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A Look At Islam And Free Speech


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, we'll dig into our digital mailbox to hear from you about stories and interviews that caught your attention or provoked some push-back this week. That's BackTalk, and it's in just a few minutes.

But, first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's where we talk about matters of faith, religion and spirituality. Today, we're focusing again on the debate that many people have been having about freedom of speech, Islam and American values. And, obviously, this is on our minds because of the latest rounds of demonstrations sparked, apparently, by that provocative online video that originated in California that insults the Prophet Muhammad and Islam, in general.

Protesters took to the streets in several countries today, including in Pakistan, where violence was reported, and U.S. embassies throughout the Muslim world were the target of protests and attacks last week. And all of this has many Americans asking: Is the anger directed at the U.S. the result of misunderstanding, or is the American understanding of free expression incompatible with Islam?

Joining us for our closer look are two people who have thought deeply about this. Dalia Mogahed is the executive director and senior analyst for the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. Also with us is Dr. Zuhdi Jasser. He is a medical doctor, but he's also an outspoken activist. He's the head of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. It's a group that advocates for the separation of mosque and state, and they're both with us now.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

DALIA MOGAHED: Thank you, Michel.

ZUHDI JASSER: Thank you, Michel. Nice to be with you.

MARTIN: You know, Dalia, you are in a unique position because your organization actually conducts polls where you sample public opinion in majority Muslim countries. So you're in a unique position here. So I wanted to ask you: What is your sense of what is motivating these protests?

MOGAHED: I think several things are motivating. First, there is a resentment against the United States, and so a film like this becomes a trigger. But there's also other things. There's political manipulation on the ground, and there's just people looking for a fight. But I think a really important point to make is that these protests are far smaller and far less violent than they were when we found the Danish cartoon crisis several years ago. And I think that's testimony to President Obama's outreach to Muslim-majority societies.

If you look at the response that people have made, they have been demanding a legal response from the president, which is misguided, because he can't take a legal response. But it's also constructive to notice that they're not talking about a cosmic war between Islam and the West. They're not accusing the president of waging war against Islam. They are conducting - or they are talking about this issue in legalistic and in policy terms, and I think that that's a much healthier place to be than we were five, six years ago.

MARTIN: Dr. Jasser, what's your perspective on this? What do you think is motivating these protests?

JASSER: Well, I think, you know, the one perspective is that this is a small number. It's not the same people that were in the streets last year. But one of the things that's important is that we not, as Americans, have this sort of soft bigotry of low expectations, which, you know, I think is important that we not say, well, as long as they're less violent and it's about legalism, that somehow the issue has changed.

And I think, into the vacuum of last year's Arab Spring, there are so many secularist liberal thinkers, reformers that need a voice, and yet the - if you look, yesterday, Al-Azhar, which is the leading Islamic institution in Cairo and in the world, made a statement saying that America needs to reassess its position on Islam. It's anti-Islam, and they mentioned conspiracy theories.

So I think this is now a growing front in the war of ideas between - within Islam, within the house of Islam, between liberals and Islamists that want to have blasphemy laws and control free speech. And, as Americans - as an American-Muslim, I'd like to see my country make a stronger stand for liberty and freedom.

MARTIN: Dalia, you've just completed a new survey in Egypt about attitudes toward America, but I did want to ask you - the latest cover story for Newsweek is written by the Somali-Dutch activist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She says the latest incident shows intolerance of speech in Muslim nations is strong as ever after the Arab Spring. Have you tested this? Have you done any surveys on this question about how people in other countries around the world understand the whole concept of freedom of expression?

MOGAHED: We have done some research. First, I think there are differences in the understanding of freedom of expression, but there's also some commonalities. So one thing we know is that, around the Middle East, people say that if they were to draft a new constitution for a new country, that they would include a fundamental right of free speech. And those are in percentages above 90 percent.

So, in principle, people agree on this idea. But practically, there are some very important differences. And, in the Middle East and in the broader Muslim majority world, there is this concept of protecting not only individuals, but ideas like religion. And that's a difference that we have to, you know, talk about and debate. We can't simply brush it under the rug.

What I think is really important to keep in mind, though, is that, as we move forward, we are going to have to engage these ideas. We simply won't be able to impose one value over another. These societies have become much more democratic and, therefore, we have to open a very critical dialog and not approach these things with a heavy hand.

MARTIN: So you're saying that when some people say freedom of expression, they understand it as their right to go out into the streets to defend the dignity of Islam, and that's the freedom of expression that they see?

MOGAHED: I think that that's part of it, but I think, more importantly, freedom of expression does mean being able to criticize the government. And I think we saw that during the Arab Spring, where people rose up and spoke out against what they saw was injustice. So freedom of expression is fundamentally understood more as political speech, rather than blasphemy.

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and if you're just joining us, we're talking about the ongoing protests in the Muslim world over that video that was made in California that's now gone viral. It's apparently sparked protests around the world, and I say apparently because there's some dispute about whether that's really what the protests are about.

