Sunday, October 7, 2012
Why Islam Should Value Free Speech
In the aftermath of the violence and death following the internet distribution of an execrable anti-Muslim film, Muslims around the world expressed perplexity at the West’s principle of “free speech.” How could America permit such vicious attacks on their beloved Prophet and defend them as “free speech”? Should people be free to insult the most deeply held religious convictions of others? What sort of freedom, some wondered, is that? While I understand the anguish and perplexity I would argue that Islam would be better off both in the West and in majority Muslim countries with more, rather than less, free speech. Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the West are all subject to insults, mockery, and attacks on their most cherished convictions and beloved leaders and prophets. Living in pluralistic societies means that differences of opinion are rife and the marketplace of ideas not a place for the faint of heart. Roman Catholic and Evangelical Christians are perhaps most susceptible to scornful, vicious and frequently unfair attacks. I am not surprised to see vicious attacks on my Christian faith daily on Facebook, in the newspaper, and every other media one can think of. The so-called new atheists have made good livings sneering at people of faith. Such attacks are not pleasant, but I think there are very good reasons to welcome and not resist them. First, some of the attacks are merited. Unfortunately Christians have not always lived in accordance with the teachings of Jesus. Our history is as marked by hypocrisy and violence as it is by sincerity and truth. We need our critics to help us face our most blatant and obvious failures. They hold up a mirror to us and what we see is not always pleasant. Second, opposition to our faith strengthens rather than weakens us. Sociologist Rodney Stark has argued that in countries and regions of the world where one form of Christian faith is dominant (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant) the vigor and depth of the actual faith of individuals is considerably less than it may appear. Stark suggests that in European countries where Christianity was the state religion, Christian faith collapsed quickly when threatened by secularism. But in countries like the United States where faith traditions have had to compete and defend their message, faith has remained stronger and more vital. In countries where Islam is dominant it may appear universally accepted and enduringly vital. But the experience of other Religious traditions would suggest this may be an illusion. A religious monopoly involving the silencing of any criticism from the outside may appear to strengthen Islam. But the opposite may be the case. It is not pleasant for me to hear insults to my faith, to Jesus, and to the church. But in the end, as a Christian I am forced to hear these criticisms, ponder their truth, and strengthen my resolve to communicate more clearly and live more faithfully. I would suggest that Islam would be better served to stop criticizing free speech and start welcoming the challenge it brings. In the end, however painful, Islam will be the better for it.
John E. Phelan, Jr.