“(Let those who are wrong) stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is left to combat it.”
- Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801
Every time a shooting occurs—such as this week in Texas where two gunmen opened fire on a crowd, apparently incensed by the religion-baiting American Freedom Defence Initiative—a sickening talking past one another seems to take place between the Western and Muslim worlds. It goes something like this: The West says “we believe in free speech so sorry, but whatever our citizens did that offended you is of no consequence.” The Muslim World says “we are offended by what your citizens were doing, which means your free speech values should have strict limits.’
I am a patient man, but I am heartily sick of this dialogue of the deaf, which gets us precisely nowhere.
So let me make a different Western case, laying out what America ought to say, looking for inspiration to the example of the greatest and most eloquent civil libertarian of them all, Thomas Jefferson. The unbelievably bitter election of 1800 had just concluded, where - for the first time in the Republic’s history - there was a shift as to which political party ran the country. The ruling Federalist Party (the party of Washington, Adams, and Hamilton) had not gone down without a fight, as it became clear the party of Jefferson was likely to defeat them. Monstrous slanders were laid at Jefferson’s door (interestingly amongst them the charge that he was an atheist) in the ruthless hope the mudslinging would change people’s minds. It did not, and the Jeffersonians romped to victory, putting him in the White House.
Making a change
Almost all prior and future revolutionary history dictates that Jefferson would now lead a purge of those who had so wrongly inflamed the debate. But then a miracle occurred. There were no revolutionary tribunals, no firing squads, no jailing of his Federalist opponents without trial. The Spirit of 1776 held; Jefferson’s enemies did not leave the Washington, DC in leg-irons, they went into retirement.
As a Jeffersonian, I concede my hateful opponents an almost limitless right to speak outDr. John C. Hulsman
His opponents had been wrong, incendiary, cruel, and unjust, but Jefferson concluded, they were allowed to be. Moreover, as a fervent champion of liberty, practically believing in free speech (even when it was hateful and wrong) meant the country would not be plunged into endless chaos. So, as the quote which opens my piece makes clear, Jefferson opted to accept that he had to tolerate those he held to be deeply wrong, and let reason and argument fight them in this open civic space. That is what he believed and what I still believe. There is no better Western argument to make to the Muslim world regarding the sanctity of free speech than that.
Pressing the West
But the rest of the world is right to press the West to go further, for saying that is simply not enough. So let me use the very power of free speech I have ceded to my enemies (and rest assured I stand with you in seeing the bigots of the American Freedom Defence Initiative as my enemies). I believe setting up what can only be described as an anti-Islamic art exhibition is moronically offensive, needlessly provocative, and betrays an ignorance and misunderstanding of Islam itself.
Setting up a contest and awarding a prize of $10,000 for the best cartoon caricature of the Prophet Mohammed was not designed to use reason to further an argument; rather it was an ignorant and hateful attempt to wave a red flag in front of all those who believe Mohammed is the prophet of God. Of course the group knows that in Islamic tradition any physical depiction of Mohammed is considered blasphemous; that’s why they set up their hateful contest in the first place. The whole event was groupthink for bigots, and was designed not to further debate in the West about Islam, but to denigrate it. As a Protestant, Christian, Republican, I have nothing but contempt for what they did. I cannot state my reasoned opposition to them more clearly than this.
But I stand with the Sage of Monticello. The American Freedom Defence Initiative has the right to be moronic. They have the right to be hateful, wrongheaded, guided by malice, impervious to reason, and simplistic. It is up to the rest of us - having ceded them the free speech to say such things - to use it ourselves to combat them, illustrating that a vast majority of Westerners do not and will never agree with their catastrophically xenophobic views of Islam.
As a Jeffersonian, I concede my hateful opponents an almost limitless right to speak out, however awful their utterings—violence towards one’s enemies is never acceptable, and worse, feeds into their caricature of Islam. The converse side of the argument - the point never reached in these discussions - is that duty then compels me to use free speech and reason to carry the day with my countrymen about what Islam really stands for.
Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has also given 1490 interviews, written over 410 articles, prepared over 1270 briefings, and delivered more than 460 speeches on foreign policy around the world.