The more we talk about the importance of free speech rights, the more we seem confused about what they really mean. Uproar over an American-made video denigrating Islam begs a spirited response about why freedom of speech and freedom of religion must be protected. And yet the seeming contradictions over how we apply those rights are debated as never before.
To many around the world, America is the protector of freedoms. Are these freedoms safe in our hands?
At the United Nations, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi announced his opposition to America’s understanding of freedom of speech (articulated eloquently by President Barack Obama recently) and called on the U.N. to crack down on speech deemed insulting to religion. Most Americans recoil at attacks on free speech, but for a moment it may be instructive to see the issue through the eyes of those not enamored with the Western point of view.
They see a contradiction at work — an America increasingly hostile to words and ideas that are insensitive to certain “protected” groups. They see people routinely paying a high price for hate speech and workplace discrimination (some of which, First Amendment advocates argue, should be protected speech). They see how easily words and images hurt in a society that gives lip service to freedom of expression and they listen to a growing chorus of argument over what should be permitted ... and they wonder why a video that mocks a major religion should be wrapped in a protective cocoon by that same country.
And so the call goes out at the U.N. by the leader of a Muslim country — which has its own issues of religious tolerance to address — to curb speech deemed to incite hatred. Meanwhile, many non-Muslims look at the arguments and question the inconsistencies. They see clips of Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking to Eastern countries about how much they abhor what the video stands for, assuring them that America is disgusted by blasphemies against “all” religions. But adherents to other religions don’t respond to attacks by attacking embassies and killing our ambassadors — so our outrage is narrowly targeted.
Amidst all this, the Pew Research Center has released its 2012 religious freedom reports cataloguing government restrictions and social attitudes toward religion across the world. It reveals that religious toleration has deteriorated across the globe from 2006 through 2010, with 75 percent of the world’s population living in countries where religious freedom was either highly restricted or very highly restricted.
But the West should not feel superior. According to Pew, the region of the world where the highest increase of religious intolerance exists is in Europe. The 2012 report also discredits the United States, grading it from “low” in 2009 and 2011 to “moderate” in 2012. In terms of social hostility to religion, the U.S. now rates below China, Syria, Laos, the Congo and Uzbekistan.
It’s hard to envision the United States faring worse than Syria for its social hostility to religion, but for a country that cherishes its freedoms, now is a good time to reassess where we truly stand. Freedom of expression is clearly endangered worldwide, and it’s not particularly healthy at home, either. If it’s up to free societies like ours to protect free speech and freedom of conscience, we need to consider our own inconsistencies.