Slander, Blasphemy & Censorship

Muslim Police Chief: Freedom of Speech is not Freedom to Offend

No one is obligated to respect Muhammad or the Qur'an. Respect is something due to persons, not to ideas.

BY Immanuel Al-Manteeqi · @Al_Manteeqi | June 12, 2016

Umer Khan, the Muslim police Chief Inspector of Greater Manchester, England, has recently tweeted the following controversial words: “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of offending culture, religion or tradition.” Naturally, Khan’s words elicited protests from defenders of free speech who believe that the freedom to freely criticize religion is a hallowed right in the West.

A spokesperson for the Greater Manchester Police department said that the controversy about the Chief’s words is

a storm in a tea cup… [Khan’s post] is about promoting tolerance, freedom of speech, that’s all he meant with it. He didn’t mean for it to be taken in an offensive way at all… it’s ironic, freedom of speech is what he’s now getting in trouble for.

The firestorm of controversy ensuing from Khan’s tweet prompted him to delete it. He apologized for offending people with his tweet, and stated that his tweet “was a thought after a moving visit to Auschwitz.”

Despite Khan’s good intentions (which this author does not doubt), and his having deleted the post, it is clear that Khan does agree with his tweet. After all, at last year’s Annual General Meeting of the Jewish Representative Council, he said that “we all need to respect each other’s religions.”

Umer Khan’s position is understandable from a practical perspective. The Greater Manchester county is, according to him, dealing with increasing hatred towards religious groups, particularly Jews and Muslims. So he wants to crack down on anything that foments violence, which includes mocking Islam—something that is notorious for fomenting violence.

Khan’s strategy is much like the Obama administration’s misguided attempts to distance Islam from the actions of Muslim terrorists, and to dissuade people from harsh criticism of Islam. This strategy is also understandable, as the Obama administration wants to make allies among moderate Muslims; it does not want to ostracize them. Furthermore, actions like Obama’s personal phone call to pastor Terry Jones, urging him not to burn the Qur’an, are understandable from a security perspective. Nonetheless, understandable though positions like Umer Khan’s and the Obama administration’s may be, they are in the long-term very dangerous.

The right to free speech is illusory sans a concomitant right to offend people. The point of having a right to free speech is to protect people from unjust retaliation against those who despise or are offended by the ideas being expressed. Obviously, in a world where no one ever despised or felt offended by the speech of another, there would be no point to enshrining a right to free speech into law. But such is not the real world. In the real world it is essential to a healthy society to have the ability, within reason, to freely and relentlessly disagree with someone’s ideas—no matter how popular they may be.

What well-intentioned people like Khan get wrong is that no one has an obligation to respect any set of ideas or beliefs. A Muslim does not have the obligation to respect Christianity; and an Atheist, Christian, or Jew, does not have an obligation to respect Islam. No one is obligated to respect the idea that Muhammad was God’s messenger, or that the Qur’an is the verbatim word of God. Respect is something that is properly due to persons, not to ideas. Indeed, certain ideas, like the idea that 2+2=5, or the mainstream Islamic idea that apostates should be killed for deconverting from Islam, are irrational and absurd, and therefore do not deserve any respect. We all have an obligation to respect people qua people; however, we do not have an obligation to respect ideas. Hopefully those who tow the “do not criticize or mock Islam” line will one day get the point of free speech.


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