Our guests are Dalia Mogahed. She's an expert on public opinion in the Muslim world. And Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, he is a medical doctor. He's also an outspoken advocate in behalf of the concept of the separation of mosque and state. He's testified, for example, on a number of times on Capitol Hill.

You know, Dr. Jasser, the U.S. government's issued a public service announcement that's now airing on television in Pakistan, and in it, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemn the trailer for "Innocence of Muslims." That's the video project that many people blame for what's happening now. And I'll just play a short clip of that public service announcement.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.

HILLARY CLINTON: Let me state very clearly - and I hope it is obvious - that the United States government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message.

MARTIN: Dr. Jasser, what's your reaction to this? And a number of conservatives have been critical of the president, saying that the administration is not doing enough to defend American values and free expression as a core American value. What's your take on it?

JASSER: Well, I think it's not accepted. I think, actually, it plays into the hand that we're on the defensive. And I think it doesn't address the issue that Dalia was saying we need to debate, is that, if we continue to focus on what they want us to focus on - which is the film and how it's offensive - I think it treats Muslims, again, as second class and that we somehow need to be treated with kid gloves while, you know, the Mormon faith can have a play in New York that attacks it. The Christian faith is attacked, but nobody riots.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are shown on national TV in Egypt, and there weren't riots in Israel against the Egyptian embassy, etc. So either we use the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that all of these countries signed onto and we say that freedom of speech is inexorably wedded to freedom of religion and we defend that, or we go on the defensive. And I just don't think that strategy works, and the Islamists ultimately will use this to fill the vacuum of control over their own societies and the freedom of speech within.

MARTIN: What would have rather the administration said? What do you think would have been a better message, in your view?

JASSER: Well, I think the better message is to say that these people don't speak for Americans. They're free to speak what they wish, and at the end of the day, your societies are now going through tests and we hope to help you foster societies that can have these debates and be able to wage a discussion without - not only without violence, but with equality of all under God and in freedom.

MARTIN: Dalia, knowing what you know about public opinion, what is your sense of how effective a message this is at the moment?

MOGAHED: I think that it needed to be said, and the reason I think it needed to be said is because there's so much confusion about this issue. The fact that Secretary Clinton said we had nothing to do with it is good for people to hear, because that was not clear to a lot of people.

There's also the very important issue of American values include religious pluralism, not just freedom of speech. And the fact that the president and the secretary were defending both the American value of freedom of expression, as well as religious pluralism, I think was important for people to hear.

MARTIN: What about Dr. Jasser's point, though, that there are racist, anti-Semitic cultural works which are distributed in a number of countries, you know, around the world and that, you know - that, you know, I don't feel like I'm in a position to fairly assess how common this is, but that these kinds of expressions are not suppressed by these governments or societies. And so why then should not the United States government, in behalf of its citizens or the people who live here, defend even offensive speech that offends other groups when speech that offends Americans, Christians and Jews is disseminated without violent reaction overseas, and we're not constantly demanding that they censor that?

MOGAHED: Right. Well, I think that the president spoke very forcefully that we wouldn't censor and we couldn't censor and we wouldn't, even if we could. So he defended the right to make the material, but to defend the actual material, I think, wouldn't be true to his values or to our values as Americans.

I think the other thing to keep in mind is that protests generally in the world can sometimes become violent. I don't think this is a Muslim monopoly, so I think we have to keep that in mind. The other thing to keep in mind is that, sometimes, when there are offensive materials here in this country, people do protest against them and I think that that's also part of freedom of speech that we have to look at and respect.

I, personally, disagree with the protests. I think that they feed right into the hate, but on principle, I can't say that people can't also peacefully speak out against something that they disagree with.

MARTIN: Dr. Jasser, I gave Dalia the first word. I'm going to give you the last word. Going forward here, I understand that your work right now is very focused on what you see as the "Battle for the Soul of Islam." It's the title of your book and also the internal debate within Islam about what direction it will take in the modern world. So, as a Muslim-American, is there some stance that you would wish other Americans to take at a time like this when they're evaluating what's going on right now?

JASSER: Well, I certainly think, as a Muslim who loves my state and I don't believe the prophet would respond in violence and that we were taught to respond not only either in silence or in compassion, but ultimately, either we allow ourselves to respond to grievances that there's going to be millions of them and I think that's a distraction. Or we engage the ideology and the slippery slope of the ideology of restriction of free speech is that it leads towards the blasphemy laws. It leads towards restriction against not only non-Muslims, but Muslims, also, to be able to interpret our faith on our own.

And that is not just about the mobs and the demonstrations. The largest school in Egypt and globally that leads Islam has made statements that America needs to reassess our first amendment, etc. and this is what we need to push back and defend and while so many Muslims look to America to be a leader for freedom around the world and not just defensive and responsive to the grievances.

MARTIN: Dr. Zuhdi Jasser is the head of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. That's a group that advocates for the separation of mosque and state. His latest book is called "The Battle for the Soul of Islam" and he was kind enough to join us from Phoenix, Arizona.

Here with me in our Washington, D.C. studios, Dalia Mogahed. She is the executive director and senior analyst for the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

MOGAHED: Thank you, Michel.

JASSER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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