Without free speech, democracy cannot survive. Now, in areas where democracy is most sorely needed ”“ where people have been literally dying for it ”“ a serious threat to its progress has arisen.

The Arab Spring is quickly cooling into a winter as the fallout from the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya continues. The deadly attack was initially blamed on a widely publicized anti-Islam film produced in the U.S., but it happened to fall on the anniversary of 9/11, and the terrorists who committed the riotous murders curiously targeted those who were helping along their attempts at freedom, rather than the filmmaker himself.

The uproar over the film, which seems to have been used as an excuse for a terrorist attack, has led to renewed calls at the United Nations for an international blasphemy law that would prohibit such expressions. It’s a terrifying idea that’s been around for more than a decade, pushed by the Organization for Islamic Cooperation.

In the United States, our Constitution guarantees the right to free speech, so we have some protection, but we hope the rest of the world stands firm in denouncing this proposal as well. The prospects look good so far, as the World Council for Churches, representing the major Protestant, Orthodox and Evangelical churches, has urged Pakistan to abolish its blasphemy law. In that country, you can be executed for speaking out against Islam, even if it’s unintended.

Any restrictions on free speech hamper free dialogue about the most important issues, from religion to politics, and no nation can embrace democracy and have a free society without allowing people to speak their minds. Some limits are in order, of course, such as those that constitute our libel and defamation laws ”“ making public, damaging claims about a living person that are untrue is a serious offense, as it can damage that person’s reputation to the point that it negatively impacts their life.

Blasphemous remarks such as railing against a long-dead prophet, however, are comparable to insulting someone’s late mother. It is a childish reaction to punch someone in the face for disparaging your mother, for example, and only seems to lend credence to their comments. Showing them they are wrong is much more powerful.

Blasphemy is perhaps the most important type of free speech we have. Religion is not a special realm that should be immune to criticism, ridicule and even mockery. It is through these, the most offensive forms of free speech, that we often come to see uncomfortable truths.

As in all other instances of great offense, the cure for offensive free speech is more free speech.

Instead of refuting the filmmaker’s claim that “Islam is a cancer,” those who attacked the consulate only helped strengthen his notion. It would have served them well if they had instead responded with a video of their own, using their religious texts to dispute the vulgar accusations made by the filmmaker, and share their beliefs.

The fact is, the murderous riot was not caused by the video, as there is a perfect storm of unemployment, high food prices, and religious and political unrest that has made the Middle East volatile for generations. But violence in response to any action seen as blasphemy against Islam has become a common occurrence, from the death threats and riots related to editorial cartoon depiction’s of Mohammed, to this most recent incident over a film.

No rational person wants to see people die because someone made a film or drew a cartoon mocking a particular religion. But the reaction to that free speech is not the fault of the film or cartoon’s creator. It is the response that is objectionable, not the initial action, and no apologies should be made for expressing one’s views in a non-violent manner, however extreme they might be.

With religion, there is no evidence for who is right and who is wrong in their beliefs, and to set up an authority to decide that sets a frightening precedent.

Where will we draw the line and, more importantly, who will draw the line?

Is not nearly every religion blaspheming the others with its individual claims of having the sole path to salvation? Simply by claiming that your savior is the correct one, one is claiming that others are frauds ”“ and that is the most plain form of blasphemy. It follows, therefore, that an anti-blasphemy law would basically be used to subjugate any minority religions and non-religious persons.

This is why separation of church and state is so important and needs to be implemented in the countries of the Middle East. It is unfair and unethical to create laws based on a religious belief system that steps on the rights of a person who does not hold that same religious belief. If only the government would allow people to practice whatever religion they choose and not make religious-based laws the law of the land, they would not have these problems or have such unrest between sects.

Hearing the call for an international blasphemy law makes the importance of spreading democracy all the more clear. It takes a long time and a concerted effort on many fronts to bring hearts and minds toward acceptance of freedom, not only for others, but for themselves. And it’s a fight we hope America continues to lead.


Today’s editorial was written by Managing Editor Kristen Schulze Muszynski, representing the majority opinion of the Journal Tribune Editorial Board. Questions? Comments? Contact Kristen by calling 282-1535, Ext. 322, or via email at [email protected].