Muslims

Free-Speech Fundamentalism

DOES THE RIGHT to free speech include the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded social network?

That’s one of the questions raised by the violent overreaction by some Muslims to the 14-minute YouTube video clip, Innocence of Muslims.

Of course, my question paraphrases the words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in deciding that speech likely to cause immediate violence could be restricted. However, over the course of the 20th century, the American standard for limiting potentially harmful speech has gotten a lot tougher. For the past 50 years or so, it’s been settled law in the U.S. that the First Amendment protects speech that is, like Innocence of Muslims, false, hateful, malevolent, and even very badly written, acted, and produced. But the Internet Age is bringing new challenges to America’s free-speech fundamentalism.

Tolerance of blasphemous, racist, and defamatory material is commonplace to most Americans. We take it as one of our God-given rights. But, in fact, this is a real example of American exceptionalism. No other liberal democracy in the world protects speech that is plainly intended to wound and insult members of a specific racial or religious group. “Hate speech” prohibitions are the rule throughout the Western world.

The internet, however, is an American invention. It is dominated by American companies, and, when it comes to free speech, the internet plays by American rules (except maybe when it comes to China). We were reminded of this over the summer when a phalanx of Silicon Valley corporate bigwigs joined privacy and civil liberties advocates to promote an international “Declaration of Internet Freedom.” The declaration is a manifesto of general principles that opposes censorship, supports net neutrality, and includes the crucial principle (especially dear to the heart of Google-owned YouTube) that a service provider should never be held responsible for the actions of its users.

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What We Know About Muslims

AS I WRITE this, the top story on The New York Times website reads “Anti-American Protests Over Film Expand to More than a Dozen Countries.” The slideshow includes images of angry young men with their fists in the air and masks over their faces protesting on dusty streets filled with riot police and open fires. As if Americans’ view of Muslims was not dark enough.

The film in question is the 14-minute YouTube clip called Innocence of Muslims that portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a buffoonish clown and even a child molester. It was created and promoted by individuals with a long history of anti-Muslim activities, who were perfectly aware that it would provoke a small segment of Muslims around the world to violence. And it is now that violent response that is defining the Muslim world to many people—just as in the case of the attacks of 9/11 and the riots provoked by the Danish cartoons in 2005. As @TheBigPharoah said on Twitter: “The sad thing is that those who attack embassies are like hundreds, barely a thousand. Millions are tarnished by what they do though.”

It is impossible to overstate how frustrating it is to be constantly represented by violent thugs and to be asked to explain their actions. Here is the question one African-American seminary student I recently met asked me over email: “Why do so many Muslims ... become so enraged when someone from the West deliberately breaks an Islamic rule they take as offensive?”

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Sultans of Satire Aims to Bridge Gaps with Muslims, Arabs Through Comedy

LOS ANGELES — Unshaven and wearing a black hoodie and cap, Omar Elba looked out from the lectern, surrounded by a gold cross and organ pipes. "Moses, you are my nizzle fo' shizzle," said the Egyptian-born Muslim comedian, doing his best to channel Snoop Dogg.

It's a joke he's done before, but never in a church.

The unique setting of their performance inside Westwood Hills Congregational Church wasn't lost on any of the performers at the Sultans of Satire comedy show. Yet the sacred stage didn't keep them from swearing or talking about sex, although it inspired more jokes about growing up Jewish, Muslim, and Christian than one might typically hear during stand-up.

"I don't know whether to tell jokes or tell you my confessions," Elba said, opening up the show.

Toledo and the Power of Love

A house of worship in Ohio was hit by an arsonist this weekend, causing an estimated million dollars in damage. Services were rescheduled, members toured the building to see the destruction, and statements were made. The religious community felt targeted and was afraid of future attacks.

The fact that the space in question was the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo should not change our outrage. As Christians, we need to stand for religious liberty for people of all faiths. We need to love our neighbors and speak out against hate.

Soon after this weekend’s attack was made public, we put a plan into action to demonstrate our solidarity. As we have done in Missouri, Tennessee, and New York, we will be offering a simple, biblical message: “Love your Muslim neighbors.”

'A Clash of Fanaticisms'

WHEN AMBASSADOR Chris Stevens and other embassy staff were killed in Benghazi in September, it struck close to home for us at Sojourners. The last time a U.S. ambassador was slain was in 1979, when Adolph Dubs, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, was kidnapped by Islamic extremists and later killed. His daughter, Lindsay Dubs, was Sojourners’ managing editor. The degrees of separation between world events and the home front are often slim.

Some attributed last month’s violence in the Middle East to “fanaticism,” a “blind and tragic barbarism” by “imbeciles.” Others used words such as “beyond pathetic,” “fringe,” and “extremists.”

Those descriptions were applied to both those who created the anti-Islam video that provided the spark, and those who used the hateful video as a reason, or excuse, to engage in violent protests against the United States and the “West,” including Israel.

