In Defense of Free Speech
by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 22, 2006
Rabbi Moshe Grylak is not only the chareidi world’s finest columnist, but one of its deepest thinkers. An intimate of gedolei Yisrael from the Chazon Ish on, a talmid chacham in his own right, and a master stylist in numerous genres, he sets the standard to which the rest of us can only aspire.
I find it almost impossible to disagree with anything he writes. Last week’s column "Little Cartoon without Brakes" was a rare exception.
Rabbi Grylak describes the now famous cartoons that appeared in a small circulation Danish newspaper as a "totally unjustified attack" on Islam, and the decision of other European papers to reprint the cartoons as mindless worship of "an idol called Freedom of Expression." I disagree on both counts.
The most effective of the cartoons, the one which shows a figure labeled as Mohammed wearing a bomb-shaped turban, with a fuse attached, was not a gratuitous insult. It made a serious point: the self-described "religion of peace" has been kidnapped by dangerous fanatics who relish the slaughter of their fellow human beings.
That point has been made countless times in print. And tens of thousands of Moslem rioters around the world proceeded to prove it. Moslem demonstrators in London carried placards reading: "Behead those who insult Islam;" "Prepare for the REAL Holocaust;" "Europe you will pay, your 9/11 is on the way."
Jihad al-Momani, the incredibly brave editor of a Jordanian weekly, which reprinted three of the offending cartoons, put the matter best: "Who creates more prejudice against Islam? These caricatures drawn by a non-Muslim or pictures of a Muslim hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of cameras or a Muslim with an explosive belt who commits suicide in a wedding celebration . . .?"
There is evidence that the recent fury, four months after the original publication of the cartoons, was whipped up by Syria, Iran, and the Hamas-led PA, each of which has an interest in showing the West what is in store if it continues to pressure these regimes. Among the means of incitement were forged caricatures of Mohammed far more disgusting and sacreligious than anything dreamed of by the Danish cartoonists. Where were the calls for beheading those responsible for the forgeries?
The reprinting of the cartoons by European papers was, in many respects the most positive aspect of the entire episode. It reflected a decision on the part of at least some Europeans not to be intimidated by threats of Muslim violence, and a renewed European determination to maintain their own cultural mores in the face of an influx of Muslim immigrants.
That determination was not universal – at least one major French grocery chain complied with demands that it remove all Danish products from its shelves in Moslem countries. But given the consistent pattern of appeasement adopted by the Europeans to the Islamic world in general, the signs of defiance offered hope that at least some Europeans are awakening to the threat that radical Islam poses to their very existence.
Asking whether free speech is a Torah value, or how free the press would be in an ideal Torah state is missing the point. It is not enough to hold the laws of lashon hara triumphantly aloft as conclusive proof that Moslem rioters were essentially right, albeit a bit over the top.
For one thing, we do not live in an ideal Torah state. Most of us live in states composed of many different types of people, who hold a wide variety of views. I am not familiar with one serious effort in the chareidi world to even imagine what a modern polity under Torah law would look like. Our operative assumption has always been that such a state will not precede the arrival of Mashiach, and when he arrives, he will clarify everything. (So much for the charge that we seek to impose a theocracy.)
Until Mashiach arrives, the first question that we need to ask ourselves is what form of society best protects our ability to live our lives according to the dictates of the Torah. Most of us would answer a liberal democracy like the United States, which has proven a true malchus shel chesed
for Jews. And free speech is one of the core values of liberal democracy because the marketplace of ideas cannot function without it.
True, freedom of speech guarantees abuse of that freedom. There can be no freedom without license as well. But we would not want to live in a society in which any statement deemed offensive to the beliefs of others, whether those beliefs be religious or political, was punishable by law.
Anyone who disagrees should consider the case of two Christian clergymen in Austalia who were convicted of violating the state of Victoria’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act by stating that the Koran promotes violence, killing and looting. At their trial, the Pakistan-born pastors attempted to defend themselves by reading passages of the Koran itself, but the judge ruled that truth was no defense and that reading the Islam's holy book is itself an impermissible act of vilification.
Democratic society is predicated on mutuality – the principle that laws apply equally to all citizens, and that what is permitted to one group cannot be denied to others. Hundreds of millions of Moslems around the globe have shown themselves incapable of grasping this principle. Thus they did not argue against the Danish cartoons based upon principles of reciprocal tolerance and respect. Indeed they find nothing objectionable in publishing the most vile anti-Semitic cartoons or airing on TV "documentaries" based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But when others offend the honor of their religion, they call for blood.
That Moslems, who have little experience living with people of other creeds and beliefs, except as rulers, do not quite understand the mutuality that underlies democratic society is understandable.
Jews, however, have lived everywhere as a tiny minority for the last two millennia, and we should be able to appreciate the value of a society in which one set of laws applies to the majority and minority, to the powerful and weak, to Muslim, Christian and Jew.
Related Topics: World Jewry
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