Islamism: Testing the Grounds for Censorship

(Illustrative photo: Flickr/Kentish Plumber)

Special to Clarion by Terri Murray

The need to address Islam’s religious privilege came into focus in February when Denmark’s state prosecution service decided to enforce the blasphemy section of its Criminal Code by fining a 42-year-old man who burned a copy of the Koran and posted a video of the act in a Facebook group.

The blasphemy fine is especially troubling since the Danish authorities did not prosecute in a similar case when Christianity’s sacred text was burned.

Denmark is one of the most liberal countries in Europe. In 2005, its prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen defended the publication of 12 cartoons of Mohammed, stating, “In Denmark, the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press is not up for negotiation.”

During his weekly media briefing, the prime minister further noted that the crisis was no longer about the 12 drawings in Jyllands-Posten. “It’s about everything else and different agendas in the Muslim world. It’s obvious that extremist circles exploit the situation.”

It seems Danish freedom of expression has deteriorated considerably since 2005, in part owing to intimidation and a chilling climate of fear, in which de facto blasphemy laws are enforced largely via extra-judicial execution.

Jacob Mchangama, a Danish lawyer who founded Justitia, a civil-liberties group that monitors freedom of expression across Europe, called out the double-standard that gives Islam special protection and said the blasphemy charge was a giant step backwards for his country.

In response to the ruling, Conatus News columnist Robbie Travers posed the poignant question whether previous terrorist attacks in Copenhagen have softened Danish once-robust tolerance for protest speech of the Koran-burning variety.


Mill’s “Mankind Minus One”

John Stuart Mill argued that mankind does not have the right to silence the individual – even when his ideas or opinions are shared by no one else.  In their trenchant analysis of the demise of free expression in a world of “theoterrorism,” Dutch legal experts Paul Cliteur, Tom Herrenberg and Bastiaan Rijpkema apply  Mill’s insights on the tyranny of prevailing opinion to the question at hand: Should a liberal state tolerate even massively unpopular speech acts like that of Terry Jones, or, for that matter, the Danish Koran-burner?

The 2010 planned burning of the Quran by American pastor Terry Jones was met with almost universal repulsion, from both Islamist and liberal ends of the spectrum.  As such, Jones’s symbolic speech act furnishes an ideal case study against which Mill’s argument might be tested.

The “mankind minus one” situation confronts us with an apparent moral dilemma between (1) the positive value of free speech and (2) the negative effects of its violent consequences. The values to be weighed in the balance are liberty and free expression on the one hand, and peace and security on the other.

A 2011 Guardian poll implied that, if you believe that Jones, in burning the Koran, should be held responsible for deaths of UN staff in Afghanistan, then this is because his act is “a provocative blasphemy against others’ beliefs.”

The way the poll question was framed required respondents who answered “yes” to accept the (unstated) premise that murder of innocents is an “understandable” response to provocative speech.

From an ethics perspective, it appeared that the “crime” of burning a sacred book was viewed as equivalent to the crime of murder.  Any basic ethical theory should take proportionality into account. But the question before us is not whether burning a Koran is comparable to murder. Rather, it is whether the utility of not burning the book will be greater (i.e. lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number) than the possible benefits of Jones actually burning the book.

In the theory of utilitarianism, intentions play no role, so persons can be held accountable for unintended consequences that others connect to their actions.  First, this contradicts our most fundamental intuitions about moral agency. It presupposes that everyone is responsible for everything, even undesired or unforeseen outcomes of their actions.

This means that we are responsible for both our own actions and the actions of others. (For example, Adolph Hitler’s Mum would be held morally accountable for murder, because her baby went on to become the architect of a holocaust.)

To morally attribute the actions of murderers on the other side of the world to Pastor Jones is to disregard the agency of the murderers and to render them innocent of their own choices.

Yet, utilitarianism suggests (un-persuasively) that a person bears the moral responsibility for the unwanted consequences others tie to their speech acts.

On the other hand, governments and pseudo-liberals have stressed that while provocative speakers or artists have a legal right to express provocative ideas, they should choose not to exercise this right due to the social disruption, fear and suffering that will likely result.

This implies that the freedom to express controversial ideas is relatively less important than safety, security and public order. Rule utilitarians (conforming to a rule that leads to the greatest good) might look to the long-term consequences of such a position.

They could ask whether the long-term impact of adopting such a posture as a general rule (rather than just in one instance) will lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number.  Yet, if governments were to pander to the wishes of intolerant terrorists by placing legal limits on free expression, then terrorists would only be vindicated in the use of violence and emboldened to continue its use.

Thus, even the pragmatic, consequentialist focus of utilitarianism leaves serious doubts.

Fundamentally, utilitarian reasoning places all of the cards in the hands of those who threaten to use violence. In short, the short-term victories that make utilitarian responses to terrorism alluring are unwise, both practically and principally.


Dr. Terri Murray is an American educator and essayist. She has taught philosophy, critical reasoning and film studies for over 14 years in secondary and adult education. A former documentary filmmaker, she is a regular contributor to Philosophy Now magazine and The New Humanist. She is the author of Feminist Film Studies: a Teacher’s Guide (Auteur/Columbia University Press, 2007) and Thinking Straight About Being Gay: Why It Matters If We’re Born That Way (Auteur, 2015).  She presently works at Hampstead College of Fine Arts & Humanities, where she is director of studies.