City of Brass

City of Brass


the “bad speech” dilemma – does intolerance lead to violence?

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

This is a guest post by Asma T. Uddin.

“A woman who loses her chastity is worthless,” lectures the sermon-giver at Asra Nomani’s mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia. Nomani carefully jots down this statement in her notebook, right alongside the speaker’s other assertion that “Jews are the descendents of apes and pigs.” Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent who came face-to-face with extremism when her colleague and close friend, Daniel Pearl, was murdered in Pakistan, is certain that these statements of intolerance in her local mosque are intrinsically related to acts of violence. Thus begins Nomani’s “struggle for the soul of Islam,” a struggle showcased by Brittany Huckabee in her recent documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown.

As Huckabee’s movie follows Nomani’s fight for women’s rights, it shows how her struggle against conservatism becomes intertwined with her repugnance with extremism. The film focuses on how Nomani ends up conflating the two, explaining time and again that there is a “slippery slope” between intolerance and violence. Nomani’s protest goes from wanting to give women a space in the main prayer hall to wanting women to stand beside men in prayer and to lead mixed-gender prayer. Any other view of gender organization in the mosque is, according to Nomani, a sign of extremism, akin to the type practiced by Pearl’s murderers. Yet, as one of the conservative women from her mosque notes, what does extremism have to do with women-led prayer?

Although Nomani insists that intolerant speech is directly related to violent action and should thus be suppressed, she provides no evidence to substantiate the connection. Furthermore, because she is convinced of this slippery slope, she feels that there is no room for what the moderates advocate: slow change based on diplomacy and compromise. Instead, she calls for and attempts to lead an all-out revolution, bringing the media into the fray and causing many members in the community to feel not only exposed and ridiculed, but also afraid to express their religious beliefs.

It is this latter element – the fear felt by conservative individuals in expressing their religious views – that reveals a previously unexplored aspect of Nomani’s reformist approach: its infringement on her co-religionists’ fundamental rights of free speech and religious freedom. Nomani’s battle was and continues to be widely covered in mainstream media, making her strand of thinking increasingly influential. At a time when Muslim organizations are under tremendous scrutiny and mosques are infiltrated by FBI agents, it would come as no surprise that Nomani’s campaign, and others like hers, help strengthen society’s and the government’s perceived connection between religious conservatism and violent extremism.

While elements of her mosque leaders’ views are admittedly deplorable and should be reformed from theological and social perspectives, the highly publicized nature of Nomani’s commentary is troubling in a time when many Muslims already feel their religious freedom is curtailed by the government. As long as their speech is not directly connected with imminent, violent action, for those who sincerely believe that what they are preaching is part of their faith, having to curtail it for no other reason than the threat of prosecution is an infringement of their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.

The crux of the argument is that there is a definite, and very important, line between intolerant speech (constitutionally protected) and incitement to imminent violence (unprotected). Nomani-like reformism often targets speech that is, at most, bigoted or highly conservative, but which does not advocate violence, and seeks to suppress it. It amplifies intra-community issues so that they catch national attention and, likely, attract the attention of a governmental authority capable of exerting pressure. Such reformist approaches, in their quest for progress or even human rights, fail to recognize the effects of their actions on their co-religionist’s fundamental right to free religious expression. It is an infringement of free speech and free exercise rights when mosque leaders and sermon-givers do not voice their conservative views because of their fear of being equated with violent extremists by government authorities. Furthermore, while many people, Muslims included, would rather not have to hear intolerant speech, once speech limitations are legitimated for one group, transposing them to another becomes merely procedural, rather than substantive.

Consider, for example, that the same evangelical Christian groups that supported government investigations into Muslim speech now find their own religious speech under greater scrutiny. In the aftermath of the murder of Dr. George Tiller by Scott Roeder, there is a push to put evangelical Christian groups who advocate a strong anti-abortion policy under increased governmental scrutiny. More specifically, there is a call for greater enforcement of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), which targets whoever, “by force or threat of force … intentionally injures, intimidates or interferes with …” either an abortion doctor or patient. Although the larger body of law makes intimidating statements relatively difficult to prosecute – given the finer distinctions between a criminally actionable threat and other sorts of intimidating statements – FACE, which allows for both governmental prosecution and private suits by doctors and clinic workers, does threaten free speech rights.

While the target of many lawsuits under FACE may be the Evangelicals, a vociferous pro-life position is characteristic of many Catholics as well. Speech restrictions on the former group can thus seamlessly be applied to the latter.

Which reflects a critical point: the survival of our most basic freedoms depends on our protecting them vigorously. The U.S. Constitution protects politically incorrect and intolerant speech, and even violent speech that stops short of incitement to violence, because to do so otherwise puts the state in the position of determining what is acceptable speech and what is not. Political correctness, for example, is a fluid concept, changing with time and circumstance; what is politically correct at one time or in a particular culture may not be in another time or in another culture.

And what some consider “extremism” may be another person’s genuinely held religious belief. Given the variability of people’s beliefs and perspectives, individuals should be free to negotiate these concepts among each other without the force of law imposing a particular view on them by punishing speech that the government finds problematic for social or political reasons.

While Nomani, as a non-governmental actor, does not violate her co-religionists’ right to free religious expression, her media-focused strategy to suppress such speech in a time fraught with anti-Muslim suspicion may easily convince governmental authorities to clamp down on conservative Muslims – hurting not just Muslims today, but other groups, now and in the future.

Asma T. Uddin is an attorney and Editor-in-Chief of Altmuslimah.com.



