Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

September 24, 2012

OP-ED: Toothess Hate Speech Laws Fail all Religions

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News/Al Arabiya

24 September 2012

Three years ago, French law authorities arrested and later convicted famed fashion designer John Galliano for making anti-Semitic remarks to a couple at a Paris café.
It was a casual conversation that ended ugly, but John Galliano paid the price for his intemperance and bigotry due to France’s hate speech laws. President François Hollande also stripped Galliano of his Légion d’Honneur award following his conviction for “public insults based on origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity.”
Ten percent of France’s population is Muslim, yet bigoted comments from print publications, media outlets and even politicians run rampant with the sole intention of abusing Muslims. Extremist American and European writers and politicians claim they are simply exercising their right to free speech. In reality they hide behind free speech protections to voice hatred.
This week the French weekly Charlie Hebdo, on the heels of the release of that anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims,” published new cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that even to an atheist is insulting. Defended by Charlie Hebdo editors as satire, the cartoons badly miss the mark and border on the repulsive. This new round of cartoons only serve to heighten tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims.
So how did it come that bigots face prosecution for directing hate speech toward Jews, but not Muslims?
France’s hate speech laws have been on the books since 1881, but the courts more often than not rule against religious organizations no matter what the affiliation.
And to be fair, Christian groups in France have lost more civil and criminal hate cases than any other religion.
The courts refused to ban “The Last Temptation of the Christ” in 1988. The courts also refused a request by Christian groups to remove a movie poster for the 1996 film “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” for its sexually suggestive imagery mixed with Christian icons. In 2005, the courts denied a request to remove a fashion clothing billboard depicting female models and a shirtless man in a scene from The Last Super.
Likewise, French courts refused to ban Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Versus” in 1989. The courts acquitted Charlie Hebdo’s editor in 2006 on charges of maligning Islam by republishing the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet. The court ruled that the cartoons were directed at fundamentalists and terrorists and not the entire Muslim community.
Yet in 2008, a court convicted France’s most beloved actress, Brigitte Bardot, for inciting racial and religious hatred against Muslims. She had complained in a letter made public that Muslims are destroying the country.
The Muslim question, if you want to call it that, is relatively new, having arisen in the past 20 years with the rising number of immigrants coinciding with the mainstreaming of the right-wing lunatic fringe into European and American politics and media. These secular and religious extremist groups demand that free speech protections be exported worldwide without respect to the sensibilities of other religious organizations, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim.
The argument from the West is that a religion targeted for satire should be strong enough to take ridicule. More important, the attacks should not be taken personally. Since many Christian branches made a pact with governments centuries ago to separate church and state, Westerners generally view religion as private and at a distance. As Stanley Fish put it in the New York Times recently, religion in secular countries is an “add-on” to personhood, much like a political party or sports team. There is no such division in Islam or Orthodox Judaism. Faith is not a part-time endeavor. The entire person-hood is faith. This is what distinguishes Muslims and Orthodox Jews from other religions. While there are a great many Muslims who may believe in secularism or are indifferent to the haters — after all, Islam is not the monolithic religion the media portray it to be — for the vast majority in the Middle East and South Asia denigration of their religion is indeed a personal insult.
If secular groups want to drag Jesus through the mud in the name of free speech, must Muslims accept this denigration? Of course not. Such depictions of Jesus, Muhammad or Abraham are unthinkable in the Muslim community.
While French hate speech laws seem toothless, success in the courts depend on how Western societies regard their minority populations. For now, the laws treat Islam pretty much the same way it does Christianity. However, organized advocacy among disparate religious groups will help the courts rethink their approach to hate speech cases.
I am not singling out France. I am holding it up as an example of how Western nations in good faith keep hate speech laws on the books but apply the law inconsistently. They have yet to reconcile such protections with the increasing prominence of hate groups that abuse that right. The line between free speech and hate is so fine that governments can’t confidently prosecute the latter because it may come at the expense of the former. The United States is an entirely different matter, where the First Amendment is so highly regarded that it’s unlikely that lobbying to legislate hate speech will gain any traction.
Regardless of the path governments take to control hate speech, those who take offense to such things can take solace that thousands of insults have been hurled against the prophets and their religions still stand tall and sturdy as ever.


