Freedom of Speech is Not a License to Kill by Ian Buruma

There is a difference between deluded cynics or fanatics who express extreme views and people in positions of authority who do. Individuals who spread fear and hatred on the Internet or on television are repulsive and sometimes dangerous, but political and religious leaders who stir up hatred empower people to commit murder.

NEW YORK — Hadi Matar, the 24-year-old Lebanese-American accused of attempting to murder British author Salman Rushdie, appears to have acted on his own. Matar claims to be a fan of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme leader who issued the murderous fatwa against Rushdie in 1989 following the publication of the author’s novel satanic verses. But there is no evidence that the attacker is linked in any way to the Iranian government. Nonetheless, at least one commentator called the assassination attempt an “act of state-sponsored terrorism.”

This description seems accurate. State-promoted is not the same as state-sponsored, much less state-run. Even though the Iranian government did not in fact attempt to kill Rushdie, Khomeini’s fatwa still stands, and the state must take some responsibility for inspiring murderous fanatics like Matar.

Killers or would-be killers have already been inflamed with violent language, of course. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who murdered 69 youths at a social-democratic summer camp in 2011, was an avid reader of writers who warned that Muslims, pampered by European liberals, posed a serious threat to Western civilization. Does this mean that the individual writers and bloggers whose output convinced Breivik he had to kill to save the West were partly responsible for his horrific deeds?

Much has been made, and rightly so, of Rushdie’s defense of free speech and the price he paid for his courage. In the United States, the Constitution protects right-wing activists who claim to be “at war” with Muslims or leftists, whom they view as an existential threat to America and the Christian way of life, as long as the warriors of culture do not create “a clear and present danger.” They cannot threaten violence against an individual, as this would constitute “a real and imminent threat”, but they can freely express their hatred of any belief they wish.

European free speech laws are stricter. In France, and in many other European countries, it is forbidden to “defame or insult” a person or a group because of their ethnic origin, nationality, race, religion, sex, their sexual orientation or disability. You can say that Islam, Christianity or any other religion is abominable, but you cannot insult an individual for their belief.

There is a difference between insulting someone and offending them. While an insult is a deliberate attempt to hurt, offending is having an opinion that someone might find offensive, even if no offense is intentional. A writer can be held responsible for an insult, but not for a crime. There is no evidence that Rushdie intended to insult anyone in satanic versesbut it offended many people, whether they read the book or (usually) not.

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But, for many people, religion is much more than a set of rules or beliefs they adhere to. Like nationality, it can form the core of a person’s identity. When someone’s sense of self is challenged, they quickly take it as an insult, even if it’s unintentional.

Neither Rushdie nor any other writer or thinker should be constrained by this. People should be protected from imminent danger and perhaps, as is the case in Europe, also from defamation or personal insult, but there is no reason why certain ideas and beliefs should be protected from criticism or even ridicule.

There is, however, another distinction to consider. The impact of speech depends on who says what to whom.

Although Breivik may have been inspired by extreme anti-Islamic or anti-liberal views promoted by certain individuals, these writers and bloggers are not responsible for the murders he committed. They could be criticized for ignoring the possible consequences of spreading fear and hatred. They could be morally culpable. But their opinions have no authority.

The danger is much greater when a politician or religious leader stirs up hatred. The consequences of Khomeini’s fatwa are patently clear. The Japanese translator of satanic verses was murdered in 1991, the book’s Italian and Norwegian translators barely survived violent assaults, and Rushdie’s would-be killer nearly succeeded.

But Iranian clerics are not the only culprits. American politics is now inflamed by equally deadly verbal abuse.

Open and democratic societies depend on a consensus that conflicts of interest and competition for power can be resolved peacefully. Changes of government, after legal and fair elections, must be accepted. Those with opposing political views should not be treated as existential enemies.

But that’s not a widely shared view within the US Republican Party, much of which remains in the thrall of former President Donald Trump. Extremist GOP members of Congress routinely portray Democrats — and even Republicans who challenge Trump — as “traitors.” During his 2016 election campaign, Trump himself called for his opponent to be “locked up.” Several Republican politicians spoke of the beginning of a “civil war” and insisted on the duty of citizens to take up arms. The consequences of using this kind of language became apparent on January 6, 2021, when a violent mob took Trump and his political supporters at their word and stormed the US Capitol.

There is a difference between deluded cynics or fanatics who express extreme views and people in positions of authority who do. Individuals who spread lies and invective on the Internet or on television are repugnant and sometimes dangerous, but political and religious leaders who stir up hatred allow people to kill.

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