The price of tolerance

Americans are constantly reminded to be tolerant of Islam. We are supposed to gladly accept a mosque and Islamic community center in a Manhattan building damaged by plane wreckage on 9/11. We are supposed to willingly permit our children to be educated about Islam and even proselytized to on field trips to mosques. Although hate crimes against Muslims are rare, television news programs sent out crews to root out and expose Islamophobia at NASCAR races and protests – and failed to find it. We’re bombarded with the message to be tolerant – or else.

The imbalance in how Islam is treated is obvious. Molly Norris, who conceived of “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” as a protest against Comedy Central, was forced into hiding after threats from Islamic extremists. Americans tolerate flag burning and bible burning, but Koran burning is evidently beyond the pale – not just to the extremists, but our own government. The East Lansing, Michigan police department is offering a $10,000 reward for information on a Koran-burner. Even the threat of Koran burning reduced the President of the United States to publicly beg Terry Jones not to exercise his legal right to burn a book. In short, threats and extortion work: a handful of Muslims around the world are able to control what American entertainment and news shows broadcast, and to prohibit Americans from conducting entirely legal activities.  

This price of tolerance sometimes has a dollar figure attached. Jones’ proposed Koran-burning stunt turned out to be expensive not only in the shame of exposing yet again how thoroughly we are controlled by a relative handful of extremists, but in financial costs to the city of Gainesville which incurred nearly $200,000 in extra policing expenses.  

It seems fair that Jones pick up the tab.  

After all, he’s the guy who started all this. He’s an unsympathetic and obnoxious character. But the truth is that we tolerate obnoxious and offensive expressions of free speech all the time – from Nazis wanting to march in Skokie, to a recent American flag-descration by some Muslims in New York City. The price of free speech is tolerating offensive free speech. It’s unreasonable for Islam to be THE exception to that rule.

In this video, the speaker assures any Muslims passing by that he is perfectly entitled to destroy the American flag, thanks to a “loophole” that affords him the right to free speech:

“This is not like the countries back at home where you raise your voice against the government, and they come after you and they take you in for torture.  No!  In this country, one of the loopholes in this government is they allow the freedom of expression where a man and a woman can go and strip their honor, in the strip clubs, we have the same right here to put this flag down and step on it. It is the same – it is the equivalent in freedom of expression so you Muslims that are passing by, don’t be afraid when you see this.”

He almost gets it.

He understands that someone else’s freedom of expression ensures his own, even when offensive. He understands that he is within his rights, but he doesn’t seem to comprehend that this isn’t a loophole or a byproduct or some mistake waiting to be corrected. It’s an essential part of who we are. That’s why it’s so offensive that Americans who are acting well within their rights to oppose Islam – even in willfully offensive ways – are being threatened and bullied, and now in the case of Terry Jones, possibly fined.  

We’re assured, over and over again, by our elected leaders and by the media, that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful and tolerant. We’re also assured, over and over again, by a handful of Muslims that we had better behave the way they demand or they’ll come for us personally. Which is why the artist formerly known as Molly Norris is making a new life for herself and why Comedy Central censors South Park Mohammed references. It’s why Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Kurt Westergaard all have bodyguards. It’s why Theo van Gogh was murdered on a public street.  

This is thanks to the threats and actions of a tiny percentage of Muslims, who don’t represent the whole, we’re told.

Now would be a great time for all these moderate American Muslims who are so concerned about “backlash” from their countrymen to express their tolerance and approval of the freedoms they enjoy here. I’m not asking Muslims to condone Jones’ odious views. I’m asking Muslims in America to affirm the same American values they promote to us when trying to teach their faith to our schoolchildren and to build a mosque in a place many people are sensitive about, and yes, tear up an American flag as a protest. Let this vast army of moderates show the tiny group of extremists that they do not speak for them. Since tolerance is no longer free, let them help pay the price for offensive views that the extremists exact from us by their threats and extortion.

If the famously moderate, peaceful “Ground Zero Mosque” Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf really wants to build some bridges between Islam and Americans, he could start a fund to help protect people who are threatened by Muslim extremists for exercising their Constitutional right to free speech. He could call upon Muslims in particular to donate to it, and for the rest of us to join them. We could work together to reimburse local police departments when unusual expenses are incurred because of Islamic extremists’ threats. This is one way that moderate Muslims can oppose the extremists who threaten non-Muslims for not adhering to Islamic religious code. Will they publicly support our right not to obey Islamic law?

Muslims reasonably demand tolerance from us. But they should demand it of their fellow Muslims.

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