Muslims, Free Speech, and Salman Rushdie

Tonight I attended a Salman Rushdie speech at Wilkes University. Rushdie gave a wonderful speech and argued that free speech is extremely important, writers should be able to write what they wish (save making libelous claims), and American freedom of speech is essential. Other countries that limit free speech, Rushdie argued, don't allow us to hear alternative viewpoints, sometimes write their own histories, give an alternative viewpoint tremendous power, make discussion taboo, and cease to keep "enemies" out in the open. Rushdie also spoke about other topics, joked about the tea party that he said should rename itself the "National Idiot Party," and argued that much news and politicking today is very non- or anti-intellectual.

After the speech, during the question and answer session, a local leader at a Muslim mosque who I met and had a discussion with in November of 2010 was selected to ask a question. He proceeded to ask a series of personal questions like "Do you have children" and "Do you have a house" and followed up with something to the accord of "When I have children in my house, I set the rules and they need to follow what I say..." Rushdie interrupted, as he should have, and said "Do you have a question" and got more story from the Muslim leader who continued saying something like "There has to be rules in society when you're in a place with other people..." and Rushdie cut him off saying, "I'm not going to let you compare adults in our society to children. It's a false analogy and if you don't like the liberties we have, you don't have to be here." Rushdie handled this really well and I agreed with him.

After the discussion, just to make sure that Rushdie was on the mark, I had close to a ten minute discussion with the man and asked him to finish his line of reasoning and explain his conclusion (and Rushdie turned out to be right on the mark, I soon learned). He told me that when you attack someone's belief, you attack them right at the heart and other people are really harmed. I then told him that we live in a pluralistic society and we should be able to write what we want provided that it is legal and if we had to curtail all of our writings because other people may be offended because we disagree with them, we'd severely limit free speech. I didn't really get to chat much after this because the man started preaching, claiming that we can know Allah exists because the Koran predicted embryology and various other things...

For once in a discussion, I felt really left out because I wasn't able to say much at all because I kept getting interrupted and was not able to finish my thoughts. The man kept telling me that he doesn't understand philosophy well/I'm using terms he's unaware of/etc even though I was keeping the discussion at a "low level" and would have explained anything (and tried to) that he didn't understand. Ironically, my speech was silenced in some manner.

I really enjoy chatting with religious people of all stripes because I get to better understand why and how people think, learn something, have some fun, practice debating, etc. What I don't enjoy, though, is getting completely shut out of discussions and no follow-up chances. In November, I gave this man the information from the organization I'm a co-organizer of and invited him and anyone else from his mosque to attend a monthly meeting to talk about what they believe and why. No one showed for several months...and unfortunately probably never will.

Some Muslims, not all of course, will say that they are for free speech and expression, but they want to limit others' because some may write fictional stories about Mohammad or draw pictures of him. This tactic is the incorrect one, as I tried to explain, and not a feasible method in a pluralistic society. If you disagree with someone's message that they deliver via their free speech, you should use yours to critique their message, provide an alternative stance, or communicate directly with the person. I do this quite often on my blog and I always encourage others to voice their disagreement with anything I type. What good is staying in our own comfort areas and complaining about others' ideas if we do nothing about it but complain about free speech and argue that it should be limited?

The Muslim I met tonight fell prey to the "perfect solution fallacy." It's quite obvious that there's no perfect solution in which one can regulate speech to be what everyone in a pluralistic society wants to hear, so the best option is to allow everyone to express legal speech. If there is a better alternative to this, I'd love to hear it. The conversation tonight yielded no such better alternative but a dodge to my question of "what do you think we should do, then, prosecute and censor all who disagree with someone else?"

I don't have to limit and should not have to limit my free speech because others disagree with me. I should be able to voice my opinions without threats of violence or a chilling effect in which people try to intimidate me into silence like the backlash I experienced from members of my community in 2009. If we want to silence everyone who disagrees or "offends" everyone else, we'd start slipping on a legitimate slope and would almost all be silent. It's very important to engage with other ideas, no matter how much they offend us (provided that this speech is legal and isn't just personal attacks) so that we can make informed decisions, be able to deal with objections, and so that we're educated individuals who just don't read ideas that agree with us.

Open forums, like this one, are very important platforms in which all people around the world can share their thoughts. Let's not compromise this because some people howl in the face of diversity of ideas. At the end of his speech, Salman Rusdhie said that it's the job of the writer to express his/her words and if someone has to take some risks whole doing so, it's the writer's job. I agree. Let's open the discussion, share ideas, and be civil people rather than wanting to restrict others' freedoms.

I could have rebutted prophecy claims in this post and wrote about the difference between beliefs and persons, but these are topics for another day!