The BBC reports that a group in the UK called the Centre for Social Cohesion has issued a report finding that European governments have not done enough to protect the free speech of Muslims from other Muslims.
According to the report, Muslim reformers have not been sufficiently protected from attacks by Muslim extremists, citing as a prime example (but it offers many others) the fatwah against Sir Salman Rushdie for the publication of The Satanic Verses. It called on European governments to treat Muslims "as complete citizens, neither restricted in their freedoms nor unduly permitted to issue threats against others."
The report suggests, in other words, a kind of multicultural condescension - a view that fatwas and threats of violence are simply the Islamic way and must, at least within the community, be tolerated. Of course, this becomes sort of a self fulfilling prophecy as Islamic reformers are run off. When the lion is allowed to lie down with the lamb, what follows is usually dinner.
The co-author of the report noted that "[u]nless Muslims are allowed to discuss their religion without fear of attack there can be no chance of reform or genuine freedom of conscience within Islam." Without ensuring this, "there can be no chance of reform or genuine freedom of conscience within Islam."
The report does not offer much in the way of specific proposals. The easy thing - at least for the lawyers and public officials who decree it - is to protect critics from violence and calls for violence.
But the report may also reflect a tension with the notion, which seems to enjoy substantial support in Europe, that religious groups and religions ought to be protected from denigration. To what extent do legal prohibitions of denigration reinforce cultural pressure?
And should there be legal protection for critics that goes beyond the punishment of violence and express threats of immediate violence? Imagine a critic who is branded an "idolator" and "apostate" by a Imam who teaches an unnuanced reading of Sura 9.5 ("slay the idolaters wherever ye find them"). There are, of course, nuanced readings of this verse in Islam (held, I suspect, by some overwhelming percentage of Muslims) which argue that it does not require killing anyone.
Our American answers would turn on whether comment is likely to incite imminent violence but, in this context, one can infer that only if one makes a judgment about what the words said mean to a class of religious believers. Should the state take that into account in responding to the comments, i.e., reacting differently to different speakers who are presumed to have different audiences? If the state can do that, can it move (hard to imagine in the US tradition) against religious teachings that call for violence under certain circumstances, i.e., apostasy? Certainly it can do so through persuasion, but it ought it be able to do so through sanction?
Should the state be permitted to act to encourage forms of religion that are compatible with free and pluralistic societies?
Cross posted at Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog.