Freedom to Offend: When is Free Speech Hate Speech?

By Stephen Pihlaja

With the Charlie Hebdo shooting earlier this year, the attack at a Copenhagen “Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression” event, and now another attack in Texas on a “Draw Muhammad” contest, violence around depictions of the Prophet have once again become a prominent issue both in the US and Europe. Tensions are increasing and the rhetoric around these events often plays right into pre-existing extremist narratives about Islam. Much of the conversation has centered on differing opinions about the limits of “free speech” and how they are, or are not, complicated by “hate speech.”

What is or is not “hate speech” — and how we think of it relative to “free speech” — can be especially complicated to determine when we have to consider discourses that encourage prejudice and non-physical forms of violence such as that of Pamela Gellar. Gellar, the organizer of the “Draw Muhammed” event in Texas, has downplayed the relevance of “hate speech” in regards to her movement,

Some say that “hate speech” should be censored. But what constitutes “hate speech” is a subjective judgment that is unavoidably influenced by the political perspective of the one doing the judging…. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.

Movements like Gellar’s American Freedom Defense Initiative are ostensibly created to exercise freedom, but in doing so they also risk becoming celebrations of inflammatory, antagonistic, and divisive rhetoric. This has certainly been the case in annual movement called “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Started in May of 2010 to protest violent responses to and censorship of images of the Prophet Muhammad in television and political cartoons, this movement was popular on social media, particularly YouTube. YouTubers protested censorship of the images by drawing their own pictures and posting them on the site. Although some videos included reasoned explanations for drawing the Prophet, others did not, and included incendiary images and language that not only attacked censorship, but used it as justification for insulting Muslims.

One of the purveyors of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” was the popular YouTuber Thunderf00t. In 2010, he posted a video titled “BURN MOHAMMAD BURN!!!!” which included not only an image of the Prophet, but footage of Thunderf00t burning the same image, in an attempt to equate burning images of the Prophet with the burning of national flags by “Muslims.” Thunderf00t’s videos provided an authoritative rationale for drawing Muhammad and he implored other users to act, arguing that the more people who made videos, the harder it would be for YouTube to censor them. Thunderf00t’s videos created a narrative that mixed opposition to censorship with inflammatory images and language about Islam. In this narrative, institutional powers, both religious and corporate, use the label “hate speech” as a tool to ban and censor language. Thunderf00t casts the struggle as one between “civilization” and “religion,” a struggle that required other users’ participation in order to save the former from the latter.

The movement has, however, also often turned into a way to justify inflammatory language about Muslims in general. This could be seen clearly in 2012, when Thunderf00t responded to the extradition of Saudi poet Hamza Kashgari. Kashgari had tweeted messages that were seen as insulting to the Prophet, and Malaysian authorities allowed for Kashgari to be extradited to Saudi Arabia to face blasphemy charges.

In response, Thunderf00t posted a video entitled “Youtube starts banning ‘religiously offensive’ videos,” using Kashgari’s story to decry what he perceived as censorship of criticism of Islam on YouTube. In the video, Thunderf00t draws an analogy between the Saudi government’s response to Kashgari and YouTube’s response to videos critical of Islam. He uses the Kashgari story to condemn a YouTube policy about “religiously offensive language,” arguing that users need to stand up to both religious and corporate censorship, which he purposefully conflates. The video remains one of Thunderf00t’s most popular videos about Islam, with more than 420,000 views, and shows clearly the processes that lead to his justification and encouragement of antagonistic language about Muslims.

The video begins with footage of Saudi Cleric Sheikh Nasser Al Omar, speaking about Kashgari’s case. In the video, Al Omar is presented speaking about insults directed at the Prophet, but breaks down crying as he denounces blasphemy. The clip lasts less than a minute before Thunderf00t’s voice comes in on top of the image of Nasser Al Omar sobbing. Thunderf00t asks, “So is this the new face of YouTube moderation?” Without giving context to Al-Omar, he is presented as a prototypical Muslim authority responding to criticism — Muslims cry and complain and call for censorship. Thunderf00t reinforces this negative representation of Muslims as seeking to censor others by playing a non-credited clip of an interview between Richard Dawkins and a Muslim man who claims that Islam will take over the world before saying that women in the West dress like whores and need to be “fixed.” Like Al Omar, there is no context given for the nameless Muslim man talking to Dawkins: both are simply “Muslims.”

