Freedom of speech should protect the weak

Benjamin Barber interviewed by Łukasz Pawłowski · 2 October 2012
Freedom of speech should serve higher aims and shouldn’t only be the right to ridicule others, yet we use it in order to protect the strong, rather than the weak, as claimed by the American political scientist Benjamin Barber.

Łukasz Pawłowski: What is the reason, in your opinion, for that fact that publishing videos that are critical about Islam, or ridicule the Prophet Muhammad, are met with such ho- stile reactions from the Muslim community? Are protests, like those caused by the amateur film Innocence of Muslims, really caused by religion, or is it rather that religion serves as a pretext for expressing discontent that has some other causes, like economics or social issues?

Benjamin Barber: There isn’t just the one reason. Religious motivation is undoubtedly sincere – Islam forbids portraying not only Muhammad, but also all the other prophets, and of course Allah himself. This film broke the most fundamental principles of that faith, thus religious motivations were undoubtedly crucial in this case and we shouldn’t reject such an explanation. Moreover, it explains why protests were organized not only in the poor Arab countries, but also by more affluent Muslims in the West.

But the point is that the religious principle was violated not by Muslims, but by infidels, who don’t have to follow Islamic rules. Besides, freedom of speech, which is the cornerstone of democracy, gives them the opportunity to express their views, even if not everyone agrees with them.

But please try to look at it from the Muslim perspective. We defend the authors of the film on the basis of freedom of speech, but we are not consistent in applying that principle. In Germany, you can go to prison for denying the Holocaust.

Not only in Germany, in Poland as well.

So where do we have freedom of speech here? You cannot deny the Holocaust, but you can ridicule the Prophet? Those two examples might be separate for you, but from the Muslim per- spective it’s an obvious contradiction, which proves that freedom of speech is used selectively. Besides, in contrast to what we like to think, freedom of speech is not a universal value – many Arab communities don’t have the tradition of freedom of speech, while the Prophet’s teachings have universal value for them.

You said earlier that violation of religious feelings is only one of the reasons for Muslim indignation here. What are the other reasons?
Most Islamic states are theocracies, where church and state rule together, and for that reason many Muslims simply don’t understand the principle of separation between the state and the church, which is a rule in the West. It’s difficult for them to understand that people can do things, and say things, which are not acceptable, and at the same time the state can do nothing to curb that. Western states have enough power and means to intervene. So why don’t they do that? They don’t, because they either support what has been said, or they consider the issue to be too trivial to intervene. That’s the second reason which, like the first, to a great extent results from cultural differences.

And what’s the third reason?

The activities of some groups, which could use violence for their own means and which try to manipulate Muslim rage. And I have in mind groups on both sides of the conflict. Why was the movie ‘Innocence of Muslims’ made at all? Do you think its authors wanted to promote freedom of speech? No, it was made exactly in order to provoke violent reactions. Its authors knew that if they present Muhammad as a paedophile and rapist, the other side would react in a similar manner. How could they react differently anyways? In the United States you have the freedom of speech, but if you call someone in bar a ‘son of a bitch’, he would punch you in the face, and any explanation with reference to freedom of speech won’t help you. Please remember that many Muslims have protested peacefully against that movie, but there were also extremist groups, which used the opportunity to start riots, which was met with an aggressive response of radicals from the other side. That’s the way radicals work – both sides need one another, and they galvanize one another, destroying by the way the political centre.

But you are saying yourself that extremists are not really popular.
Who supports them is not the point, the point is that they are winning. During the French Revolution, the Russian, the Weimar Republic, radicals were not in a majority as well, but they ma- naged to subordinate moderate people. Extremists are winning, because they pursue actions to which one cannot be indifferent. Many Israelis would like to have a peace with Palestine, but let Hamas fire one missile on a Jewish neighbourhood, and there are no chances for peace. No response to an attack would be seen as weakness, or, what’s worse, as permission, and in this way a mutual violence is triggered, and people are forced to make one-sided choices.

Which doesn’t change the fact that radicals are not always winning. German press published cartoons of the Polish president Lech Kaczyński few years ago. Part of the public opinion was outraged, but no one thought about attacking the German embassy.

But what would happen if a German attempted an assassination on the President?

That’s a completely different story.

No, these are exactly the results of violence. If some German provocateur would really want to destroy good relations between the two countries, he would commit an act of violence, and in this way he would force moderate Poles to have a clear stand. In the case of the movie about Muslims, extremists used the public rage to start riots, and thus to even further radicalize the mood. It was easier in this way that all the ‘trouble spots’, which we have talked about before, are strengthened by another factor, that is the historical experience of colonialism, imperialism and exploitation that were coming from the West for decades. Sometimes these memories fade away, but even a minor crisis might be enough to awake them. The Arab radicals don’t have to use the religious motivation only, it’s enough that they convince people that the West is humiliating their part of the world again.

