Jerry Falwell apologized on Oct. 12 for calling Muhammad a terrorist, saying he meant no disrespect to "any sincere, law-abiding Muslim." When will we hear apologies from those who responded to Mr. Falwell not by discussing the historical record of early Islam, but by attempting to suppress freedom of religion and freedom of speech in this country and around the world?
Will we hear from Ayatollah Mohsen Mujitahed Shabestari, the Iranian leader who during an Oct. 11 prayer sermon attacked three ministers he labeled as "Israeli mercenaries" and said that "in our opinion, to kill these three is necessary"? The three: Mr. Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Franklin Graham.
Will we hear from newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, which ran an attack on "Falwell and his anti-Muslim ilk" on Oct. 13 but did not run a defense? The Times is a defender of free speech for pornographers but an opponent of "hurtful speech ... directed against a religion, a racial group or a minority such as gays and lesbians." Bible-based comments by Christians about homosexuality have long been called "hurtful"; is criticism of Islam now also verboten?
As WORLD noted last week, the historical record concerning Muhammad is open to a wide variety of thoughtful interpretations. Some passages in Islam's sacred writings depict Muhammad as using violence to expand Muslim influence, and readers from different worldviews can and should debate whether that activity was proper. Just because Islam suppresses such debate, why should we?
Newspapers and media law specialists are always on the lookout for laws, regulations, court decisions, or threats likely to have a "chilling effect" on First Amendment freedoms. Why the silence here? Some secular journalists believe that all religions are the same, so debate is silly-but why would even they want our sweet land of liberty to become, when discussion of religion is concerned, a clone of Saudi Arabia?
If newspaper editorial pages had simply raised questions about Mr. Falwell's word choice and timing, while supporting his right to criticize Muhammad and Islam, their position would be much stronger. They could have argued that Islamic suppression of discussion concerning Muhammad should be met with reasoned argument that pays careful attention to inconsistencies within Muslim canonical books themselves. They could have said that it's not wise to light a match in order to look around the inside of an empty gasoline storage tank: Fumes pervade Muslim societies, especially among the masses of poorly educated followers of assorted imams and sheiks, some of whom live near vulnerable communities of Christian believers.
But the blanket condemnation of Mr. Falwell suggests a double standard. The New York Times on Oct. 7 quoted Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, saying that "evangelical Christians condescend to the Jews by offering their support before they convert or kill them." Mr. Wieseltier was offering his interpretation of Revelation, and that's fine: Some might call his words hate speech against evangelicals, but I see them as a good discussion opener. Similarly, we need more debate concerning Islam, not a big chill.