A TELLING question was shouted from the floor just after a
heavily armed SWAT team burst into the "Muhammad Art Exhibit and
Cartoon Contest" in Texas. The officer in charge announced that the
150 people present were to be evacuated, because a police officer
had been shot by two gunmen, who themselves had just been shot dead
outside the hall. The question shouted immediately from one of the
participants was "Are they Muslims?"
It was revealing that this was the first thought of one of those
taking part. The contest had been billed as an event in defence of
free speech, but it felt more like an anti-Muslim hate event. It
was organised by a body calling itself the American Freedom Defense
Initiative; its organiser, Pamela Geller, also runs a group called
Stop Islamization of America. Her previous stunts have included ads
on buses showing pictures of Hitler with the tagline "Jew Hatred:
It's in the Koran". Among her other colourful interventions in
public life is the claim on her website that President Obama is the
love child of Malcolm X, that his birth certificate is a forgery,
and that he is a secret Muslim.
JUST before the gunmen struck, the far-right Dutch politician
Geert Wilders had made a speech in the hall. Making reference to
the 2005 controversy over cartoons of Muhammad in a Danish
newspaper, and the recent murder of 12 people in the Paris offices
of the magazine Charlie Hebdo - known for its scabrous
drawings of the Prophet - he had announced: "The day we give away
humour and freedom of speech is the day that we cease to exist as a
free and independent people."
Free speech is one of the foundations of modern democratic
civilisation. There can be no free politics without free speech, a
fact acknowledged in the United States by its enshrinement in the
Constitution's First Amendment. But free speech comes with a price.
The price is that, in a civilised society, it should be exercised
responsibly. The virtue of free speech is lessened when that
freedom is abused to wilfully provoke others.
TO SAY this is not to deny the right of citizens to abuse one
another, though it is easily misinterpreted as seeming to say that
- as Pope Francis found out when, after condemning the Charlie
Hebdo killings, he added the startling rider that became
parodied as "You-insulta-my-momma-I-puncha-your-face." He was
making a distinction between a right and a responsibility; between
a law and a relationship; between a "can't" and a "shouldn't".
Usama Shami, president of the Islamic Community Centre in
Phoenix, once attended by the gunmen, seemed to understand that.
Asked whether he and his fellow Muslims disapproved of the cartoon
contest, he shrugged: "No, I don't see that as provocative. Most
members of this congregation didn't even know about it."
FREE speech, like the other accretions of civilised behaviour, is
a right that should be held in balance with our responsibilities
and the rights of others. Free-speech fundamentalists are to be as
much abhorred as any other kind.
Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics at the
University of Chester.