The media repeatedly summarized the cause of the violence as resting in the intentionally offensive video, and said that Muslims, angered by the blasphemous depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, rioted in a blind and uncontrollable rage. Moustafa Bayoumi, writing for the Middle East Research and Information Project, described the process: “Islamophobes provoke. Too many Muslims respond. Non-Muslims believe Muslims are crazy. Muslims are told the West hates them, and the Islamophobic right sleeps well at night with their cozy dreams of a mission accomplished.”

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Racial Politics

RACE WAS THE issue that changed the direction of my life. Growing up in Detroit in the early 1960s, the realities of white racism upended the world and church that I lived in.

What I saw and heard as a teenager painfully showed me that something was terribly wrong with my country and my religion. Trying to confront it got me virtually kicked out of my childhood church, led me into the civil rights and student movements, introduced me to the black churches, and set me on a path that would eventually bring me back to the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ—which calls for social, racial, and economic justice. The historical tragedy, the “original sin,” of white racism in the United States is still a fundamental starting point to how I see the world.

So when I look at this election involving the first African-American president in U.S. history, I can’t help but go back to the critical questions of race. Let me be clear: To disagree with policies of President Obama and his administration is not racist. Agreements and disagreements are just that, and should not be correlated to race. And regardless of how we vote, we should all appreciate the fact that the role model of the Obama family living in the White House has convinced millions of young black men and women, and youth of all races—many for the first time—that they are really a part of this country and that they too could someday be president of the United States.

But I am concerned about how race has again distorted our politics. I want to speak directly to what those racial politics are and how people of faith should call them out and oppose them, no matter how we vote or what we think of the policies of the president.

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Obama at the U.N.: A New Religion Doctrine

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the UN General Assembly on Sept. 25. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

President Obama on Tuesday gave a forceful speech at the United Nations, in which he challenged much of the world's assumptions about free speech and religion.

Here are five points from his address, which together, add up to as close to an Obama Doctrine on Religion as we've seen:

1. Blasphemy must be tolerated, however intolerable

The idea that the U.S. protects even vile speech, so ingrained in American culture, seems counterintuitive to much of the world. It’s an especially tough concept when speech targets a religion, but Obama argued that restrictions on speech too often become weapons to suppress religion – especially the rights of religious minorities.

Islam on the Verge

Every religion has in it some seed of pluralism. Muslims must learn to talk with Judeo-Christians—not just for our own survival, but because the Quran commands this dialogue. In all the religious traditions, dialogue, that interactive connection, is an essential part of the cosmos. Not to be in dialogue is to be in conflict with the very fundamentals of creation.

The crucial question today is not what to do about Islamic fundamentalism, but can Muslims fit into the Western Christian civilizations and still remain, in their souls, Muslim? I say we can, and we must. Islam is at the end of its Dark Ages, but there are those who are afraid of this change—they are the so-called “fundamentalists.”

People of the West have no right to be angry at them because of this. Western Christianity has had its reformation and Catholicism its Vatican II. These helped break down the imperialist Christian mindset and opened the Western church to dialogue and respect for other religions. Islam is on the verge of its Reformation.

The fundamentalists are trying to hold on to the past, are frightened of the changes, are trying to prevent the end of the Dark Ages because they fear too much will be lost. And they have some important and very valid points.

Catholic theologian Hans Kung said, “Islam has won critical distance and has the right to criticize the Christian church because, with the French Revolution, Western Christianity accepted the separation of the sacred and the profane, but Islam never accepted this separation.”

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1996
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The ‘Maverick’ Egyptian-American Copt Behind the Anti-Muslim Film

RNS file photo by David Gard/The Star-Ledger
Terry Jones said he would promote a crude film that portrays Islam’s Prophet Muhammad as s sexual pervert. RNS file photo

When inflamed mobs stormed the U.S. embassies in Libya and Egypt on Tuesday, the media quickly looked to a likely spark.

Florida Pastor Terry Jones ignited deadly riots by threatening to burn Qurans in 2010, and by torching the Islamic holy text last year. Recently, Jones said he would promote a crude film that portrays Islam’s Prophet Muhammad as a foolish sexual pervert.

But in the days before the protests, Jones made no public mention of the film called Innocence of Muslims — even as he prepared to stage an “International Judge Muhammad Day” on Sept. 11.

Instead, the man who translated the film into Arabic, sent it to Egyptian journalists, promoted it on his website and posted it on social media was an obscure Egyptian-born Coptic Christian who lives near Washington and proudly touts his ties to Jones.

'Innocence of Muslims' Video Suggests a Fetish for Armageddon

Actor portraying Mohammed in “Innocence of Muslims,"via Christian Piatt
Actor portraying Mohammed in “Innocence of Muslims,"via Christian Piatt

I finally sat down and watched the entire 11-plus minute video, Innocence of Muslims, which is at the heart of the recent outrage in Islamic countries in Yemen and north Africa.  Suffice it to say, I lost a healthy share of brain cells in the process. The narrative – if you can call it that – is incoherent throughout, the sound is barely audible in places and the overall production values make the Annoying Orange series look like Scorsese.

That said, there’s plenty to anger Muslims in this clip, or anyone who values religious tolerance, plural coexistence, or even basic respect for human nature.

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