News / USA

Americans Say Curbing Anti-Muslim Speech Would Be 'Slippery Slope'

The Rev. Karen Brau and her flock at Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, DC, don't get too worked up about the sacredness of religious symbols. This year they are covering up crosses so that a Jewish congregation can use the large 19th century church for High Holiday worship.

And when a crucifix is desecrated, as in the 1987 Andres Serrano artwork "Piss Christ" that is stirring up controversy again with its appearance in a new show this week in New York, Brau says she feels sadness. But she tries to understand what is motivating the action.

"Is the person who desecrates a cross with urine, are they coming from a place of having experienced some of the horrors that church has done over time to people, whether it be the Crusades or burning of people, or some of the stuff now with the Catholic church and abuse?" she asks.

At the same time, the pastor sympathizes with Muslims who were angered by the "Innocence of Muslims" internet video that insulted their holy prophet because Muslims see it as an attack on their faith.

"And so when you look at it in that way I think I do have understanding as to why it would garner this reaction that seems very very pointed," she says.

Many Americans may have conflicting feelings about the "Innocence of Muslims" video that has sparked deadly protests in the Muslim world. But even Muslims in the United States know that in this country blasphemy is not punished.

Imam Hassan Qazwini of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan, condemns the Egyptian American Coptic Christians who made the film.   

"These Coptics, unfortunately, took advantage of the freedom offered to them by our society. Had they been living elsewhere, maybe they could not have wreaked this havoc and caused all this turmoil," he says.

But that's exactly what is intended by the First Amendment to the Constitution, according to Robert Destro, director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Law & Religion at the Catholic University of America in Washington.

"Our government is not supposed to take sides in religious disputes," says the professor, who has written the leading law school textbook in the United States on the subject of religious liberty.

"If there is a problem between believing Muslims and whoever made this video - which most of us have never seen - then that's a problem to be worked out privately among them," he says, adding that American Muslim scholars have also said that is the response the Quran prescribes to the faithful.

"They're supposed to confront the person and admonish them in a good and charitable way," he says.

American law only allows speech to be restricted that is a threat to public order, and the controversy over "Innocence of Muslims" is a religious dispute, Destro says, because it was made by someone whose apparent aim was to criticize Islam.

But some legal scholars are now arguing that in a globalized world it may be necessary to reconsider what American law counts as incitement. Destro says any limiting of free speech would be dangerous.

"The very idea that we start to say to people your thoughts are illegitimate, where does that stop?" he says. "It's very easy to say we should protect other people's sensibilities. But it's very easy for governments to turn that into a tool of political or religious oppression."

Destro says America's First Amendment is based on a religious belief: that only the Almighty can judge whether a person has chosen the right path to Him. And it goes further than European countries, where certain forms of hate speech are restricted.

Destro offers a hypothetical example: "In the United States, if I wanted to deny the Holocaust I will never go to jail for it," he says. "I will be embarrassed, I will be shunned, I will be ridiculed for having made those kinds of statements, but those are moral judgments made by my fellow citizens."

At the Luther Place church worshippers, like many Americans, believe that allowing hateful and blasphemous speech is a necessary price to pay for freedom of expression.

"I think it's a pretty slippery slope," says choir member Krista Martin, "when you start going after religious symbols and religion, and saying, 'You can say this but you can't say that.'"

"Most of us feel horrible" about the video and its creator, adds congregant Roland Reed. "And maybe we have our bad moments when we wish we could take him out and give him a whipping or something.

"But we can't do it," he adds. "If we did that, then who is safe?"

Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

You May Like

Photogallery Early Nigeria Results Show Buhari Leading; Tampering Concerns Mount

One local group monitoring polls is concerned politicians might use security agencies to 'fiddle with the election collation process' at state level More

UN: 7,300 Civilians Killed in Boko Haram Insurgency

A senior UN humanitarian official tells the United Nations Security Council 1,000 people have been killed this year More

Turkish President Warns Iran About Trying to Dominate Middle East

Warning comes amid growing concerns inside Turkey that it will be sucked into a sectarian conflict with its neighbor More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadistsi
X
Greg Flakus
March 30, 2015 6:48 PM
At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video With Coalition Airstrikes, Iraq Entering 'Last Page' of IS Battle

American warplanes joined Iraq's battle against the so-called 'Islamic State' in northern Iraq late Wednesday, as Iraqi ground troops launched a massive assault on Tikrit. Analysts say the offensive could take the coalition a step further towards Mosul, the largest city held by Islamic State forces. Others say it could also deepen already-dangerous sectarian tensions in the region. VOA's Heather Murdock has more from Cairo.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Islamic State Prisoners Talk of Curiosity, God, Regret

Islamic State fighter, a prisoner of Kurdish YPG forces, asked his family asking for forgiveness: "I destroyed myself and I destroyed them along with me." The Syrian youth was one of two detainees who spoke to VOA’s Kurdish Service about the path they chose; their names have been changed and identifying details obscured. VOA's Zana Omer reports.
Video

Video Germanwings Findings Raise Issue of Psychological Testing for Pilots

More is being discovered about the co-pilot in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps. Investigators say he was hiding a medical condition, raising questions about the mental qualifications of pilots. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.
Video

Video Hi-tech Motorbike Helmet's Goal: Improve Road Safety

In cities with heavily congested traffic, people can get around much faster on a motorcycle than in a car. But a rider who is not sure of his route may have to stop to look at the map or consult a GPS. A Russian start-up company is working to make navigation easier for motorcyclists. Designers at Moscow-based LiveMap are developing a smart helmet with a built-in navigation system, head-mounted display and voice recognition. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video DOJ: Illinois National Guard Soldier Tried to Join ISIS

U.S. federal law enforcement agents arrested two suburban Chicago men accused of trying to join ISIS overseas, while also plotting attacks in the United States. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports from the Midwest state of Illinois, one of those arrested is a soldier of the Illinois National Guard.
Video

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Traditional push-rim wheelchairs create a lot of stress for arm, shoulder and neck muscles and joints. A redesigned chair, based on readily available bicycle technology, radically increases mobility while reducing the physical effort. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More