June 25, 2012

OP-ED: OIC’s Anti-Blasphemy Efforts Mirror European Laws

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

25 June 2012

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has come under increasing criticism the past year for its strong advocacy of blasphemy laws. It also played a central role in successfully urging the United Nations to pass nonbinding resolutions condemning defamation of religion.
Western conservatives have taken the OIC to task, claiming the group is an agent to suppress speech freedoms. Conservatives in the United States, including anti-Muslim hate groups, have expressed particular offense to any laws that may restrict their First Amendment right to denigrate any religion they see fit to attack.
Americans are wishy-washy about the US Constitution. Save for civil liberties groups, Americans don’t seem to mind so much losing their Fourth Amendment rights to protection from illegal searches and seizures of property, as long as the government tells them such actions are in the name of security. Some federal legislators are toying with the idea of repealing the 14th Amendment that gives citizenship to any child born on US soil regardless of their parents’ immigration status. But play with the Second Amendment that gives Americans the right to own firearms and the First Amendment that guarantees free speech and legislators will find themselves in hot water.
There was a time when the US media was the gatekeeper for political discourse. It seems somewhat quaint that Americans — now imbued with the power of social media — once relied on newspapers, radio and television to keep debate civil. Now, social media have led to the virtual abdication of responsibility and accountability for hate speech.
I single out Americans because many European countries and Canada have strong free speech laws, but also have hate speech legislation that demands accountability. The US has no such checks and balances in place other than slander and libel laws that place a heavy burden of proof on the offended party.
Individuals in Canada face up to five years in prison for distributing hate propaganda “that advocates or promotes genocide” or the “destruction of an identifiable group” distinguished by color, religion, race, sexual orientation or ethnic origin. In the United Kingdom, laws prohibit expressions of racial hatred or hatred against a group of persons due to color, nationality, ethnic origin or race.
Germany, France and Denmark prohibit hate speech, given Germany’s Nazi government and its occupation of France and Denmark during World War II. The memories of Nazi horrors inflicted on various ethnic groups remain fresh in the elderly population. Countries untouched by war on their soil and the hate propaganda that preceded ethnic cleansing have little appreciation for the history behind European hate speech laws.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about blasphemy laws or any restrictions of free speech, but the OIC’s campaign is not out of line with existing laws in Canada and the United Kingdom. In a recent interview with Arab News, OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu expressed concern over the growing trend of Islamophobia and xenophobia.
Ihsanoglu takes issue with highly inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric designed as deliberate acts to insult and create “divisions and mistrust among diverse religions in society.”
This does not absolve the Muslim community of its own transgressions regarding hate speech, especially among marginal religious authorities that issue fatwas, or religious decrees, condemning other religions.
But Ihsanoglu is clear on the OIC’s position on fatwas. He noted that only “highly reputed scholars from prestigious institutions and who have an extensive and in-depth knowledge of Shariah” should issue fatwas. “Dubious figures” issuing “marginal fatwas” should be ignored, he said.
Ihsanoglu pointed to a fatwa issued by the International Islamic Fiqh Academy, a subsidiary of the OIC, which states “freedom of expression is a right guaranteed in Islam within the framework of Shariah regulations.” The fatwa further states “not to offend others in a way that affects their life, honor, reputation or social standing; adhering to objectivity, truthfulness and honesty, committing to responsibility; to take into consideration the possible consequences; and that the freedom to express opinion does not contain attacks on religion or its rituals or sanctities.”
The OIC secretary-general added that fatwas do not apply to non-Muslims, who are not expected to comply since non-Muslim countries have their own laws, that is, except for the United States.
The obstacle to writing a hate speech law without infringing on the right of freedom of expression is how to define it since hate speech is so subjective.
Hate speech legislation should be a living, breathing document flexible enough for refinement over time. However, the law should also have specific definitions in place, such as regulating abusive and threatening language and using that language to stir hatred against a specific group of people.
The laws should distinguish this type of language from robust and lively debate. British law, for example, makes the distinction between stirring up racial hatred using “threatening, abusive or insulting language, but makes the distinction between public speech or publications and private conversation.
The polarization of the American political landscape has led to a loss of social responsibility. Radio and television pundits and hate websites use abusive and threatening language to marginalize individuals and ethnic groups. It generates media buzz but little in the way of consequences.
The OIC’s campaign to stem hate speech parallels current laws already on the books in many Western democratic countries. Perhaps it’s time US lawmakers joined in.

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