Free Speech & the Islamic Faith


Join Active Minds as we explore the sometimes violent reaction from parts of the Muslim world to what many deem as “free speech” in other parts of the world. From the death sentence issued against Salman Rushdie in 1989, to the deadly protests in response to a widely condemned anti-Muslim film, this conflict has clearly intensified. We will seek to understand this complicated issue in part by examining the values held by free speech supporters and followers of Islam.

Key Lecture Points

  • As the anniversary of 9/11 approached in 2012, a clip from an anti-Muslim film, Innocence of Muslims, was posted to YouTube, igniting riots and violence across the Muslim world. The riots were most virulent in Cairo and in Benghazi where the US Ambassador to Libya and 3 other Americans were killed.
  • The violence that resulted from Innocence of Muslims is a symptom of the fundamental clash of deeply held but conflicting values in a globalized world where the Muslim world’s deep-rooted Islamic laws and traditions come up against the Western world’s legal traditions of freedom of expression that developed in a predominantly Christian context. In the Internet age, non-Muslims and critics of Islam can depict Mohammed in offensive ways that are seen instantly around the world. The violence set off by this film reflects the inevitable tension between Western protected rights of free expression and Islamic religious law that tolerates no insult directed at the Prophet.
  • The West hoped the Arab Spring would bring secular democracies to the Mideast. However, more conservative elements of Islam have become influential in the new governments. As the fledgling democracies struggle to stabilize their new governments, there will continue to be militants who capitalize on the anger resulting from incidents like the recent offensive film about Mohammed to disrupt governments and provoke violence.
  • The clash between freedom of expression and respect for another’s religion is not limited to violent incidents between Western and Muslim countries, but also occurs within competing segments of the Muslim community itself, as well as within our own society as we wrestle at home with where to set boundaries in the age of terrorism and in the context of conducting a war on terrorism. The US leads the world in upholding and protecting freedom of expression for its citizens, but at the same time, it has also set some important legal limits to that freedom when the US is actively engaged in war.

Exploration Questions

  • What do you feel are rational limits to free speech? Are there times when the government should suppress materials on the Internet for national security purposes or to prevent violence?

Reflective Questions

  • Have you ever read or seen something that you felt insulted your beliefs? If so, what do you feel is the right way to respond or react?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Bradley, John R. After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts. Palgrave MacMillian, 2012. 256 pages. Describes the events of the Arab Spring and the resulting spread of the Wahhabi ideology, inter-tribal rivalries and Sunni-Shia divisions after the revolutions.
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  • Wright, Robin. Rock the Casbah: Rage & Rebellion Across the Islamic World with a new concluding chapter by the author. Simon & Schuster, 2012. 336 pages. Guides the reader through the changes in the Middle East since 9/11.
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  • Bobrick, Benson. The Caliph’s Splendor: Islam and the West in the Golden Age of Baghdad. Simon & Schuster, 2012. 304 pages. Tells the history of Baghdad during the 8th century.
    Click here to order