How Can We Ban Insults Against Jews but Not Muslims?

How you look at things.
Sept. 28 2012 4:36 PM

Hate-Speech Hypocrites

How can we ban hate speech against Jews while defending mockery of Muslims?

Pakistani Shiite Muslims shout slogans beside a burning Israeli flag during a rally against Israel and the United States.
Pakistani Shiite Muslims shout slogans beside a burning Israeli flag during a rally against Israel and the United States to mark the Al-Quds (Jerusalem) day on the last Friday of the holiest month of Ramadan in Peshawar in August

Photograph by Hasham Ahmed/AFP/Getty Images.

Jews have too much influence over U.S. foreign policy. Gay men are too promiscuous. Muslims commit too much terrorism. Blacks commit too much crime.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Each of those claims is poorly stated. Each, in its clumsy way, addresses a real problem or concern. And each violates laws against hate speech. In much of what we call the free world, for writing that paragraph, I could be jailed.

Libertarians, cultural conservatives, and racists have complained about these laws for years. But now the problem has turned global. Islamic governments, angered by an anti-Muslim video that provoked protests and riots in their countries, are demanding to know why insulting the Prophet Mohammed is free speech but vilifying Jews and denying the Holocaust isn’t. And we don’t have a good answer.

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If we’re going to preach freedom of expression around the world, we have to practice it. We have to scrap our hate-speech laws.

Muslim leaders want us to extend these laws. At this week’s meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, they lobbied for tighter censorship. Egypt’s president said freedom of expression shouldn’t include speech that is “used to incite hatred” or “directed towards one specific religion.” Pakistan’s president urged the “international community” to “criminalize” acts that “endanger world security by misusing freedom of expression.” Yemen’s president called for “international legislation” to suppress speech that “blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures.” The Arab League’s secretary-general proposed a binding “international legal framework” to “criminalize psychological and spiritual harm” caused by expressions that “insult the beliefs, culture and civilization of others."

President Obama, while condemning the video, met these proposals with a stout defense of free speech. Switzerland’s president agreed: “Freedom of opinion and of expression are core values guaranteed universally which must be protected.” And when a French magazine published cartoons poking fun at Mohammed, the country’s prime minister insisted that French laws protecting free speech extend to caricatures.

This debate between East and West, between respect and pluralism, isn’t a crisis. It’s a stage of global progress. The Arab spring has freed hundreds of millions of Muslims from the political retardation of dictatorship. They’re taking responsibility for governing themselves and their relations with other countries. They’re debating one another and challenging us. And they should, because we’re hypocrites.

From Pakistan to Iran to Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Nigeria to the United Kingdom, Muslims scoff at our rhetoric about free speech. They point to European laws against questioning the Holocaust. Monday on CNN, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad needled British interviewer Piers Morgan: “Why in Europe has it been forbidden for anyone to conduct any research about this event? Why are researchers in prison? … Do you believe in the freedom of thought and ideas, or no?” On Tuesday, Pakistan’s U.N. ambassador, speaking for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, told the U.N. Human Rights Council:

We are all aware of the fact that laws exist in Europe and other countries which impose curbs, for instance, on anti-Semitic speech, Holocaust denial, or racial slurs. We need to acknowledge, once and for all, that Islamophobia in particular and discrimination on the basis of religion and belief are contemporary forms of racism and must be dealt with as such. Not to do so would be a clear example of double standards. Islamophobia has to be treated in law and practice equal to the treatment given to anti-Semitism.

He’s right. Laws throughout Europe forbid any expression that “minimizes,” “trivializes,” “belittles,” “plays down,” “contests,” or “puts in doubt” Nazi crimes. Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic extend this prohibition to communist atrocities. These laws carry jail sentences of up to five years. Germany adds two years for anyone who “disparages the memory of a deceased person.”

Hate speech laws go further. Germany punishes anyone found guilty of “insulting” or “defaming segments of the population.” The Netherlands bans anything that “verbally or in writing or image, deliberately offends a group of people because of their race, their religion or beliefs, their hetero- or homosexual orientation or their physical, psychological or mental handicap.” It’s illegal to “insult” such a group in France, to “defame” them in Portugal, to “degrade” them in Denmark, or to “expresses contempt” for them in Sweden. In Switzerland, it’s illegal to “demean” them even with a “gesture.” Canada punishes anyone who “willfully promotes hatred.” The United Kingdom outlaws “insulting words or behavior” that arouse “racial hatred.” Romania forbids the possession of xenophobic “symbols.”