Islamic governments, angered by an anti-Muslim video that provoked protests and riots in their countries, are demanding to know why insulting the prophet Muhammad is free speech, but vilifying Jews and denying the Holocaust isn't. And we don't have a good answer.
If we're going to preach freedom of expression around the world, we have to practice it. We have to scrap our hate-speech laws.
Muslim leaders want us to extend these laws. At the September meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, they lobbied for tighter censorship.
Egypt's president said freedom of expression shouldn't include speech "used to incite hatred" or "directed towards one specific religion." Pakistan's president urged the criminalization of acts that "endanger world security by misusing freedom of expression." Yemen's president called for suppressing speech that "blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures." The Arab League's secretary-general proposed a framework to "criminalize psychological and spiritual harm" caused by expressions that "insult the beliefs, culture, and civilization of others."
President Obama, while condemning the video, met these proposals with a stout defense of free speech. Switzerland's president agreed: "Freedom of opinion and of expression are core values guaranteed universally which must be protected." And when a French magazine published cartoons poking fun at Muhammad, the country's prime minister insisted that French laws protecting free speech extend to caricatures.
This debate between East and West, between respect and pluralism, isn't a crisis. It's a stage of global progress.
The Arab Spring has freed hundreds of millions of Muslims from the political retardation of dictatorship. They're taking responsibility for governing themselves and their relations with other countries. They're debating one another and challenging us. And they should, because we're hypocrites.
From Pakistan to Iran to Saudi Arabia to the United Kingdom, Muslims scoff at our rhetoric about free speech. They point to European laws against questioning the Holocaust. Last week on CNN, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad needled British interviewer Piers Morgan: "Why in Europe has it been forbidden for anyone to conduct any research about this event? Why are researchers in prison? ... Do you believe in the freedom of thought and ideas, or no?"
On Tuesday, Pakistan's U.N. ambassador, Raza Bashir Tarar, speaking for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, told the U.N. Human Rights Council that "laws exist in Europe and other countries which impose curbs, for instance, on anti-Semitic speech, Holocaust denial, or racial slurs. We need to acknowledge, once and for all, that Islamophobia in particular and discrimination on the basis of religion and belief are contemporary forms of racism and must be dealt with as such. Not to do so would be a clear example of double standards."
He's right. Laws throughout Europe forbid any expression that "minimizes," "trivializes," "belittles," "plays down," "contests," or "puts in doubt" Nazi crimes. Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic extend this prohibition to communist atrocities. These laws carry jail sentences of up to five years. Germany adds two years for anyone who "disparages the memory of a deceased person."
Hate-speech laws go further. Germany punishes anyone found guilty of "insulting" or "defaming segments of the population." The Netherlands bans anything that "verbally or in writing or image, deliberately offends a group of people because of their race, their religion or beliefs, their hetero- or homosexual orientation or their physical, psychological or mental handicap." It's illegal to "insult" such a group in France or to "expresses contempt" for them in Sweden. In Switzerland, it's illegal to "demean" them even with a "gesture." Canada punishes anyone who "willfully promotes hatred." The United Kingdom outlaws "insulting words or behavior" that arouse "racial hatred."
What have these laws produced? Look at the convictions upheld or accepted by the European Court of Human Rights: four Swedes who distributed leaflets calling homosexuality "morally destructive" and blaming it for AIDS; an Englishman who displayed a 9/11 poster proclaiming, "Islam out of Britain"; a Turk who published two letters from readers angry at the government's treatment of Kurds; a Frenchman who wrote an article disputing the plausibility of Nazi poison gas technology.
Look at the defendants rescued by the court: a Dane "convicted of aiding and abetting the dissemination of racist remarks" for making a documentary in which three people "made abusive and derogatory remarks about immigrants and ethnic groups"; a man "convicted of openly inciting the population to hatred" in Turkey by "criticizing secular and democratic principles and openly calling for the introduction of sharia law"; another Turkish resident "convicted of disseminating propaganda" after he "criticized the United States' intervention in Iraq and the solitary confinement of the leader of a terrorist organization"; two Frenchmen who wrote a newspaper article that "portrayed Marshal Pétain in a favorable light, drawing a veil over his policy of collaboration with the Nazi regime."
Beyond the court's docket, you'll find more prosecutions of dissent: a Swedish pastor convicted of violating hate-speech laws by preaching against homosexuality; a Serb convicted of discrimination for saying, "We are against every gathering where homosexuals are demonstrating in the streets of Belgrade and want to show something, which is a disease, like it is normal"; an Australian columnist convicted of violating the Racial Discrimination Act by suggesting that "there are fair-skinned people in Australia with essentially European ancestry ... who, motivated by career opportunities available to Aboriginal people or by political activism, have chosen to falsely identify as Aboriginal."
Both or neither
My favorite case involves a Frenchman who sought free-speech protection under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights: "Denis Leroy is a cartoonist. One of his drawings representing the attack on the World Trade Centre was published in a Basque weekly newspaper ... with a caption which read: 'We have all dreamt of it. ... Hamas did it.' Having been sentenced to payment of a fine for 'condoning terrorism,' Mr. Leroy argued that his freedom of expression had been infringed.
"The Court considered that, through his work, the applicant had glorified the violent destruction of American imperialism, expressed moral support for the perpetrators of the attacks of 11 September, commented approvingly on the violence perpetrated against thousands of civilians and diminished the dignity of the victims. Despite the newspaper's limited circulation, the Court observed that the drawing's publication had provoked a certain public reaction, capable of stirring up violence and of having a demonstrable impact on public order in the Basque Country. The Court held that there had been no violation of Article 10."
How can you justify prosecuting cases like these while defending cartoonists and video-makers who ridicule Muhammad? You can't. Either you censor both, or you censor neither.
Given the choice, I'll stand with Obama. "Efforts to restrict speech," he warned the United Nations, "can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities."
That principle, borne out by the wretched record of hate-speech prosecutions, is worth defending. But first we have to live up to it.
William Saletan writes for Slate.