  • A Seeker – KG

    Bravo for the article. At first as I was reading, my thoughts were close to Nomani. However, because of
    the calm and thoroughly rational rebuttal from Mr. Poonawalla, I have to agree with him. Although I would
    like to see all bigots and hate groups have their speech curtailed, it is impossible. Mr. Poonawalla is right.
    Shutting up someone such as Rush Limbaugh is the same as shutting up the former pastor of President Obama (I have forgotten his name) anyone else with whom I disagree. I wish more people such as Asma Poonawalla would not only speak up but would have a wide audience! Thank you Mr. Poonawalla.

  • jdledell

    I would recommend Nomani go to shul in Bat Ayin or Kiryat Arba and she will hear the same bigoted conservative values as in the Morgantown mosque, just the flip side. Since all 35 of my relatives live on the other side of the Green Line, I have plenty of opportunity to hear crazy talk. Bigotry, racism, and hatred is not the province of any one religion. All of them need reformation.

  • Dennis

    History teaches well the horrors that result when we do not fully expose those whose speach and actions lack tolerence, respect, empathy, and compassion toward all others. It is our ethical duty to do so, especially with respect to religions. Extremeism is based on deep fear and an inablilty to envision alternatives–unimaginative ignorance. No one has a pipeline to ultimate truth. It is hubris to think otherwise. Acting with compassion toward all is far more important than being “right.”

  • Brian David

    Dennis’ comment is a frightening example of the sort of self-righteousness and narcissism which seems to motivate those who want to “expose” or stifle intolerant speech. The question isn’t really whether the speech is “good” or “nice” or “respectful” or “inoffensive,” but rather whether or not we believe in the freedoms of our Constitution and the ability of the human person to discover truth and proclaim it. Is the freedom to speak truth without hindrance or pressure to modify our message worth the possibility that some will speak falsely or rudely? Of course it is. The moment anyone sees himself/herself as somehow transcending the perception and vision of the rest of us and seeing himself/herself as somehow the more accurate and perfect arbiter of speech which is healthy vs speech which is unhealthy, is the moment that person becomes a bit of a tyrant. By the way, I strongly believe in the right as well to tell another “what you said is untrue,” but that is very different than “what you said is offensive.” To make a statement about what you believe to be true is to engage in free dialogue and to argue on the merits of the premises. Once you begin to critique speech based upon the fact the it is offensive or intolerant, then you have essentially given up the opportunity to present an alternative, instead choosing to demonize the other. Notice also Dennis’ trite presumption that it is “hubris” to think one has a “pipeline to ultimate truth.” Fist, let’s demolish the strawman: stating that what you believe is more true than what another has asserted has no necessary connection to believing that one has a “pipeline to ultimate truth”– it may simply be a statement indicating that one has more knowledge of a certain topic than another and does not imply that one believes one can never be wrong. Second, the dodge: Dennis wants to be able to make an extremely broad assertion that “truth” cannot really be known with any certainty, yet he argues it in a way to make it seem that anyone who disagrees with his frankly trite and postmodern pablum is necessarily intolerant. Well, I am not impressed, and I suggest he do a little more homework and learn to actually argue a point rather than attack those who have a different idea of what’s true than he does.

  • Patrick Henry

    Give me Liberty of Give Me Death

  • Your Name

    Truly there is a fine line between a conservatively held viewpoint that can be proven true, and falsehoods and inuendo (i.e., “Jews are descended from apes”, “God gave Israel to the Jews”, etc…). Preaching falsehoods, and cloaking them with the authority of religion, is dangerous and without merit, even under the auspices of “free speech”. Lies knowingly spread by leaders to antagonize the listener against another group of individuals have been used to this end throughout history, and are the roots of terrible injustices, from the crusades, to the inquistion, the purges, slavery and apartheid, WWII, Ireland, Palestine, etc.. These same lies, and liars, are warned against and refuted, in all three monothestic texts: “beware the false prophet!” “Teachers will be held to a higher standard” and other quotes that should give radicals pause before they speak with authority on subjects that have no factual merit. Just because you have the “right” by law to say something, doesn’t make it “right” to do so, especially when tragedy results. Otherwise there would be no legal protection for minors who have medical treatment withheld by their parents due to “relious beliefs”, nor would there be any legal protection from fanatics of one religion forceably imposing their beliefs on others. For moderates, the Mosque is already unwelcoming to women who want to be treated as equals, or at least to be afforded the benefit of being able to interpret the religion in the same way as a man. It seems unnecessary to carry that any further, in todays climate of intolerance.

  • Your Name

    I am a muslim woman living in the caribbean from East Indian descent (India) here in Trinidad we have mosques situated literally next door to mandirs (hindu temples), churches of every dinomination and get this it is all done in perfect harmony. women are allowed WITH children in the mosques, in fact it is encouraged, in the Sunni mosques we do have parda (blind) other mosques there is none. Women always sit at the back, and they do not lead service. Guess what I have no problem with that!!! On the day of reckoning it will not matter where I sat or how fine my clothes were (….render not thy garment but thy heart….)
    We have had “Mulvis” etc., visiting from Pakistan and other parts of the world who wanted to preach a separate islamic state within our beautiful island … they were asked the leave and take their sepratists views with them.
    The long and short…. the middle east has their problems which has been deep set and at this point the word slinging and name calling is of no use (it never is) but there are some parts of the world where Islam and the true beauty of it is practised … Alhamdu Lillah
    To all the Mulvis, Imams, Rabbi that incite I say have faith in the One True God as Muhammed and Abraham and all the great prophets preached for this is greater to piety

  • Dennis

    Brian David’s angry ad hominum attack on what I wrote resulted from his misreading of what I wrote. I said that such harmful speech should be exposed, not silenced, i.e., made known, disclosed, or revealed (intentions, secrets, etc.). Free speech is essential in a democracy, but can it not take the form of a civilized respectful dialogue–unlike what has been happening in recent community town meetings?

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