The representation of Islam in the video is unequivocally negative. Thunderf00t edits clips of Muslims speaking in a way that supports both his claims that they feel entitled to the protection of censorship and that their views are irrational. The video of Al Omar weeping casts Al Omar as behaving like a child who has had his feelings hurt by something that is of no real consequence. For Thunderf00t, drawing Muhammed does not hurt anyone, only censoring the drawings does. Furthermore, by presenting Kashgari’s tweets as the trigger for the negative response, “hate speech” as a category is marginalized and disregarded as a legitimate concern. His message is essentially that if this is “hate speech,” then “hate speech” is a meaningless and useless concept.

The extradition of Kashgari is then seen as an implicit threat to any user of YouTube whose opinion could be viewed as offensive. The threat is not simply that the video might be removed, but that censorship could become violent action. Thunderf00t positions himself and his viewers as rebels opposing the powerful, both the religious (Islam) and corporate (YouTube). Importantly, “offensive” language and “hate speech” are again rejected as a legitimate category — Thunderf00t laughingly mentions burning “40,000 copies of the Koran” in a single video. By first presenting Kashgari’s messages as prototypical “hate speech,” it follows that any other talk labeled “hate speech” is also equally inoffensive. Burning images of the Prophet and the Koran are the same as Kashgari’s tweets and any negative response to them are as “irrational” and overblown as the negative response of Al Omar.

The cost of this storyline is evident in the responses that it garners, which include much more inflammatory insults. If, after all, in this view, offensive language can be nothing more than a couple of “vanilla tweets,” then any other “offensive language” is an equally inoffensive and positive action, one that resists censorship and promotes freedom of speech. All speech is rendered equal, and thus equally innocuous. Dangerously, the video not only lead users to mirror Thunderf00t’s video and appeal to YouTube to stop censorship, but to escalated, negative responses that perpetuate stereotypes and result in far more offensive comments about Islam in general and Muslims in particular. Commenters extend and exaggerate the message of the video, developing new insults that are no longer carefully hedged, but continue to operate under the justification of opposing censorship.

By reducing the argument solely to a perceived threat of censorship, the larger consequences of insulting Islam are marginalized. The response does not simply protest censorship, but rewards acting and speaking offensively, using “free speech” to not only justify but valorize antagonism and insults.

Insulting Muslims and using inflammatory language must be recognized for what it is, and not rewarded as fighting against an oppressive force. But activists like Pamela Gellar continue to dismiss accusations of “hate speech” as censorship, their actions escalate conflict, seen in much stronger insults like, “LIKE THIS RAGHEAD” and “Muslims are pure brainwashed idiots, what can you expect.” Thunderf00t’s video shows how the threat of censorship can quickly obstruct real discussion about how to respond to violence and conflict between beliefs. This discussion is much more complicated and requires the empathy clearly missing from these kinds of caricatures.

The answer isn’t, of course, to say that Thunderf00t or Gellar shouldn’t be allowed to speak. Instead, attention should be drawn to the effects of their actions, particularly on Muslims. Responding with violence, either physical or rhetorical, only perpetuates conflict. Social media has a unique ability to amplify and accelerate negativity, prejudice, and stereotyping. Whether burning an image of Muhammad or a national flag, the question is not simply “Should this action be censored?” but “What are the consequences of this action?”


Dr. Stephen Pihlaja is an applied linguist and stylistician researching and teaching at Newman University in Birmingham UK. His book “Antagonism on YouTube” investigates antagonistic debate between a small group of Christians and atheists arguing on YouTube, and investigates the role of metaphor in ongoing Internet “drama.”

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