Wednesday, May 26, 2010

U.S. State Department on Blocking Free Speech: Today Pakistan, Tomorrow the World?

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By Barry Rubin

Here’s a tough problem they didn’t teach at Government Spokesman Preparatory School. A question is asked during the State Department press briefing:

QUESTION: Do you have any comment on Pakistan’s blockage of…YouTube and other Internet sites?

The occasion was the decision of Pakistan to block sites because some carried pictures of Muhammad, founder of Islam.

Now, how can P.J. Crowley respond? Fortunately, the State Department had prepared a statement for him:

MR. CROWLEY: “Obviously, this is a difficult and challenging issue. Many of the images that appear today on Facebook were deeply offensive to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. We are deeply concerned about any deliberate attempt to offend Muslims or members of any other religious groups. We do not condone offensive speech that can incite violence or hatred.

“…We also believe that the best answer to offensive speech is dialogue and debate, and in fact, we see signs that that is exactly what is occurring in Pakistan. Governments have a responsibility to protect freedom of expression and the free flow of information.

“The best antidote to intolerance is not banning or punishing offensive speech, but rather a combination of robust legal protections against discrimination and hate crimes, and proactive government outreach to minority religious groups and the vigorous defense of both freedom of religion and expression.

“….We respect any actions that need to be taken under Pakistani law to protect their citizens from offensive speech. At the same time, Pakistan has to make sure that in taking any particular action, that you’re not restricting speech to the millions and millions of people who are connected to the internet and have a universal right to the free flow of information.”

Crowley is trying to balance freedom of speech with Political Correctness plus the administration’s policy. Granted, his situation wasn’t easy and that he was trying to give a reasonable response (much more so than the snippets appearing in some media make it seem), he did fall into some holes.

What he seems to be saying is that Pakistan has the right to censor the Internet but that shouldn’t interfere with others having the ability to use it. But he also hedges on that approach.

For example, should a picture of Muhammad be “deeply offensive” to non-Muslims? Why? Granted that they want to show Islam respect, it is in no way against their custom to have such pictures. And if it is deeply offensive does that mean it is bad?

After all, since everyone knows that saying certain things—sometimes even quoting Muslim texts is “offensive to Muslims,” those exercising their free speech can be said to be engaging in a “deliberate attempt to offend Muslims,” right?

So when Crowley says that the U.S. government takes a position on saying certain things, isn’t unwarranted and unprecedented interference with Americans’ right to free speech? And where is the line between “offensive speech” that someone knows in advance will be “offensive” and a hate crime?

Indeed, how can anyone even maintain that under the U.S. Constitution there can even be such a thing as a verbal hate crime unconnected with an actual criminal act (assault, murder, arson, vandalism, etc.)?

And that’s not all. While each religion can choose to define what deeply offends it, why should it expect everyone else to accept that definition? If that happens, the religion in question (which today generally means only Islam) is thus granted veto power over what everyone else does. And that’s dangerous.

In addition, it’s farcical for Crowley to characterize what is occurring in Pakistan “dialogue and debate” over such matters. This is a country where Christians are persecuted and murdered (with no Western protest, members of the Ahmadis sect are discriminated against, and is a world center of antisemitism. Often, Christians are beaten or murdered for allegedly having done something “offensive” regarding Islam. Unfortunately, in the Muslim-majority world when governments do "outreach to minority religious groups" it's for the purpose of strangling them.

This question came within a few hours of the president signing a bill claiming to champion freedom of the press against foreign enemies of media liberty. Oh, by the way, has anyone else noticed that in signing a media freedom bill in honor of Daniel Pearl, President Obama never once mentioned that the reporter was murdered by radical Islamists in Pakistan? Here's a good example of trying not to cause offense curtailing free speech (and the recognition of reality).

