(Travelblog is an occasional series of posts by RNS Editor-in-Chief Kevin Eckstrom, who’s on the road in Boston, Honolulu, Jakarta and Banda Aceh with the 2014 Senior Journalists Seminar, sponsored by the East-West Center in conjunction with the U.S. State Department)

Charles Haynes directs the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington.

Charles Haynes directs the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington. Photo by Kevin Eckstrom


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

WASHINGTON (RNS) Does the First Amendment protect hate speech? Yes. Does it also protect you from being offended? No. But should it? Depends who you ask.

I’m on Day 5 of a three-week seminar that’s brought together four American journalists with eight journalists from Asia and the Muslim world. The goal is to introduce each side to the other, and to translate our different cultures in a bid to increase understanding and religious literacy.

When we dived into the First Amendment with Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, Haynes (as he always does) offered a robust defense of American free speech — even speech that many consider vile and offensive. Take Terry Jones, the whackadoodle Florida pastor who makes a sport of burning the Quran.

“These First Amendment freedoms are messy, they’re difficult, they protect all kinds of things we find offensive,” Haynes said, “but the very messiness of it is at the core of who we are as a free people.”

My Pakistani colleague, Yasir Pirzada, wasn’t convinced. Vijay Joshi, an Indian-born editor for The Associated Press based in Bangkok, gladly embraced the role of devil’s advocate.

Pakistani journalist Yasir Pirzada, left, was skeptical about U.S. refusal to ban hate speech. At right is Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum. Photo by Kevin Eckstrom.

Pakistani journalist Yasir Pirzada, left, was skeptical about U.S. refusal to ban hate speech. At right is Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum. Photo by Kevin Eckstrom.


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“Everybody knows what hate speech is,” Yasir responded matter-of-factly. And as such, it would be easy to ban, which is what they do in Pakistan, where anti-blasphemy laws can send you to life in prison — or worse — if you offend religious sensibilities.

Haynes offered up the example of Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ,” the 1988 flick that was blasted as offensive to Christians. Pretty much everyone found something not to like in that film, but it was never censored or restricted. It was met with box office protests, but no government edicts.

“The fact that people are deeply offended is not an opportunity to say, ‘Well, now we know that’s hate speech,'” Haynes said. The answer to hate speech — whether online, in the movies, in the newspaper, wherever — is to push back with positive speech, he said.

Indeed, hate speech is an amorphous beast. One person’s divine revelation is someone else’s sacrilege. Americans have always been nervous about trying to put limits on what’s acceptable (or not) speech, and we may never figure it out. But for Yasir and Vijay, it didn’t seem to make sense.

Later, in the back of a taxi, I asked Yasir about banning hate speech and how to define it. “If somebody deliberately speaks in order to offend somebody’s ideas about faith, and the intention is to offend, that’s hate speech,” said Yasir, who writes for the Daily Jang, one of the leading newspapers in Pakistan.

Let’s assume, like Yasir says, that we can define hate speech. But who gets to decide when it crosses the line, or even where that line is? Yasir pointed to the great temple of American pop culture, the cineplex, and the MPAA ratings for films. If someone can decide between G and NC-17, someone can decide hate speech.

He also pointed to parts of Europe, where questioning the Holocaust is illegal. “Who has decided there should be restrictions on speech that’s anti-Semitic? Somebody has decided it.”

The Associated Press' Vijay Joshi, left, questioned American protections of free speech even as it cracked down on national security analyst Edward Snowden for leaking classified information. Photo by Kevin Eckstrom

Vijay Joshi, left, questioned American protections of free speech even as it cracked down on national security analyst Edward Snowden for leaking classified information. Photo by Kevin Eckstrom Photo by Kevin Eckstrom


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Which brought us to “The Innocence of Muslims,” the incendiary anti-Muslim film from 2012 that touched off riots around the world and may (or may not) have led to the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya. Muslims can deal with questions about Islam, Yasir told me, but not attacks on the Prophet Muhammad.

The reason, he said, is because Islam’s prophet is “above all.”

At the time, much of the Muslim world asked why President Obama didn’t step in and pull the film. (The obvious answer: he can’t). But in a globalized world, an offensive movie produced (and allowed) in the U.S. has real-world consequences elsewhere. And that’s why, Yasir reasoned, that if the U.S. is interested in peace, then why not ban things that lead to violence?

Haynes admitted that American military, cultural or political exports aren’t always received well in the Muslim world, and our embrace of free speech comes at a price — in Libya, it may or may not have been the lives of U.S. diplomats. Yasir said Americans can and should embrace free speech, but remember that freedom is never free. “That’s your decision about whether that’s a price worth paying,” Yasir told me.

