Amidst all of the talk of religious tolerance and the hand-wringing over free speech in recent days, one salient fact is often lost or glossed over: What we face are not broad questions about the limits of free speech or the importance of religious tolerance, but rather a very specific question about the limits of Muslim tolerance and the unimportance of free speech to much of the Muslin world.
It’s really quite amazing. In Pakistan, Egypt, and the Palestinian territories, Christians are being harassed, brutalized, and even murdered, often with state support, or at least state indulgence. And let’s not even talk about the warm reception Jews receive in much of the Muslim world.
And yet, it seems you can’t turn on National Public Radio or open a newspaper or a highbrow magazine without finding some oh-so-thoughtful meditation on how anti-Islamic speech should be considered the equivalent of shouting “fire” in a movie theater.
It’s an interesting comparison. First, the prohibition on yelling “fire” in a theater only applies to instances where there is no fire. A person who yells “fire” when there is, in fact, a fire is quite likely a hero. I’m not saying that the people ridiculing Mohammed — be they the makers of the Innocence of Muslims trailer or the editors of a French magazine — have truth on their side. But blasphemy is not a question of scientific fact, merely of opinion. And in America we give a very wide legal berth to the airing of such opinions. Loudly declaring “it is my opinion there is a fire in here” is not analogous to declaring “it is my opinion that Mohammed was a blankety-blank.”
You know why? Because Muslims aren’t fire, they’re people. And fire isn’t a sentient entity, it is a force of nature bereft of choice or cognition of any kind. Just as water seeks its own level, fire burns what it can burn. Muslims have free will. If they choose to riot, that’s not the same thing as igniting a fire.