One fine distinction

Buruma is at it again.

Dutch criminal law can be invoked against anyone who “deliberately insults people on the grounds of their race, religion, beliefs or sexual orientation.” Whether Mr. Wilders has deliberately insulted Muslim people is for the judges to decide. But for a man who calls for a ban on the Koran to act as the champion of free speech is a bit rich.

No, not exactly, and not necessarily. Being a champion of free speech does not necessarily mean being a champion of absolute free speech with no exceptions whatever. It can mean, for instance, defending free speech construed more broadly than to allow one anti-speech law but still more narrowly than to permit another. It’s not really particularly rich for Wilders to think, for instance, that the Koran has some dangerous content while Fitna does not. I (for one) think Fitna does have some dangerous content, but I think the Koran has more. I wouldn’t call for a ban on the Koran, for many reasons, but I think Buruma’s disdain is too easy.

Comparing a book that billions hold sacred to Hitler’s murderous tract is more than an exercise in literary criticism; it suggests that those who believe in the Koran are like Nazis, and an all-out war against them would be justified. This kind of thinking, presumably, is what the Dutch law court is seeking to check.

One, I think that reading is strained; I think comparing the Koran to Mein Kampf suggests that the Koran is like Mein Kampf. But two, which is more important, notice that Buruma says nothing to show that the Koran is not in fact like Mein Kampf. He says nothing to show that in the rest of the piece, either. Well – what if it is? If it is, then there may be a problem, right? If it is, then covering our ears and pretending it isn’t may not be the best idea. It wasn’t the best idea in the case of Mein Kampf and it may not be the best idea in the case of the Koran either. Yet Buruma seems to ignore that possibility.

One of the misconceptions that muddle the West’s debate over Islam and free speech is the idea that people should be totally free to insult. Free speech is never that absolute. Even — or perhaps especially — in America, where citizens are protected by the First Amendment, there are certain words and opinions that no civilized person would utter, and others that open the speaker to civil charges.

Yes; there are libel laws, for instance. But are there laws against ‘anyone who “deliberately insults people on the grounds of their religion [or] beliefs”‘? I don’t think so, because if there were they would probably be (and be found) unconstitutional. Do let me know if there are any such. If I’m right, it’s not a ‘misconception’ to think that free speech includes the idea ‘that people should be totally free to insult.’ Incite hatred against, no, perhaps not (depending on the circumstances etc) but just plain insult, yes. That is, indeed, part of free speech. Why? Well, because one might need to call some corrupt lying hack a corrupt lying hack, and there’s no way to have laws against insulting people while still protecting the freedom to call a corrupt lying hack a corrupt lying hack. In other words, free speech is a basic part of political freedom.

If Mr. Wilders were to confine his remarks to those Muslims who do harm freedom of speech by using violence against critics and apostates, he would have a valid point. This is indeed a serious problem, not just in the West, but especially in countries where Muslims are in the majority. Mr. Wilders, however, refuses to make such fine distinctions. He believes that there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim.

But Mr Buruma is perhaps making one fine distinction too many. That is because violence is not the only problem, and it’s either evasive or naïve of Buruma to imply that it is. There are Muslims who do harm freedom of speech by using laws or UN human rights bodies or rhetoric or threats of violence or social pressure against critics and apostates – so it’s just way too easy and too comfortable to pretend that the only problem is with actual overt physical violence. It’s hard to believe that Buruma has been paying too little attention to be aware of this.

Presumbably he’s worried about stirring up hatred of (and violence against) Muslims in general, and that is of course a valid worry; but he shouldn’t be evasive, because there are other valid worries in play.

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