Soon after the protests related to the movie, the French magazine Charlie Hebdo published cartoons ridiculing the Prophet and Judaism. Do you think that the French autho- rities should block publication of such cartoons, knowing what kind of reactions could it trigger, or would that be a violation of freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech should serve some higher aims, and mustn’t only be a right to ridicule others. The First Amendment to the American Constitution was supposed to be a weapon for the weak in their struggle with the mighty. But we use freedom of speech in order to protect the strong! The same thing happened in Denmark after the publication of the cartoons. Danish Muslims are a small and weak community. What was the point of attacking them and ridiculing their faith? If these cartoons were published in Egypt, where they were attacking the majority and could call attention to the rights of minorities, I would support their publication. But if someone uses some rights – like the freedom of speech in this case – to attack the weak from the position of power, it means he or she doesn’t understand the point of these rights.

What you are saying is undermining the model of relations between the West and Arab countries, including the efforts to democratize these countries. If we cannot convince them to accept freedom of speech because of the cultural differen- ces – because it’s not a universal value for everyone – how can we convince them to democracy? Does this also mean that when values, which comprise the foundation of the de- mocratic political regime, are undermined – like right now in Syria – we should do nothing? Then we will hear voices condemning the West for allowing thousands to die.

And what do you think, why these people die? They die because the West encouraged the Syrian opposition to start fighting. There was no political opposition in Syria at all not long time ago. Asad was a much less bloodthirsty tyrant than his father had been, and the living standard of Syrians was improving.

So we should be passive?

This is the wrong question. We are told that the choice is between a full dictatorship, and a revolution, which is followed by anar- chy. But the real choice is between enslavement and a gradual introduction of democratic changes. Please tell me why aren’t we convincing the democratic opposition in China to rebel? Is the Chinese government more democratic than the Syrian one, aren’t they killing their own citizens? So why the West doesn’t intervene there?

First of all, because it has strong economic bonds with China, second of all, because it’s too weak to force the Chinese go- vernment to do anything.

And in my opinion it doesn’t intervene because we start to notice that gradual changes are actually developing in China. Capitalism was introduced there, big cities became more independent from the central government, human rights activists gained some platform. China is changing slowly, and the word ‘slowly’ is crucial here. Meanwhile, media and many politicians from the West would like that these changes happen overnight – that’s impossible. Let’s think about the history of the United States. It took them thirteen years between gaining the independence from Britain and proclamation of the constitution, and 80 years more to abolish slavery after a bloody civil war! No one remembers about that today. We come with our armies to some country, we overthrow its government and we expect that free elections will be organized in few months.

Democracy must be built from bottom-up, not top-down, from the inside, not from the outside. Overthrowing a tyranny and establishing democracy are two completely different things, but many Western politicians identify one with another – we have overthrown Mubarak, we shot Gaddafi, therefore we have introduced democracy. Such conviction is contrary to the histo- rical experience. Democracy requires free institutions, mature citizens and civic society, building new approaches, and this all requires a lot of time. If we want to turn a wasteland into a garden, it’s not enough to get rid of the weed using some chemicals. In this way we will only impoverish the land. The same goes with introducing democracies in authoritarian states. We need time, and each nation must carry out its own revolutions, in its time and under its conditions.

Your suggestions sound convincing, if we apply them to the level of countries, and if we analyse that from a broader hi- storical perspective. But in the end, every man has only one life and a promise, that his authoritarian state might become democratic in few decades is not really attractive. If I were a young man living, let’s say in the Communist Poland of 1950s, and you would say that instead of trying to overthrow the regime, we should rather work on gradual changes, I would be – to put it gently – very disappointed.

But it doesn’t change the fact that political changes work exactly like that. Overthrowing Communism in Poland was also a process that lasted few decades- between the first ‘Solidarity’ and the Round Table there were ten years, and even before that there had been few important protests like 1956, 1968 or 1970. And this all happened in a European country, with a tradition of a stable government and democratic institutions!

This doesn’t naturally mean that I would go to Cairo, Benghazi or Tunis and tell people on the streets there: ‘Slow down with your revolution, you are not ready yet.’ I know that revolutions break out because people are miserable, angry and they crave for freedom. On the other hand, revolutions that start too early end up tragically. I know what I’m saying, because I was involved in the reform projects in both Libya and Syria. I understand that a young man in Cairo does want to wait for political freedom until his old age, but the people who started the revolution in Egypt are not free today, and won’t be free for the next years. The situation in Libya is even worse.

Worse than under Gaddafi?

There are a lot of lies about Gaddafi’s Libya. No one remembers now that he wrote a good, liberal constitution for Libya, and let in human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch represen- tatives came to Tripoli in 2010 and acknowledged that it was the first time in that part of Africa, when they could organise a meeting in a country they were investigating. A serious progress was developing in Libya, but it was more behind the curtains. Two leaders of the Libyan revolution, Mustafa Abdul Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril were members of the Libyan government since 2007! Gaddafi himself nominated them in order to purse a gradual change. Were these changes too slow? Yes. Were they caught up by history? Yes, this happens. But please don’t say that there was no alternative to the Libyan revolution.

So what would you advise to the people responsible for the American foreign policy?

Patience, more patience.

So foreign policy should be driven by cold realism, rather than passionate idealism?

That’s a wrong approach. Idealism means to me defending certain values, and not pursuing some goals, which cannot be realized in given conditions. In foreign policy we should rather focus on concretes, not abstractions, to aim at some realistic goals, and not glorious failures.