The gruesome terror attack against a British soldier in London last week has resulted in a number of arrests by British law enforcement authorities. But the targets of their crackdown are not only radical Islamists threatening more terror and mayhem. More than 10 people in Britain have been charged with violating laws against inciting hatred and giving offense on social media. The Police in Surrey issued a warning that it “will not tolerate language used in a public place, including on social media websites, which causes harassment, alarm or distress.”
While some of those suspects were put before a magistrate, others were simply visited by police officers who warned them not to cross the nebulous red line of unacceptable language on social media.
By prosecuting those who use the Internet to vent their shock and anger over two fanatics’ despicable murder (as it played out on prime time television), British authorities have come down on the wrong line on one of the defining issues of our time; the global battle of values over the relationship between free speech and religion.
Recent years have seen increasing demands from governments and individuals that free speech should be limited – both in the West and in international law, in order to protect religious sensitivities.
In a global world this conflict has become explosive as cartoons published in Denmark and videos uploaded in America have led to violent riots from Cairo to Karachi.
The outcome of this battle will have profound consequences for the ability of people everywhere to freely express themselves and follow their beliefs.
In the West, the birthplace of religious tolerance and free speech, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1979 ushered in a new era where radical Islamists viewed authors, journalists and cartoonists who “insulted” Islam as fair game for threats, violence and sometimes even death.
In 2005 tiny, liberal Denmark became the epicenter of this new obscurantism when Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.
Since 2010 several terrorist attacks against people associated with the Muhammad cartoons have failed or been foiled. This includes a plot to break into the offices of Jyllands-Posten, behead its journalists and throw the severed heads onto the street. Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard was attacked in his home by an axe wielding extremist.
In its latest threat assessment the Danish Intelligence Service concludes that the terrorist threat against Denmark is “serious” and higher than in 2006, when the cartoon crisis raged. The threat is attributable to international as well as domestic terrorists aiming to “avenge” the publication and republication of said cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
In 2012 the U.S. experienced its own mini-crisis when a crude anti-Islamic film was used by Islamists to fuel violent anti-American protests in countries such as Egypt and Pakistan. Yet it is also this heritage that Western states jeopardize when appeasing illiberal states and religious extremists who demand a heckler’s veto when it comes to religion. We cannot create an international system where the followers of various religions or political ideologies can demand that their respective taboos be off limits in the public debate. Looking ahead to the future, if we want to avoid further bloodshed and another cartoon crisis we need more not less debate. For that to occur a firm defense of free speech is a necessary precondition.