Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined the so-called Paris March in the aftermath of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo Shootings. Although these leaders of democratic nations joined millions to protest violence against free speech, even as Muslims around the world decried the publication’s disrespectful depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, the two appear to believe insulting the Turkish President is a far more serious matter worthy of censorship. In allowing German citizen Jan Bohmermann to be prosecuted for insulting Erdogan , Merkel undermines free speech while encouraging Erdogan’s campaign to consolidate power and crackdown on critics at home.
Civil liberties, including freedom of speech, are supposed to ensure no one will face legal consequences for saying something that offends others. Any law or government that fails to respect this fundamental principle degrades the very purpose of having civil liberties. Because government scrutiny is at the heart of democracy and “free speech” ensures government officials face scrutiny, the idea that someone would face jail time for insulting a government official is thoroughly undemocratic. Citizens of democracies may not enjoy the protection of their governments and their civil liberties when in foreign lands, but they are always entitled to those protections within the free world.
While Merkel has pledged to draft legislation that would make the Lèse-majesté laws "dispensable in the future," she should be doing everything in her power to ensure Mr. Bohmermann does not face legal consequences for his satire. Quite frankly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel should use the Bohmermann Scandal to impress upon President Erdogan the importance of free speech and why no one should face prosecution for insulting a government official. Unfortunately, the Peoples of the Muslim world already do not seem to understand the importance of free speech. As such authoritarian-leaning leaders like Mr. Erdogan need taught the difference between slander and insults.
In the United States, the First Amendment protects the freedom of speech and press; however, it does not protect harmful propaganda campaigns designed to suppress alternative perspectives nor does it give Americans the right to slander and degrade other people. The First Amendment does not give Americans the right to abuse public forums by misrepresenting facts and the statements of others, using fear to incite panic to influence the outcome of public debates, slandering people with opposing viewpoints, and acting disrespectfully. What the First Amendment does is provide a large scope of protections to ensure government does not pick whose opinions are heard and what is said.
Oppressed by their leaders, Middle Easterners have little to no real experience with free speech. When Muslims see depictions of their Prophet Muhammad, which are intended to disrespect their way of life, they experience the dark side of free speech against the backdrop of Western leaders preaching the virtues of free speech without condemning the disrespect. Facing ridicule, these disenfranchised individuals find themselves pushed beyond their ability to tolerate mistreatment, which they equate to free speech in such cases. Consequently, the Muslim world needs leaders like Erdogan and Merkel to demonstrate why free speech should be protected, not suppressed with threats of jail time and lawsuits.
Democracy can only be sustained as long as the freedoms of individuals are protected. Whether discussing minorities disenfranchised by the majority or the majority disenfranchised by powerful, special interest minorities, civil liberties and human rights must be supported to limit the power of government. The failure to defend the civil liberties of one is a failure to defend the civil liberties of all. This is particularly true when it is inconvenient or offensive to do so. For the sake of ease and self-interest, it is tempting to simply reason away the rights of others, or even deny their existence, yet the failure to defend the freedoms of others undermines the freedoms of everyone.
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