February 17, 2019

Taking on Islam

It’s not exactly true that Jews have nothing to do with the controversy surrounding the anti-Islam video that has sparked riots in the Muslim world, along with a furious debate about the limits of free speech.

There is a Jew behind this story. His name is Joseph Burstyn.

Burstyn was a New York film distributor who, in the early 1950s, fought all the way to the Supreme Court for the right to show an Italian film (“The Miracle”) that a licensing board had deemed “sacrilegious.” 

The film, directed by the Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini, was about a man (played by Federico Fellini) who impregnates a disturbed peasant who believes herself to be the Virgin Mary. It drew wide protests and outrage when it premiered in Europe.

Following setbacks in lower courts, Burstyn prevailed in May 1952 when the Supreme Court ruled that revoking his license to show the film was a “restraint of freedom of speech” and thereby a violation of the First Amendment. It was a landmark decision with enormous implications for freedom of expression in the creative arts.

Now, some 60 years later, at a time when anyone on the planet can broadcast sacrilegious YouTube videos that can ignite angry mobs, this freedom of expression is being severely tested. 

As someone who worships freedom of speech, I can only hope that the freedom to criticize and speak freely comes out stronger than ever. I love the idea of a society that doesn’t try to censor speech, even offensive speech that I hate.

But what I hate more than anything is hypocrisy: It’s pretty clear that the Islamists who have been rioting against those who criticize and insult their religion would never give up their own freedom to criticize and insult other religions.

As Thomas Friedman wrote last week in The New York Times, “The young Egyptians, Libyans, Yemenis, Pakistanis, Afghans and Sudanese who have been taking to the streets might want to look in the mirror — or just turn on their own televisions.

“They might want to look at the chauvinistic bile that is pumped out by some of their own media — on satellite television stations and Web sites or sold in sidewalk bookstores outside of mosques — insulting Shiites, Jews, Christians, Sufis and anyone else who is not a Sunni, or fundamentalist, Muslim.”

Those rioters might as well be screaming: “Freedom of speech for us, but not for you!”

Instead of calling them out on their hypocrisy, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went out of their way to denounce the “offensive” speech in the anti-Islam video, while their people even contacted Google about the possibility of taking it down.

This pathetic effort at appeasement reached its nadir when Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey asked a nutty Christian pastor not to endorse the film, as if that could calm the rioters rampaging through U.S. embassies and burning American flags.

Let’s face it: Even if we wanted to, it’s impossible in a digital world to regulate offensive speech. Some crackpot will always find a way to cook up provocations, and terrorists looking for a pretext will always find one.

Given all that, it’s time we stop apologizing for our freedoms and appeasing hysterical mobs. Here’s what we should tell angry Muslims who can’t tolerate offensive speech:

“Respect works both ways. If you want the freedom to criticize others, you must respect the freedom of others to criticize you. Treating Islam differently would mean treating you like babies who throw temper tantrums. That’s insulting to Islam and to Muslims. 

“We tolerate protest, but we have zero tolerance for violence. That applies to all peoples and all religions. Remember: The freedom to hurl an insult includes the freedom to ignore it. But if you want to dish it out, you must be ready to take it.”

Personally, I’ve never understood why newspapers that have no qualms about publishing cartoons mocking Judaism or Christianity suddenly turn into wet noodles when it comes to taking on Islam.

Why is it fair game to take on Moses or Jesus or Buddha — but not Muhammad?

Why does President Obama denounce the blasphemy against Islam in a stupid YouTube video, but not the blasphemy against Mormonism in the musical “The Book of Mormon”?

I know, we’re all intimidated by violence. But how long will we let our minds be terrorized by thin-skinned, hypocritical Muslim radicals? If every religion rioted at the sight of a dumb, offensive video, what kind of world would we live in?

Maybe what we need is not less-offensive speech but smarter and funnier offensive speech — the kind of biting satire that often speaks the deepest truths. We need more Jon Stewarts to drown out the talentless hatemongers.

In any event, it’ll be a better day for humanity when all religions make their peace with freedom — the freedom to be religious, the freedom to be irreverent and the freedom to ignore it all.

Just ask Joseph Burstyn.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.