Here’s an interesting take on the free-speech debate, at Foreign Policy, from the Saudi writer Abdulaziz H. Al-Fahad. Yes, Muslim societies have to learn greater tolerance of free speech. But the West actually has its own parameters on “acceptable” speech, and speech that is offensive to blacks and Jews are outside those parameters, but Islamophobia seems just fine. And Muslims perceive that hypocrisy, in the context of military domination.
As admirable as this western tradition of freedom of expression might be in the eyes of many Muslims, they remain unimpressed by a West that finds mocking God, Jesus, Moses or Muhammad to be protected speech but worthy at best of muted condemnation, while denigration of the Holocaust or uttering an offensive racist epithet are either criminalized or rendered into untouchable taboos. From that perspective, the West is not truly wedded to an absolute notion of freedom of expression but instead accommodates its own prejudices with regards to what is “offensive” through both legal and extralegal means. The underlying logic, of course, is grounded in specific cultures and histories, as opposed to universalist ideas, and deference to Muslim sensibilities has certainly not been part of that heritage..
Western societies have come a long way from its early days of crude prejudice and racism — except towards Muslims, one of the last frontiers of acceptable bigotry. The incessant rise in Islamophobia, not just as a fringe phenomenon but within the mainstream, belies Western claims to universalist values. The West has achieved remarkable success in combating its own demons of (anti-black) racism and anti-Semitism, to mention only two salient examples. While many in the West, like the rest of humanity, are not innocent of harboring such hateful sentiments, those who choose to display them are quickly condemned and banished from respectable circles or jailed. But when prejudice and hate is directed against Muslims, the guardians of the boundaries of acceptable speech are either absent or complicit…
The permissive public atmosphere towards Islamophobia has allowed haters to spew their vitriol far and wide without paying any discernible price as would be the case if other communities were involved. A recent advertisement in an American city dubbed Muslims as savages; Muslims very well know if the identity of the target were to be changed to another community (e.g., blacks) the resulting uproar would have been substantial and free speech would have been an irrelevant argument. Inversely, until recently Aljazeera English failed to find cable distributors in the U.S. who had reportedly deferred to the wishes of the State Department. Rightly or wrongly, there is strong suspicion in many Muslim countries that US bombings of Aljazeera’s offices in Afghanistan and Baghdad were more intentional than inadvertent mistakes. It is within this overall unhealthy atmosphere that Muslims’ perceptions of the West are formed and informed. The movie is not an isolated incident but a particularly vile version of what is acceptable (as opposed to free) speech in the West..
Al-Fahad is also clear about the duty in Muslim societies:
Yet notwithstanding this move in the right direction within some Islamic societies, the ethos of civil protest is still wanting, despite encouraging signs during the Arab Spring. To express outrage at actions or sayings that are offensive is one thing; to cause death and destruction has to be a red line that Muslim societies have to rigorously impose, a task that is now even more urgent with the removal of authoritarian enforcers and the advent of representative government. The unqualified reaction of condemnation by Libyan citizens (joined by the majority of political, social, and religious leaders throughout the Arab world) against those involved in the murder of personnel in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi is one encouraging sign that violence has become unacceptable as a mode of expression…
For the West, that means the permissiveness (indeed tolerance) of Islamophobia within respectable circles should no longer be accepted. For Muslim societies, a better appreciation of free speech and the adoption of peaceful protests (including economic boycotts if need be) must replace the mob mentality characteristic of many of the responses over the last several years.