April 25, 2011

What Must We Consider With Regards To Terry Jones?

Over at Commentary, Alana Goodman suggested that had Terry Jones just been allowed to protest in front of the mosque in Dearborn, the entire event would be over Ė but instead, the authorities have made this unsavory character into a free speech martyr. But the concluding paragraph concerns me.

But there may still be a positive outcome from this episode, if it ends up prompting a serious national conversation about free speech and Islam. Canada and European countries have been struggling with this for years, and itís probably about time for us to confront the issue as well.

This bothers me. After all, what is there to be confronted? What is there to be talked about? The First Amendment to the Constitution really ought to be the beginning and the end of the conversation. In all but very limited circumstances, we let people engage in public speech without significant limitations, even if their views are reprehensible. In my lifetime I've seen Kluxers march in Georgia, Nazis rally in Chicago, and Commies rally on college campuses around the country. Our laws -- and various law enforcement agencies -- have kept the peace and guaranteed the rights of even these despicable followers of morally bankrupt ideologies in the face of hostile opponents. Why is it that in Wayne County, Michigan, a handful of zealous opponents of Islam were denied the same rights and same protections? Why was it that, after decades of court decisions striking down security fees and heckler's vetoes and other devices designed to limit the rights of unpopular speakers, a city, a prosecutor, and a judge conspired together to impose prior restraint upon an unpopular speaker with an unpopular message not merely for a day, but for a period of years?

And make no mistake about what was going on here.

Terry Jones wanted to peacefully protest on a public sidewalk in front of a house of worship. One may argue about whether one thinks that doing so is a good idea or whether one agrees with the message, but such protests are something generally permitted in this country. Weíve seen gay rights groups do so in front of Mormon churches in response to anti-gay marriage initiatives. Weíve seen groups of sexual abuse survivors do so in front of Catholic churches. Jewish congregations have been the target of demonstrations about Israel.

Yet somehow, a protest in front of a mosque is treated as different. Why? Because Muslims have shown themselves unwilling to be treated like any other group of believers, both here in the United States and in other parts of the world. Time and again they have threatened to respond with violence to even the most peaceful demonstrations. In short, the Islamic propensity for violence threatens is now being used to create special protections for Muslims that are not available to followers of any other faith Ė a limitation on the liberty of every other American that grants a single faith a superior status above all others.

Then again, maybe this is exactly what needs to be confronted Ė is Islam compatible with the values at the heart America? Is one religion to be immune from criticism, critique, or insult because its adherents will not tolerate them? Can we tolerate a faith that is not merely vocally intolerantly, but is instead violently intolerant? And moving beyond the abstract, we as a people need to decide whether we place a greater value on the general liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment -- freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition -- or on the tender religious sentiments of Muhammadís followers.

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