Why does the Muslim world seem much more easily offended than we Yanks? Yasir didn’t have the answer, and neither did I. We chalked it up to cultural differences. As our taxi pulled up to a mosque, Yasir looked out to see a Muslim woman shaking hands with male visitors. A scene like that would be hard to imagine in much of the Muslim world, he said.

“Talk about a cultural difference.”

 

 

 

31 Comments

  1. The Great God Pan

    “Yasir pointed to the great temple of American pop culture, the cineplex, and the MPAA ratings for films. If someone can decide between G and NC-17, someone can decide hate speech.”

    It is true that someone can decide between G and NC-17 (actually, the decision is between R and NC-17), but it muddies his assertion that we all know what hate speech is. In fact, we do not all agree on what an NC-17 film is, and quite a lot of people argue that the MPAA’s decisions on this and other adjacent ratings are opaque, inconsistent, and influenced by studio clout.

    Decisions that distinguish “free speech” from “hate speech” are even more fraught with problems. Mr. Yassir certainly could, if given the power, decide that for a man and woman to shake hands constituted “hate speech.” But, in the West, his fabled “everybody” would certainly not agree.

  2. Kevin

    Thanks for writing about free speech involving Terry Jones – I was the one who dealt with it last year.

    In one of the press releases we wrote, ” As Muslims and Americans we honor the free speech guaranteed in our constitution. We have no intentions to criticize, condemn or oppose Pastor Terry Jones’ freedom of expression. Instead, we will be donating blood and praying for goodness to permeate in our society.”

    And to beef up your statement, here is Quran, ” “To overcome evil with good is good, and to resist evil by evil is evil.” It is also strongly enjoined in the Qur’an in the same verse 41:34, “Good and evil deeds are not equal. Repel evil with what is better; then you will see that one who was once your enemy has become your dearest friend.”

    Jeff Weiss also wrote about our work at RNS – http://www.religionnews.com/2013/09/09/commentary-pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-burning-qurans/#comment-353607

    Full Report about Quran Burning incident and free speech is at: http://worldmuslimcongress.blogspot.com/2014/04/reestablishing-right-muslim-attitudes.html

    The film tackles: The Film is based on a successful real life event about ordinary people effecting extraordinary changes. It is a story about skillfully managing conflicting issues of safety of Americans overseas, upholding freedom of speech, perceptions about Muslims, preserving sanctity of religions and building cohesive Societies.

    Mike Ghouse

  3. Merely reading religious texts aloud is obscene:

    GOD SAYS FATHERS MUST BURN DAUGHTERS TO DEATH AS HONOR KILLINGS.
    “And the daughter…if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.” (Leviticus 21:9)

    Criticizing such obscenities
    cannot be an obscenity also!

    Otherwise, all you would have left is obscenity.

    • (Leviticus 21:

      is laws God used to keep Israel separate ..if God had not had such strict laws

      Israel would have inter married with atheists and other heathen peoples ..
      and the promise of a savior from sin would have been lost..

      now that Jesus set aside his Godly crown and came down and has finished his saving work,, we find in the new testament these old laws that kept Israel separate due to their severity and strictness are no longer needed..

      • @Rob,

        “if God had not had such strict laws (of honor killings) Israel would have intermarried with atheists and other heathen peoples…”

        Oh, that explains it.
        So murdering your daughter is a good solution to stop her from marrying an atheist like Paul Newman.

        I see.
        So as I suspected, your God is no better than a hit man from the Mafia.

        Just don’t call these laws ‘righteous’ or ‘pious’. Okay?
        Call it murder. Call it a contract for death.

  4. “KILL THEM WHEREVER YOU FIND THEM” – Q’URAN

    Quran (2:191-193) – “And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah [disbelief] is worse than killing…”

    It cannot be obscene to call attention to obscenity.

    If reading a religious text aloud is considered ‘inflammatory’, why isn’t the text banned as hate speech?

    Why give religion a pass?

    • if the Christians become the minority guess who will rule over you Atheist’s..

      Sooner or latter your going to have to understand Atheism will never be a majority in this world.. Because there is just to much evidence against it..
      and no matter how you try to change that fact .. You never will.

      • Only if Christian idiots are finally successful in attacking that separation of church and state which keeps us from degenerating into a theocracy.

        Changing the religion doesn’t make fundamentalism any less obscene.

    • @Rob,

      “if the Christians become the minority guess who will rule over you Atheist’s..”

      Stop being ridiculous.
      the US CONSTITUTION is already ATHEIST.

      That is why you have freedom of religion in the first place.
      “Congress shall make no law establishing a religion..”

      The USA is still the only place in the world with a constitution which basically says this:
      “AS a country, we will not declare any particular God to be the true god – nor will we even acknowledge that THERE IS A GOD”

      Who rules over the USA today?
      The laws made by the people, for the people and of the people.

