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

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs