Muhammad in a bear costume

Free speech in chains

On November 2, 2004, Theo van Gogh, a Dutch film director, author, and father, was shot and killed by Mohammed Bouyeri as van Gogh rode his bicycle to work. In the open air of the streets of Amsterdam, Bouyeri shot van Gogh eight times, attempted to decapitate him, and then finished by stabbing two knives into his chest, pinning there a 5-page manifesto threatening the lives of others, including a prominent Dutch politician.

Van Gogh’s crime? Four months earlier, he created a 10-minute film called “Submission” (from the etymology of the word “Islam”), that harshly denounced the treatment of women in Islamic societies.

On September 30th, 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of editorial cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. The editors of that newspaper were worried, in light of the assassination of van Gogh, that legitimate political discourse between western and Islamic societies was being silenced. They decided to make a stand, not against Islam or religion, but in defense of the secular value of free speech and to urge their colleagues in the media to strike a different balance between free expression and political correctness. In response, many Danish embassies were burned, or targeted for bombing. The cartoonists have had multiple plots and attempts on their lives, the most recent of which was in January of this year.

On April 21st, 2010, an American animated sitcom, South Park, ran an episode that depicted the prophet Muhammad. The target of their satire was not Islam itself, but instead the media and its practice of self-censorship in matters concerning Islam. Much as Jyllands-Posten was responding to the fallout of the van Gogh murder, South Park was responding to the fallout from Jyllands-Posten — it was a meta-response to a meta-response. This time however, there were no fireworks. After receiving a thinly-veiled threat from a New-York-based group, Revolution Muslim, South Park’s executives decided to heavily censor the episode, bleeping out any mention of Muhammad, any image of Muhammad, and very nearly the entire finale of the episode, in which the show’s characters frankly discuss the issue of self-censorship.

The line seems to keep getting pushed back further and further. With van Gogh, we discovered that we cannot criticize Islam. With Jyllands-Posten, we found that we cannot criticize our inability to criticize Islam. And now with South Park we find that we cannot even criticize our inability to criticize. Forget Islam for a moment how is it that our society, which enshrines free speech as a fundamental right, came to self-censor a debate on self-censorship?

There are many out there, myself included, who believe that the war on terror will not end with a bomb being dropped or a gun being fired, but instead will be won by the power of our democratic system, our ability to discuss and persuade others of the validity of our ideas. There can be no lasting victory through the force of arms — until we create a level of mutual respect between our societies, until we win the debate being held at the kitchen tables of moderate Muslims, there will always be fresh bodies for the grist mill.

But how can we engage in such a debate when we restrict ourselves from participating? How can we pretend to preach tolerance and human rights when we betray our own ideals? I am not calling for offending for offense’s sake there is a reasonable argument to be had that responsible institutions should take measures, including self-censorship, to avoid inspiring animosity between Islam and the West. In the course of this balancing act, we will find some criticism that is important to a full and honest exchange but potentially inflammatory — such criticism falls into a grey area that we as a society should continue to debate. South Park however, did not even come close to this grey area. There was no criticism of Islam beyond its indirect and disturbing effects on our free speech. Theirs was an attempt to participate in the debate about where self-censorship should draw the line.

Muhammad in a bear costume (as South Park pseudo-portrayed him) may sound silly, but with this censorship what we are looking at is our core democratic principles under attack. Our citizens have the right to satirize Muhammad without fear of retribution, just as they have the right to declare themselves gay or to let their religious beliefs be known. A violent minority has, through the threat of violence, caused us to surrender this right. It is one thing for someone to decide, of their own volition, whether or not to say something. It is an entirely a different matter when someone wants to say something, but fears they will be harmed as a consequence.

We would never accept this attack on our political discourse if it came from any other source. In the weeks leading up to the airing of the South Park episode, much of our media space was filled with a ferocious back and forth on whether or not Tea Party anger would incite assassinations or bombings. We are on such a hair-trigger against the prospect of violence creeping into our political process, so devoted to the sanctity of our national debate from coercion, that we took relatively benign language from the likes of Sarah Palin and misconstrued it as incitements and threats. Bill Clinton even went so far as to blame Tea Party-style anger for terrorist attacks such as the Oklahoma City bombing, claiming that the anger with big government of more moderate Tea Party supporters was what fueled extremist elements.

In the wake of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone being threatened with execution, and their free speech rights being abrogated by the self-censorship of craven TV executives, our media is chillingly silent. There are seemingly few, if any, mainstream outlets ready to stand up and defend the two comedians. Where are the Bill Clintons of this fight, ready to absurdly claim that the discomfort and anger that moderate Muslims feel about the depiction of Muhammad is what fuels terrorist attacks such as September 11th? Why is it that a respected political mind, a former president no less, could feel comfortable taking up such a position against hypothetical libertarian violence, and yet we can find no such voices willing to denounce the non-hypothetical threat that Muslim extremists pose?

I watched van Gogh’s Submission. I found it a little amateurish. The sound effects are a bit over the top, the camera angles are odd, and the monologue is melodramatic and overladen with sarcasm. In all, it’s probably not many levels of sophistication removed from your typical YouTube composition. But I defend van Gogh’s right to say what he said, to create what he created. And I defend my right to watch what he made and judge his statements for myself. To stand in solidarity with those who exercise free speech is not the same as being in consensus with their views.

It is important that we connect with the Muslim world and that we open a dialogue, and that way take into account their cultural taboos. As part of that process, as part of any discourse, there will be self-censorship. I write my articles in this newspaper knowing that my likely audience is fellow MIT students, and I tailor what I say to what I believe will make my arguments best received — in short, I self-censor. But I do so without fear of bodily harm, without the worry that what I write will end with some fanatic trying to saw off my head from my bullet-riddled corpse on a public street. There is a difference.

I don’t want there to be conflict between America and Islam. I hope that the clash of civilizations can be resolved peacefully by our two societies formally and informally bridging the divide through discourse and the sharing of ideas. At the same time, there are political rights that I hold dear, that I would fight to protect before I ever let them be negotiated away. We cannot let the restriction of our free speech be a precondition for sitting down at the table with Islam.

I wanted this article, or something like it, to run as an editorial, a declaration that not just I, but this entire organization stood behind free speech rights everywhere. I thought it was our duty — aren’t we, as a newspaper, both the first and last line of defense against the Mohammed Bouyeri’s of the world? I also wanted to run an illustration, a respectful depiction of Muhammad. I felt there was no better image to drive home to point that free speech should triumph against political correctness and coercion. I wanted us to stand up and say, “I am Spartacus”— not to give a hollow statement of support or merely write an article bemoaning the state of affairs, but to actually share the risks that are born by those who exercise their right to unpopular free speech. Unfortunately, The Tech is unwilling to take this stand.

However, if any other media organizations are reading, I urge you to publish your own depictions of Muhammad as a declaration of the supremacy of free speech. We cannot, we must not, we will not allow our citizens to be browbeaten into submission. This is one point on which they, not us, must yield.