Just because you don’t feel anything when someone offends you, doesn’t mean that it’s healthy – neither as an individual, nor as a member of society who silently advocates offensive speech. Furthermore, it definitely doesn’t mean you can expect the same reaction from others. Clearly, you can’t just tell someone to NOT be offended; that’s like telling someone who’s crying to stop being sad.
Let’s be perfectly clear: if Muslims were to just sit at home and not react, it wouldn’t make them any less offended, and that’s the key point I’m underlining. As long as people are offended, there are immediate social (obviously, who’s happy to be around others who offend them?), and indeed, psychological repercussions.
Psychological consequences of hate speech
Blatantly offending other cultures and belief systems, legal as it may be, logically impacts how we see each other. However, does offensive speech have any real world effects besides hurt feelings? Unfortunately, it does, and here are but a few articles I found raising this very same question:
· Mullen & Smyth (2004) have found that suicide rates amongst ethnic minorities in the US are “signiﬁcantly predicted by the degree of negativity of hate speech directed toward them.”
· Boeckmann and Liew (2002) found that hate speech directed at Asians resulted in extreme emotional responses and it had a depressing influence on their collective self-esteem.
· Leets (2002) found that hate speech towards Jews and homosexuals produced varying results but that, in general, “the overall short- and long-term effects suggest that the consequences of hate speech might be similar in form (but sometimes not in intensity) to the effects experienced by recipients of other kinds of traumatic experiences.”
Of course, it’s important to note that not all forms of hate speech is frowned upon in equal matter; indeed, islamophobia is often met with less sympathy than other forms of discrimination in public forums (Meer and Modood, 2009). Hence, compiling everything I just mentioned above, please note that hate speech towards Muslims is socially more acceptable than towards other groups, which may increase the psychological impact it has on this population.
Thus, based on this very brief review, I reiterate that hate speech has broad social and psychological impacts – for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
If not restricting free speech, then what?
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating restrictions on free speech (although they already exist, in more ways than many care to admit). Indeed, I believe the entire discourse on free speech is only fuelling the animosity between those that seek to limit it, as a result of potentially offensive material that may arise, and those that support it as a basic right and freedom. I personally don’t believe, as a society, we should necessarily have to entertain the thought of limiting free speech to promote respect and coexistence. If there’s anything the alcohol prohibition in the 1920’s has taught us, it’s that prohibition without conviction is useless. Indeed, conviction is essential; just as Aisha, the wife of the Prophet Mohamed, observed (part of a longer hadith in Bukhari, #515):
…Be informed that the first thing that was revealed thereof was a Sura from Al-Mufassal, and in it was mentioned Paradise and the Fire. When the people embraced Islam, the Verses regarding legal and illegal things were revealed. If the first thing to be revealed was: 'Do not drink alcoholic drinks.' people would have said, 'We will never leave alcoholic drinks'….
Thus, just as few would have complied if alcohol would have been prohibited in the early years of the Islamic era, one cannot simply impose restrictions without first developing an understanding as to why these restrictions should exist. In light of the way alcohol was forbidden in Islam, I believe it’s important to educate the population with regards to the adverse effects such offensive speech has on society, and to demonstrate how by offending a beloved person of 1.5 billion, regardless of who that person is, the consequences for the mutual coexistence in our society is jeopardized, and the psychological and social consequences are profound. Conviction is a prophetic means of changing a society, and it is unfortunately one that Muslims often neglect in our emotional uproar. Muslims should instead focus on demonstrating the beauty of Islam, the importance of coexistence, and the psychological and social dangers of senseless insults and hate.
As a quick side note, Muslims are often asked: “what if I have sincere and honest criticisms of Islam/Prophet/etc.?” No problem, Islam is not against intellectual criticism or critical dialogue. Indeed, Muslim communities should provide avenues in which people can voice their concerns of Islam, in a matter that promotes intellectual discourse. To anybody reading who has some serious contentions regarding Islam, I recommend you gather the courage to contact a local mosque in your area and raise your concerns; this will significantly promote the dialogue needed in this pluralistic society.
The take home message is that, as members of a society that is becoming increasingly diverse in its ethnic and religious make-up, our focus should always center on promoting mutual co-existence first before anything else. As such, we should establish proper avenues that facilitate dialogue - and earnest debates – with the intent of social harmony, while avoiding any rhetoric that would infringe upon that very goal.
Note (Oct. 22nd, 2012): Lewis262 of reddit raised the concern that some countries frown upon any and all intellectual criticism towards Islam. This is a valid point, and I would like to mention that my article is specifically referring to the North American (and by extension, Western, context).