“Freedom of speech is not total,” proclaimed the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy’s (CSID) William Lawrence at its January 22 panel on the “Muslim Response to Charlie Hebdo: Understanding the Root Causes of Radicalization.” Lawrence’s caveat disturbingly introduced false justifications for non-violently achieving the very sharia censorship sought by Charlie Hebdo’s jihadist murderers before a National Press Club audience of about fifty.
The Islamist apologist CSID focused in the panel on Muslims and not the slain at Charlie Hebdo as victims. Lawrence’s opening condemnation of the globally infamous January 7 Paris massacre as a “complete aberration” of “Islamic teachings” quickly gave way to criticism of the satire magazine’s victims. Their murders were “orgies of violence unleashed on . . . purveyors” of “bigoted provocations,” making Charlie Hebdo’s satire not just irreverent, but immoral in Lawrence’s estimation. “When did bigotry get so needy” that it sheltered behind free speech claims, Lawrence later asked while quoting an article criticizing cartoon racism, as if criticizing Islamic ideas equaled individual prejudice. Accordingly, Lawrence cited the legally discredited phrase from American Supreme Court history that “you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater,” a universal talking point of censors.
Islamist and sharia apologist Dahlia Mogahed continued Lawrence’s use of the Muslim “race” card implicitly blaming the Charlie Hebdo victims and focused on Europe’s “limits and boundaries of tolerance.” “Certain things will not be said” in the United States, “not because it’s illegal, but because it’s immoral,” she noted without defining Charlie Hebdo’s immorality. Historic “offensive cartoons” of African-Americans make modern Americans “rightly cringe.” Mogahed’s equivalence between racists and Charlie Hebdo entailed that the French should “hurry up and get enlightened” about satirists. Yet Mogahed bemoaned how many instead sought merely to “reassert our right to offend.”
CSID President Radwan Masmoudi, like his fellow panelists, wrongly equated religious ideas with individuals as worthy of protection. He emphasized that “every freedom also has limits” and excluded a “right to transgress on others” during audience questioning. Masmoudi described a “big debate” over whether free speech includes a right to “insult others” or “religion.”
A bizarrely benign understanding of Islamic doctrine apparently underlay Masmoudi’s reverence for the faith. He termed blasphemy provisions (often carrying the traditional Islamic death penalty) in countries like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia “un-Islamic” and a regime tool used as “only a façade” for popularity. The new constitution in Masmoudi’s native Tunisia, he meanwhile declared, has “no blasphemy laws.”
An interview with Masmoudi, however, critically countered that Tunisian constitution’s Article 6 contained contradictory commitments to “freedom of belief” and to “protect the sacred” against blasphemy. Masmoudi called Article 6 “one of the most difficult clauses” in the constitutional drafting, a clause negotiated until right before the January 26, 2014, ratification. This article “meant to balance freedom of speech” and the position that “you should not attack others,” including the “religions or faiths or beliefs” with which they happen to identify.
Masmoudi’s protestations notwithstanding, he might as well support Muslim blasphemy laws. Asked about speech restrictions in Muslim-majority countries, as exemplified by a 2013 conviction in the “model” Muslim democracy Turkey for tweets mocking Islam, Masmoudi referenced a supposed “right not to be insulted.” “It is dangerous to insult people based upon their race or . . . religion,” Masmoudi elaborated with once again a race/religion conflation. Such offenses are “not . . . conducive to peace or a democratic society,” Masmoudi added in his apparent acceptance of a violent heckler’s veto like that suffered by Charlie Hebdo. For Masmoudi, who is “not a freedom of expression fundamentalist,” finding a “balance” between free speech and not upsetting religious feelings will be a “most difficult thing” and, worryingly, “will vary from one country to another.”
Masmoudi himself in the conversation undercut his absurd assertion during audience questioning that “freedom of religion is a very, very important and strong principle in Islam.” Masmoudi noted that an addition to Article 6 prohibited apostasy accusations or takfir as a form of death threat. Yet Masmoudi assured that “there is nothing in Islam in the text of the Quran or the sunnah” demanding death for apostasy, canonical texts, scholarly books, and widespread modern practice to the contrary notwithstanding. Rather, Masmoudi insisted that apostasy death penalties came from “not Islamic law,” but somehow distinct “Islamic traditions . . . societies . . . cultures.” Masmoudi similarly analyzed the origins of Islamic blasphemy laws, contradicting again Islamic canons (see here and here) and practice.
Such is the analysis of CSID, described by Lawrence as the world’s “preeminent NGO” for the “study of democratic and Islamic thought” and their “modern synthesis.” Not free speech under murderous assault, but offense to Muslim religious sensibilities, falsely equated with prejudices like racism, formed the panel’s main concern demanding, where possible, legal restrictions. Contrary to his assurances, Lawrence did not in any respect “move beyond” a supposedly “superficial binary” of “Muslim extremists” and free speech. Islamic ideas in the panelists’ presentation, by contrast, are thoroughly benign and unworthy of any critical scrutiny. The views of CSID and others ominously portend further future threats, even if not necessarily lethal, to free speech.
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