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Muslims must tolerate free speech

Published October 6, 2012 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

By david burns

A few years ago, Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley wrote: "What do you get when you mix a prophet, unflattering portrayals of said prophet and a furious debate regarding the responsible exercise of free speech?" Answer: "The birth of The Salt Lake Tribune." He was writing about 1871, and "said prophet" was Brigham Young.

Today, when you mix a prophet, unflattering portrayals of said prophet and a furious debate regarding the responsible exercise of free speech, you get YouTube.

The recent violence in more than two dozen Muslim countries over a low-rent YouTube video clip depicting the Prophet Mohammad as a sex-crazed buffoon has brought Muslims into the streets. Mormons spilled press type into the street when the gentiles blasphemed their prophet.

Those rioting in the Arab Spring states of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt can learn from the LDS experience.

In 1862, as part of a bid for statehood, Brigham Young ran as a candidate for governor of the Utah Territory, the only time he stood for election. Ten thousand votes were cast, and he received all 10,000.

Statehood would have to wait until 1896. But over time, the LDS faithful became yet another part of the American tapestry, and have learned to tolerate opposing views while still being inspired by the central place of faith.

This pattern was not new. Our founding settlers (Pilgrims, Separatists, Quakers and Puritans) came to the New World as dissenters from state religions in England and Holland. But almost immediately they imposed orthodoxy and no real separation between church and state.

It fell to Roger Williams and others in what would become Providence, R.I., to embrace open speech and protest. And as the colonies became united, free speech ideas spread, and later became enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution.

A key to the spread of free speech values, including in the Utah Territory, was integration into a broader context, in this instance, the emerging United States. As Americans became more entangled, they demanded more freedoms, in part to pursue the economic benefits of pluralism.

Which brings us to the unfolding events in the Muslim world. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia — the emergent Islamic parties in the Arab Spring states — cannot place Islam at the center of political life and at the same time declare their religion (depictions of the Prophet Mohammad) off-limits to parody.

Whereas religion claims a monopoly on truth, politics is about give and take. Islamic republics don't work. Exhibit A: Iran. Instead, the Arab Spring countries must embrace a modern pluralism, much like Turkey has, that includes relatively free expression and some separation of church and state.

Americans should support pluralism in the Muslim world. We believe the only cure for bad speech is more speech, and not violence. This means we should rightfully condemn the content of the YouTube video as valueless expression, and equally condemn the murderous violence that followed.

We stand as an example of the huge benefits to be derived from being a free and open society.

What we shouldn't do is compromise our own values. Certain Muslims should be challenged on their belief that the Prophet Mohammad cannot be depicted under any circumstances, and certainly on the belief of Salafis that such depictions warrant violence. And Google should not have censored the video in certain Muslim countries.

Early American settlers and pioneer Mormons, groups founded on religious principles, learned to tolerate free speech on the road to modernism; 21st Century Muslims must do the same.

David Burns is a resident of Salt Lake City. He has degrees in history and law.