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(RNS) More than 160 North American Muslims from the U.S. and Canada have issued a “Defense of Free Speech” statement that affirms free speech and condemns those who threaten violence against people who criticize or mock Islam.
The statement follows recent deadly riots in Afghanistan after a small number of American Christians threatened to burn the Quran. Death threats have also been directed against cartoonists who drew the Prophet Muhammad.
Crafted by Sheila Musaji, editor at The American Muslim blog, and Shahed Amanullah, editor of AltMuslim.com, the brief statement says violence is more offensive to Islam “than any cartoon, Quran burning, or other speech could ever be deemed.”
The authors cite 11 verses from the Quran, including one that commands Muslims to “restrain anger and pardon people.”
Signatories range from conservatives to liberals, and include imams, activists, feminists, academics, journalists, and officials from North America’s biggest Muslim advocacy groups.
“It’s a great statement. The only problem is that nobody knows about it,” said Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
While Muslims have condemned terror before, the statement is the first to focus on free speech.
“It addresses something that many people think Muslims don’t understand, the right to free speech, even when it’s hateful or offensive,” said Haynes. He added that the statement could be used as an example for Muslims in countries where free speech — particularly criticism of Islam — is limited.
Some observers dismissed the statement as insincere or not enough.
At the blog of Eugene Volokh, a free speech expert at UCLA Law School who called the statement “excellent,” one comment said, “These people are just making cute noises to please foolish people. Islamic values are not those of the West.”
Haynes rejected such criticisms.
“It’s offensive when people question the sincerity of a statement that is so courageous. This is not a watered-down statement. This is a robust statement in favor of free speech and challenging violence,” said Haynes.
— Omar Sacirbey
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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