      May it remain so forever!

      • the us constitution does not rule over us ..

        judges do congress does and local governments do and its demographics will soon be changing as America becomes more Muslim.
        IT WONT BE THE FOLLOWING
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wf8K377XTRc
        ..

  5. “If somebody deliberately speaks in order to offend somebody’s ideas about faith, and the intention is to offend, that’s hate speech,” said Yasir, who writes for the Daily Jang, one of the leading newspapers in Pakistan.

    Wow — what then does NOT qualify as “hate” speech? Everyone who does not agree with me that Jesus Christ is God is a hater? I don’t think so. We have another name for those folks: non-Christians.

  6. America’s guarantee of free and unfettered exchange of ideas was key ingredient making this the richest and most powerful country in the world. I’m not responsible for your feelings, your Middle Eastern fairy tales, your inability to cope with contradiction. We’re adults. Act like one.

  7. samuel Johnston

    Let us see the hands of all those who live in Pakistan now who want to immigrate to the USA. Now let us see the hands of all those in the USA who want to immigrate to Pakistan.

    Let us see the hands of all those who want their speech to be judged as possibly criminal, by members of another religion.

    Stupid idea.

  8. Why does the Muslim world seem much more easily offended than we Yanks?

    1. The Muslim world has suffered an abiding reversal of fortune.

    2. They’re indulged by institutions when they make themselves obnoxious rather than given the brush off.

    3. Their sense of honor is implicated by different things than is the case in the West.

    • “Why does the Muslim world seem much more easily offended than we Yanks?”

      Have you listened to the most prominent American Christians?
      Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, etc?

      Christians can be whipped into the same frenzy
      reading ‘offense’ into the most inoffensive notions.

      Just suggest to these Christians their belief is based on the most primitive ideas of human blood sacrifice and slavery – and watch their lack of irony spin out of control.

      Many Christians would behead ‘infidels’ in a heartbeat if they were allowed to.

      ________

      Separation of Church and State preserves YOUR freedom of religion
      and your freedom FROM THE RELIGIONS OF OTHERS !

      DON’T LET ANYONE TELL YOU OTHERWISE.

      • The only frenzy I see around these parts is Atheists who seem to think Christians want to rule over them. Were just noticing who just might rule and its neither atheists or Christians,, iT seems The Muslims are the ones that are telling us all, there the ones interested in that..

        A max and larry are the ones freaking out . so worried about a Christian theocracy. The way I look at it I think were going to see more Muslims in office until there the majority .. yet im not going to freak out about it.. the way I look at it is .. God lets these things come into our life why?

        this is not that place of righteousness God promised heaven is our home..

        • I don’t see Muslims in this country using political clout to attack the separation of church and state. I don’t see them attacking science education or purposefully lying about our nation’s history to support theocracy.

          Rob, I don’t want to see any Theocracy. It makes no difference which religion would be in charge. I certainly wouldn’t want a government run according to the religious views of most of the people on this board calling themselves Christian.

          If you have problems with the separation of church and state, you don’t really like democracy.

  9. “Why does the Muslim world seem much more easily offended than we Yanks? ”

    Because there is political capital to be made by being so easily offended. It gives people someone to hate besides their autocratic governments. It helps extremists bind communities abroad by playing to a sense of persecution and siege mentality. Christian Extremists benefit from portraying Muslims as childish savages out to get them. Muslim Extremists benefit by using the rhetoric of the Christians as proof that they are childish savages out to get them.

    • ATHEISTS love this stuff as they use it to knock any one with a belief in a god.

      no one benefits from atheistic rhetoric no not even the atheists who will have to answer for it some day..

      • No one benefits from atheistic rhetoric? So untrue.

        Pretty much everyone who is not prepared to burn heretics at the stake benefits from it. Everyone who would be on the really hot end of those stakes also benefit from it.

        The only thing I got from your post was malicious hostility on your part. Veiled threats and hateful nonsense. Why? Because I chose to treat religious extremism with the objective disdain it deserves.

  10. @ AM. Really!
    “if God had not had such strict laws (of honor killings) Israel would have intermarried with atheists and other heathen peoples…” AM have you not read the Bible? All due respect.

  11. I benefit from…atheistic rhetoric; all rhetoric for that matter. It is just really nice to change the channel or website. We all have skewed views… all of us; if you like Jesus or not… no matter. Pick up the first stone. We all think we know so much and which is the right truth to believe… well then go on! While we all postulate the predicted world power is finishing the net. We may live to see the big haul.

  12. P.S. AM… I think you are right… “Many Christians would behead ‘infidels’ in a heartbeat if they were allowed to”. May I add…
    Rev 13:15 And he had power to give life unto the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak, and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed.
    Who is this beast power? The united kings of the earth!

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