Of course, Crowley is right in saying governments should safeguard free speech. But all the meaning is drained out of this since “robust legal protections against…hate crimes” includes in most countries steps that do punish free speech. That goes for Canada, the Netherlands, and many other places. So how can you deal with this very real contradiction unless you acknowledge that the mere act of speech—unless it involves a direct threat of violence or other regular crime—is never a hate crime. By the way, isn’t that what was taken for granted in American law until a few years ago.

And what does a “proactive government outreach to minority religious groups” mean? Is that just making apologies offering special treatment or explaining to them that the customs of Western democratic countries include the ability to draw pictures of Muhammad or show him as a cartoon character on television?
The reporter then asked:

QUESTION: “But who’s to say that Pakistan isn’t simply playing to the more conservative religious factions in order to maintain political viability?”

It isn’t Crowley’s job to analyze other countries’ motives. But this question contains an important implication. Once upon a time, we thought there were forces of “progress” and those of “reaction.” The former wanted democracy, modernization, freedom, equality of women, and not murdering people for alleged heresy. Now, however, if you change the word from “heresy” to “causing offense” or “multiculturalism” that apparently legitimizes the opposite practices.

Crowley then said something that sounds bland but is revolutionary: “There needs to be a balance to make sure that in rightly restricting offensive speech, or even hate speech, that Pakistan continues to protect and promote the free flow of information.”

In effect, this means: Keep the data going but censor anything that offends you. While Crowley began with U.S. respect for Pakistani law, he ends by endorsing Pakistani law. And so the U.S. State Department has now proclaimed in the name of the American government and people that it is right to restrict “offensive speech.”

The reporter was understandably bewildered:

QUESTION: “But blocking a…website doesn’t seem to go toward promoting free flow of information.”

Crowley finally responds with what he should have said in the first place: “We certainly fully understand how material that were posted on this particular page were offensive to Pakistanis and members of other Muslim majority communities around the world. But at the same time, we do in fact support the universal principle of freedom of expression, free flow of information, and we will continue to promote Internet freedom….”

Note that his reference to "├Âther Muslim majority communities around the world" shows the perception that all Muslims are basically united and to offend any Muslims anywhere is to risk the wrath of them all, a very heavy restriction on making foreign policy! Just reflect on that a moment: a U.S. government that worries about offending everyone from Albanians or Afghans to Yemenis or Zanzabaris.

So, yes, the administration’s thinking is confused. On one hand, embracing “old think,” it supports in theory a universal principle of freedom of expression. Yet on the other hand it endorses the censorship of what someone else deems to be “offensive speech” lest hundreds of millions of people be turned into bitter enemies. Talk about being intimidated!

I fear that this apparent contradiction is merely a trend in which the Pakistani model will be more and more inculcated into Western policies, and even into Western societies.

Meanwhile, Apple has removed an application for its iphones showing only hardline quotes from the Koran while continuing an anti-Christian program. Scores of equivalent examples can be offered.

It is as if freedom of speech was turned on its head. It replaces the great standard of free speech defense, "I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it," with: "Shut up or I'll kill you," followed by a government spokesman saying: "We do not condone speech that would make anyone else want to kill you or anyone else for saying it."

The key issue here is not outrage that someone else is being offended but fear that there is one group that will kill, riot, and attack if it perceives offense. This is what Crowley proposes to "privilege," rather than "offensive" speech that incites merely hurt feelings or even urges the killing or oppression of others.

To see what American policy--and society?--is thus reduced to, watch the Monty Python "Colonel" sketch. Here's the script (a dozen lines down from the start) and here's the video. First, you'll laugh and then you'll see that it's frighteningly accurate. No kidding: Watch this comedy skit from 25 years ago and be astonished at how closely it matches the world situation in 2010.

Oh, and by the way, despite the money pumped in and the praise so freely expressed from the administration, the word in Pakistan is that the Times Square bombing was a Jewish-Indian-U.S. government plot to make it seem like there might be some terrorism coming from Pakistan. Remember this: Political culture always trumps flattery in shaping Middle East reactions to events.


Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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