I’ve noticed something interesting about Western press reports on the protests over the “Innocence of Muslims” YouTube trailer. Typically, but perhaps surprisingly when you think about it, the protesters quoted in these articles do not simply, as one might expect, say that insults to Islam or its prophet are an outrage against the one true faith and must be forbidden because that is God’s will. They instead make a familiar—and in one sense secular—type of argument grounded in the (supposed) rights of individuals, the psychological harms purportedly caused by exposure to mockery of one’s deepest beliefs, and the ideal of respect for the equal dignity of others. In principle, this kind of argument does not depend upon the truth of Islam, and indeed, is not usually framed explicitly as being limited to that faith.
While any argument for squelching speech in deference to religious taboos is obviously “illiberal” in its content, there’s a narrow sense in which this kind of argument is formally liberal, in that it strives to meet the requirements of liberal public reason. It is not, in other words, an argument that depends on one’s sharing any particular comprehensive religious or metaphysical doctrine, but aims to present reasons that could be accepted by persons of any faith (or none).
There are, to be sure, many reasons these reports may not really reflect the attitude of most protesters. The people eager to speak with Western reporters may not be representative of the larger pool of protesters. The quotes chosen by reporters for inclusion in an article may not be representative of the pool of what they hear in interviews—precisely because they know arguments predicated on the truth of Islam will be wholly unconvincing to non-Muslim readers and want to present the “best” argument for that side of the debate. And, for the same reason, interviewees may be crafting responses that reflect what they think will resonate Western readers rather than their true beliefs. Certainly, there’s not a lot of evidence that governments in majority-Muslim countries are terribly concerned about limiting offensive and derogatory speech about other faiths. All that said, it seems like it’s got to be a healthy development that even many proponents censoring blasphemous speech so naturally adopt the language of liberal public reason for the purposes of public justification, whether sincerely or not. It’s so deeply embedded that we don’t even notice it in cases where it ought to be a little remarkable.
The problem for those proponents, of course, is that this argument fares pretty badly if we actually take the constraints of public reason seriously. Once you make your anti-blasphemy principle truly general, abandoning any reliance on the truth of the faith insulted, you’re pretty much forced to grant a veto on speech to anyone (any group?) claiming offense. That seems certain to make such claims more frequent, and to risk burdens on the speech of the faithful that far outweigh the benefit of having the offensive speech of others silenced—especially given the alternative, if the issue is offense to people rather than god, of not looking at online videos that offend you. The million dollar question is whether those who embrace the terms of public reason when attacking blasphemy will internalize its norms enough to actually accept a loss on those terms.