Recently, the writer/producer of the film Innocence of Muslims Mark Basseley Youssef was sent to prison for one year on charges unrelated to this effort to insult the Prophet of Islam. According to law, since his motive was not to provoke violence but "only" to express hatred, he could not be charged for slander, obscenity and or profanity (speech unprotected in the First Amendment and existing in this film).
Although freedom of speech is absolutely essential, the government should not allow people to dissipate hate and "spiritual abuse" in its name. It should take into account the power of hate speech amidst the tremendous religious diversity existing in our country. The Internet is a great medium to connect, learn and share but when hate groups use it as an avenue to perpetuate their agenda, it becomes a serious problem demanding attention.
In wake of the strong reaction to this movie which shook the whole world, maybe it is time to limit freedom of speech to incorporate hate speech punishable by law even when it is not provoking physical harm in order to preserve peace, promote compassion and tolerance.
Some may argue that since hate speech rarely results in violence, there is no need to prohibit it. But Ronald Alexander, author and Executive Director of "The Open Mind Training Institute," compared hate speech to "powerful weapons" in one of his articles, which could "inflict deep and hurtful psychological wounds" when used irresponsibly. When people are allowed to spread mistrust and hate about a particular person or group, it does have an effect on public's perceptions over time. With Muslims comprising less than one percent of the U.S population, is emergence of "Islamophobia" in recent years coincidental? Certainly not.
The said movie is an example of the abuse of freedom of speech. After all, hate speech allows worse abuse of minorities. As the CEO of Canadian Jewish Congress Bernie Farber once pointed out, "Racist war, from the ethnic cleansing in Cambodia, to the Balkans, to Darfur, to the Holocaust, did not start in a vacuum. Hateful words do have an effect." Not surprisingly, evidence revealed that the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik was a big fan of anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller, who recently ran an anti-Muslim hate campaign in New York subway stations giving the impression that all Muslims are "savages."
The debate to limit hate speech is nothing new but advocates of freedom of speech compare any restriction on freedom of speech to limiting freedom of conscience. While there are some countries which are persecuting minorities with their controversial blasphemy laws, many others, including England, France, Australia, Poland, Hungary, New Zealand, Germany and more recently even Canada and Mexico have some kind of hate laws in place to restrict speech including Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism and provoking religious hatred with punishments ranging anything from heavy fines to even jail time.
Since the U.S is a melting pot of different cultures and religions, there is even greater need to promote tolerance instead of hate. Freedom of religion, speech and expression is pivotal to social development but limits ensure a decent, moral, tolerant and compassionate society. The Internet has turned the world into a global village so what happens there affects the whole world. Everybody needs to act responsibly and stop abusing their freedoms in the absence of a concrete hate law.
As His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the current caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, recently stated in his sermon, "Let it not be that in the name of freedom of speech the peace of the entire world be destroyed."
Saima Ahmad is a resident of Suwanee.