Q: What is the obligation of a Western, democratic government to protect individual freedoms in light of a realistic terrorist threat? Are the producers of South Park right to forfeit their freedom of expression in the interests of protecting their employees? Are the governments of Europe right to ban burqas in the interest of fostering a more open society?
Fear and intimidation are power. When extremists such as Revolution Muslim use lightly veiled threats against “South Park” producers and writers, it can seem their intention is only to stifle free expression. But there is also the enormous gain to such fringe groups from creating such a controversy. Revolution Muslim creates a backlash, and thus stokes fear and rejection of Islam in the West. They do this because extremists need enemies in order to justify their efforts to create hatred and fear.
In the peace movement, we often say that ‘you create the enemies you need.’ Violent interpretations of Islam can’t gain any traction unless they provoke extreme responses that in turn are used to justify violence. Enemies create enemies, and soon the “descending spiral” of which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke so eloquently, is well on its way down into the darkness.
Governments must protect freedom of expression, and those who exercise it, because the alternative is to let the fringe control the debate and fuel the cycle of retribution and despair. Freedom of expression is not just about the individual cartoonist who may want to stir up controversy (and after all, isn’t that a central purpose of “South Park”?). Freedom of expression is the foundation of democracy because it equally protects the inane (and yes, I find “South Park” has large elements of inanity), and the voices from the margins that keep demanding dignity in the face of oppression and domination, and all points on the spectrum in between. If the “South Park” producers chose not to go ahead with a potentially controversial segment, it’s their right to choose that. But if they chose to go ahead, it would be our government’s job to protect them from being harmed by extremists.
Freedom of expression distributes power among the people; that is why extremists and totalitarians hate freedom of expression as they want to consolidate power and use it, sometimes even against their own people. Democratic governments have no choice but to protect freedom of expression from fear and intimidation, no matter what the source, foreign or domestic, religious or secular.
Thus, frankly, burqas need to be allowed in Europe. That’s freedom too. I may not like “South Park,” but I just don’t watch it. The burqas don’t hurt the European woman who chooses not to wear one, and it is pure arrogance to insist that wearing certain clothing hurts Muslim women. Freedom means they get to decide. Stifle that freedom, and the Europeans will create enemies among Muslims in their societies who will rightly ask, ‘why does freedom only apply to some and not others?’
You have to ask whether the issue in Europe is also about power, who gets to have it and who doesn’t.