Waris Husain Editorial: The Freedom to Offend


This week, the provincial assemblies of Pakistan and its President have expressed anger at the United States for allowing the burning of a Koran by Pastor Terry Jones in Florida. I have previously written about the common immoral perspective shared by Mr. Jones and Muslim extremists across the world, both irresponsibly seething hate and intolerance to the public. And while I condemn the Pastor, the U.S. Constitution defends his right to burn this sacred Islamic text without punishment from the state. The right wing in Pakistan has traditionally prosecuted and attacked those exercising free speech challenging their beliefs, and ask for the U.S. to do the same with Terry Jones. However, the U.S. system has been able to protect freedom and advance intellectually only by allowing an individual the right to offend others just as others have a right to offend him or her without government intrusion.

The development of America’s near-absolute protection of freedom of speech came from a presumption about human nature: that people would not value tolerance of others if it was handed down to them by the government. Rather, by prohibiting any government intrusion on peoples’ right to speak, the founders wished to create a marketplace of ideas where the public could pick and chose which ideas it adhered to. This meant that the government would not be in the business of indoctrinating the public by selecting which speech was permitted, but that the people themselves would determine the range and topic of their rhetoric and discussions

This concept is at the heart of American free speech and applies to Terry Jones in several ways. First, one should note that no major American news networks have given any coverage to this incident, and certainly none would risk losing their advertisement dollars by airing the disgusting images of Jones burning the Koran. This is not due to some ban by the U.S. government or courts, but is rather a choice made individually by each news corporation not to cover the story. Indeed, the right to free speech also carries with it the right to not speak, or to not give a hateful extremist any time on one’s private broadcast to offend viewers. It is more likely that if the U.S. government had tried to take legal action to stop Pastor Jones, the story would have been more heavily discussed in the media- but without such action, not many heard that the Pastor did such a hateful act.

Secondly, it is important to remember that Terry Jones is an outlier in the American society and not the average citizen, and his one voice of hate can be drowned out by the millions who disagree with his message and have the right to speak openly. Muslims have an equal legal right to protest Pastor Jones and even to burn the Bible (although such an act would violate the tenants of Islam and would be completely immoral).

Such a back and forth would certainly not produce any positive outcome, but is part of the open process that eventually strengthens a society and the citizens themselves. The society is buttressed by the simple fact that while you have the right to offend others, you have no right to use violence against them if they disagree. Criminal statutes apply regardless of the situation that led up to a violent action, therefore citizens grow by engaging in conversations with their opponents and learning from the experience rather than reverting to violence. This creates a marketplace of ideas where the best idea is the one that gains most support in the public, rather “might being right.”

The “might is right” doctrine applies in places like Pakistan especially through the hateful actions and rhetoric of right-wing political parties. The same parties that are petitioning the United States to prosecute Terry Jones supported not only a blasphemy law limiting free speech but advocated for the illegal murder of those who challenged the law like Salman Tasseer. The right wing doesn’t just advocate for violence, but continually instigates prosecutions against politicians, artists, and minorities for expressing their views. Thus, by creating an aura of fear and intimidation, the right wing parties of Pakistan and their terrorist allies hijacked the public discourse from the people, which has created a deficit in discussions and debates that can address Pakistan’s real issues.

As such, liberals have all but been silenced in the nation as they face death sentences against from political rivals if they merely engage in a debate with them. This is certainly a good sign for the religious right wingers but is an ominous sign indicating a breakdown in Pakistan’s “marketplace of ideas.” Thus, before Pakistan’s right wing advises the U.S. to follow its example and prohibit certain speech, they should understand the long-term benefits of protecting the freedom of speech with regards to creating innovative ideas that move the nation forward.

While such government inaction could leave a great deal in the hands of the majority, it also trains the majority to express their own opinions rather than relying on the government to learn about tolerance or interfaith harmony. Thus, rather than focusing on government censorship to quiet trouble-makers like Pastor Jones, the founders of the U.S. believed that people themselves should utilize their freedom of speech to challenge the intolerant opinion of Jones. This does not mean that one can use force against their rivals, but means that the louder majority can drown out hateful speech of Jones, with their own messages of harmony, tolerance, and love.


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