
Lastly, it could also be mentioned that Liberal countries also outlaw slander, libel, tort and defamation – allowing people to sue each other for expressing untrue or degrading and humiliating speech against each other – something that courts have to decide all the time.
In conclusion, almost every civilisation, ideology and creed restricts speech that doesn’t relate to causing violence – the only dispute is, which taboos are protected, and which are not. Islam gives a consistent set of protections against gratuitous insult to all beliefs people hold dear – the West doesn’t, and only protects the taboos it considers important – while allowing insult and inciting hatred against others it doesn’t.
Categories: 'Freedom of Speech', ARTICLES, The Muslim Debate Initiative, WRITINGS
“[T]he unrestricted freedom in their speech to express a sincere intellectual opinion should be granted to everyone – but no one should have the right to insult others or their beliefs”.
Surely this is oxymoronic? Why? Because one’s sincere intellectual opinion may very well be taken by another as an insult to his or her beliefs, and, by extension, himself or herself. At this point, there is a dissonance between the freedom to express that opinion versus not having the right to insult. One has to come down on one side of the fence or another, I am afraid.
For example, the (sincere intellectual) Quranic opinion about people who willfully reject god is insulting to my beliefs and me. By this, I refer to the many verses on kufr and the kuffar, among which I happily count myself; having read many, in both English and Arabic (Arab and Islamic studies being the subject of my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees), I certainly take them as an insult. At this point, we could debate whether or not I am interpreting them as you interpret that they were meant, but that would be both beside the point and likely a futile exercise in hermeneutics. They represent an opinion that is sincerely expressed and by which I am insulted. And this is merely an example to illustrate the point; other examples could be chose, namely my sincere intellectual opinion about religion (including, but certainly not restricted to, Islam) and those who are religious (including, but not restricted to, Muslims). This would probably be taken as an insult to your beliefs and, by extension, you (I say ‘probably’; I would be most surprised if it did not, going on past experience).
What are your thoughts? Should I have the freedom to express my sincere intellectual opinion about the historical Muhammed, the god of the Quran, and those who believe in all that, or should I not have the right to utter what would surely be an insult to Islamic belief and Muslim people? Likewise, should those Quranic verses that I take as an insult be censored, or should the publishers of the Quran in any language I can read continue to have the right to publish material that insults me and my beliefs?
As an aside, I am not intending to provoke but rather to engage in (sincere intellectual) debate.
Thank you for your question. Your point was already answered in the article, here’s a relevant quote that I believe has already dealt with your raised contentions:
‘Now the usual response by defenders of ‘Freedom to Insult’. They argue that it is impossible to ban ‘Insult’ because people take offense in different ways and courts ‘simply couldn’t adjudicate over these cases’. This is a sneaky argument they use, because Insult depends on the intentions of the person issuing the insult NOT whether or not Offense is taken. By steering the argument towards ‘offense’ they hope to subvert it. However simple rational observation can tell the difference between an insult and a comment that unintentionally causes offense. In fact, most Western legal systems prohibit this too! In USA ‘fighting words’ are prohibited, and defined as “insulting or ‘fighting words,’ those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” are among the “well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech the prevention and punishment of [which] … have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem.”. In the UK, all speech is prohibited which ‘incites’ racial hatred, and hatred of a group based upon their sexuality. In these laws, the words ‘insult’ are mentioned – and prohibited it. France and many European countries have similar bans on speech – including holocaust denial (and the Swastika Image in the case of Germany). Public Order laws – especially in the UK – also prohibit public insult, and Sexual Harassment laws in the UK even prevent perpetrators from ‘the conduct…done with the purpose of, or have the effect of, violating your dignity, or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’. So much for the impossibility of outlawing ‘offensive speech’. Lastly, it could also be mentioned that Liberal countries also outlaw slander, libel, tort and defamation – allowing people to sue each other for expressing untrue or degrading and humiliating speech against each other – something that courts have to decide all the time’.