The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

USA Today was right to publish a terrorist sympathizer

Editor’s note: Sonny Bunch is guest-blogging at Act Four this week while Alyssa Rosenberg is at the Television Critics Association winter press tour.

There was a bit of angst on social media last night following publication of an op-ed at USA Today authored by Anjem Choudary, a radical British cleric who has been arrested by the Brits in the past for encouraging terrorism. In the op-ed, Choudary argued that true Muslims do not believe in freedom of expression; rather, they believe in submitting to the will of Allah. As a result, he said, it’s only reasonable that some Muslims, when Allah is insulted, will take matters into their own hands and punish the blasphemers. Due to such ever-looming threats, Choudary continued, it’s only reasonable that liberal democracies curtail the speech of satirists who may risk sparking violence from jihadi extremists.

Needless to say, this was not a welcome message yesterday following the murder of 10 satirists whose sole crime was provoking people who lack a sense of humor.*

Now, Choudary’s essay is loopy, anti-Enlightenment, vaguely medieval stuff. If this were actually the opinion of the USA Today editors, people would be right to be outraged. But it’s not; it’s rather explicitly couched as the “opposing view” to the newspaper’s editorial, which is rather stridently pro-free-speech. And it’s not, as Salmon suggests, a situation in which two people are arguing about objective facts: “Point: 9/11 was carried about by Al Qaeda”; “Counterpoint: No, Dick Cheney and/or Israel brought down the Towers.” The argument here is one over norms: Do we value free speech or do we value the “right” of people to live their lives without ever having to feel the sting of the satirist’s pen?

Contrary to what some such as Freddie deBoer have argued, the commitment to humorous freedom of expression is not a “dead moral issue.” In Washington, D.C., for instance, a bar was threatened with heavy fines by a governmental body for displaying a cartoon mocking the vile, racist sentiments of Marion Barry. Just north of the border, Canadian journalist Ezra Levant was subjected to literally years of harassment by a government organization after republishing the “Mohammed cartoons” that sparked protests across the Muslim world. In Scotland, the police are issuing warnings on Twitter that they’re ready to go after people who make “offensive comments” on social media. In the Alsace-Moselle region of France, blasphemy laws are still on the books—laws that were used to go after the satirical “Charlie Hebdo” magazine that was the site of yesterday’s horrific terrorist attack. This is to say nothing of the far more pernicious effect of terrorism of the sort we saw yesterday: news and entertainment organizations self-censoring out of fear, as when Viacom cravenly bowdlerized “South Park” rather than risk violence at the hands of radical jihadists.

All of which is to say it’s important that USA Today published a terrorist-sympathizer like Choudary who believes that freedom of expression is not an absolute right. It’s important to make people understand that liberal democracy isn’t quite as secure as we’d like to think it is. And this is why it is equally important for Peter Beinart and Ross Douthat and Jon Chait to throw up a bipartisan blanket of support for basic concepts such as the freedom to offend. We need to remind folks that efforts to pass laws restricting freedom of expression in the United States will be met with staunch opposition and a united bipartisan front the likes of which we rarely see.

*In an effort to avoid abusing what UCLA sociologist Gabriel Rossman calls the “derp-endent variable” — his clever phrase for committing the argumentative sin of highlighting nutty people with no followers on social media to make a point about the evils of your opponents — I have chosen tweets only from those who have large numbers of followers and whose work I generally enjoy.