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Free Speech May Truly Be Tested
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Free Speech May Truly Be Tested

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

There is something afoot in the Muslim world which could indeed develop into a major threat to Western liberal democratic values. It was manifest most clearer last month at the U.N. in some of the presentations of key Middle Eastern leaders; Egypt, Morocco, and Yemen. While last year the major focus of Arab leaders at the U.N. was to obtain full U.N. membership status for the Palestinians, it seems that this year there was a push for an international treaty banning “defamation” of particular religions or their sacred figures. This was an outgrowth– at least in part– from the movie trailer which produced the rioting and violence last month throughout Muslim countries. 
In his summary of some of the opening remarks of the Muslim leaders at the opening session at the United Nations General Assembly in the FORWARD, the former editor J.J. Goldberg reviewed a very scary set of presentations which were delivered by the Muslim leaders. It was not, however, only the speeches and the suggestion to limit speech, but the fact that so many countries are beginning to feel this pressure themselves. The movement toward democracy in the Arab world as suggested by the Arab Spring may well develop into a very different form of democracy than that accepted in the West. Tolerance, openness, free speech, and public recognition, public acceptance, and even criticism of other faiths appear to be dubious components according to the Muslim definition of acceptable speech.

This development has been growing and intensifying now for several decades since the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie in 1988 after the publication of his book Satanic Verses, which was an irreverent depiction of Muhammad. In the last decade we have seen the murder in 2004 in Holland of the Dutch movie director and producer Theo Van Gogh by a Muslim, for a movie of his which was shown on Dutch television critical of Islam. We witnessed the worldwide attacks against Danish embassies, etc., for four months in 2006, by Muslims, against the publication in 2005 of 12 editorial cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, some of which depicted Muhammad together with the leaders of other religions.  Finally and most recently, the world watched as the events last month in Cairo, then tragically in Benghazi, and subsequently throughout the Muslim world, following the screening of the movie trailer critical of the Prophet Muhammad.

This mindset against Western values has been developing among religious Muslims and now is clearly gaining a significantly larger following even among Muslim leaders so much so that they are seeking to intimidate and undermine fundamental Western democratic principles. Religious tolerance and openness must be a two-way street. In much of the Islamic world this not only does not exist, it is not desired. When there are churches in all Muslim states, when women have equal rights, when the press is free, and when critical political speech is acceptable in public–for starters–it may be time to raise issues about fairness in interpreting the western view of democracy.

It is obvious that respect must be shown to all religious, but even intolerance does not justify violence, murder, and terror. If the world community is prepared to be intimidated by the type of attack implicit in this proposal at the U.N. against fundamental values and even considers capitulating to it in any way, we well may be returning to the Middle Ages.

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