Blurred Image: How Even Free Speech's Defenders Must Defer to Islam

On March 19, 2013, in Washington, D.C., the Heritage Foundation screened the new film: Silent Conquest:  The End of Freedom of Expression in the West.  A panel discussion by four of the film's participants, namely Center for Security Policy (CSP) founder Frank Gaffney, the Heritage Foundation's Steven Groves, Free Press Society president Lars Hedegaard, and Vigilance, Inc.'s Deborah Weiss, followed the film.  Silent Conquest's otherwise well-documented and stirring defense of intellectual freedom, however, shocked the four panelists and many audience viewers with one cinematic bow to Islamic sensitivities.  The incident provoked the question of how bad the situation for free speech concerning Islam has become if even freedom's defenders cannot engage in its forthright validation.

Silent Conquest documents multiple examples of militant Muslims using various legal means both domestically and internationally to suppress criticism and condemnation of Islam.  Appearing along with four panelists in the film are a veritable who's-who of militant Islam's opponents in the last years, including Caroline Cox, Nonie Darwish, Mark Durie, Brigitte Gabriel, John Guandolo, Pamela Geller, Lars Hedegaard, Daniel Huff, Zuhdi Jasser, Charles Jacobs, Erza Levant, Clare Lopez, Malcolm Pearson, Daniel Pipes, Fleming Rose, Mark Steyn, Lars Vilks, Allen West, Kurt Westergaard, Geert Wilders, and Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff.  The numerous incidents of speech under assault from defenders of Islam profiled in the film include Pope Benedict XVI's September 12, 2006 Regensburg address, the South Park Muhammad controversy, and the going into hiding of cartoonist Molly Norris in the face of death threats.

As Groves stated before the screening, Silent Conquest analyzes a "creeping type of censorship" and shows for those who say, "Oh, that can't happen here" that "it can."  The Canadian political commentator Steyn in the film similarly speaks of a "soft jihad ... chipping away" at Western freedoms that is "at least as devastating as taking out the Twin Towers."  The end-goal of this jihad described by Islam scholar Pipes is to implement traditional Muslim prohibitions against apostasy and blasphemy in free societies.  Pipes speaks hereby of the "Rushdie Rules," named after the first notable victim of often violent international Islamic censorship efforts, Salman Rushdie.  This "tyranny of silence" described by the Danish editor Rose appears to the Syrian-American Muslim political activist Jasser as the "beginning of the end of Western Civilization."

One focus of the film are the various "hate speech" laws throughout Europe, such as Section 266b, under which the Danish journalist Hedegaard faced prosecution for his comments about rape in Muslim societies.  Under many of these laws, mere offense to a given group such as Muslims satisfies a legal charge, irrespective of a statement's truth.  Thus, the film Fitna, produced by the Dutch politician Wilders, earned him prosecution, even though the American political activist Geller describes this film as "Islam for dummies."  As the former United States Army colonel and congressman West rightfully observes, such illogic ignores the fact that "truth cannot be hate speech."  As Canadian journalist Levant states, such treatment of speech upholds a "counterfeit human right not to be offended," in particular by what Jasser describes as a "so-called Islamophobia."

Additionally, deference toward Islam has extended beyond laws regulating private individuals to public policy formulation.  Gaffney in the film discusses how the American government went from freely discussing terms such as "Islam" and "jihad" in the report on the September 11, 2001 attacks to excising these terms completely in the report on the November 5, 2009 Fort Hood shootings.  Gaffney's CSP colleague Lopez, who was present at the screening, notes in the film that such words "are outlawed."  Instead of overseeing any critical inquiry into Islam, President Barack Obama in his "infamous" June 4, 2009, Cairo address declared that he would "consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear," a duty not found by Lopez in the Constitution.

Following the screening, the four panelists elaborated upon the film's message.  Drawing upon her work, Weiss analyzed the international efforts of the 57 majority-Muslim nations (including the Palestinian Authority) in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to prohibit "defamation" of Islam.  The OIC uses "legal gymnastics" to effect an "importation" of sharia into free societies like the United States. 

Weiss ironically noted that such efforts often availed themselves of speech restrictions enacted without any consideration of Islam.  Canada's hate speech laws, for example, responded in part to various concerns about the Holocaust.  Although horrified by this genocide as a Jew, this classic case of unintended consequences prompted Weiss to warn against adopting any "hate speech" law where "you run the risk of having it manipulated down the road."

Compliant American policymakers like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had declared that even without legal censorship prohibited by the Constitution's First Amendment quoted in the opening of Silent Conquest, they would achieve the "same results" by other means such as shaming.  In this vein the Obama administration engaged in "scapegoating" the Innocence of Muslims film for the lethal attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.  "America is the last bastion of freedom," Weiss warned in light of developments profiled by the film.  Weiss called upon Americans to preserve their "shining city upon a hill" for their children.

Complementing Weiss's stirring statements, Gaffney observed that "perennially offended" Islamists use demands for sensitivity as a means of advancing their agenda.  The Obama administration, meanwhile, went out of its way not to offend Muslims.  Gaffney described Obama's September 25, 2012 declaration before the United Nations that the "future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam" as a "stunning statement" that could have come from members of al-Qaeda.  According to Gaffney, the Obama administration has "stopped prosecuting material support for terrorism."  Speaking of Obama's nominee for secretary of labor, Tom Perez, a man who in the past has had trouble speaking out for American principles of free speech and once hugged the troubling Imam Mohammad Magid, Gaffney "pray[ed] that the Senate finally takes a hard look at this nominee."

For his part, Hedegaard further analyzed free speech issues in his native Denmark.  Hedegaard discussed how Soviet pressure helped pass Section 266b in 1971, even though "there are no racists to speak of" in Denmark.  By contrast, "if you are Muslim you can say about anything you want in Denmark," such as advocate the oppression of women and homosexuals.  Such pandering to Muslims serves a political left "in need of new voters" after working-class constituents have become more conservative.  Thus, the left, with mass Muslim migration, has allowed "Jaws into the swimming pool."  Even if Socialists fare poorly in national elections, Muslim votes can maintain the left in power in urban areas.

One discordant note, though, marred this highly informative and principled event.  During Silent Conquest's discussion of the controversial 2005 Danish Muhammad cartoons, the actual cartoons were not visible behind the filmmakers' technical image blurring.  Informed viewers could not help but immediately think of how possibly violent Muslim opposition to these images prompted Yale University Press to refrain from printing them in precisely a book about their controversy.  Similarly, the United Kingdom's Daily Mail and other British publications pixelated French Muhammad cartoons in pictures for January 2013 stories on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The irony of blurred images in a film devoted to free speech was not lost on the panelists.  Expressing "consternation," Groves noted that the film's "whole point" was the ability to see things as they are.  Having already seen Silent Conquest with the blurring online and thereby learning of two versions of the film with and without blurring, Groves offered the "speculation" that the producers had made the former for audiences that might take offense at the images.  Groves did not know in advance that the screened version would contain the blurring. 

Hedegaard called this blurring a "scandal," and Gaffney cited the blurring as "evidence of how far down the tubes we are."  All of the panelists indicated that they did not want this blurred film version to appear again and would withdraw their participation from the project if this demand went unmet.  Such timidity by the film producers in the heart of Weiss's "last bastion" in the oft-sung "home of the brave" of America ended what would have otherwise been a stirring defense of freedom on a concerned note.