The Bridge Initiative is a quasi-academic, quasi-activist organization based at the Washington, D.C., campus of Georgetown University and sponsored by the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. It claims to provide “original and accessible research” and “engaging analysis,” but in fact it promotes Islamism and demonizes its opponents by tarring them with the label “Islamophobe.” Last week, it came out in opposition to free speech. The bridge is beginning to crumble.
Founded and directed by John Esposito (an apologist for Palestinian terrorism), the Bridge Initiative is one of the major American forces of the Islamophobia Industry. Bridge writers are quick to name hatred of Muslims and Islam as the motive behind any policy, opinion, or behavior they don’t like, and much of the media is content to believe and perpetuate it.
While it excels in ad hominem attacks, strong scholarship has never been part of the Bridge brand. Name-calling, defensive posturing, and shallow arguments are common fare. Witness its latest feature article, “Burning the Quran Is Not Free Speech.” Bridge has the audacity to promote this article as “research.” To call it sophomoric is an offense to sophomores.
Written by the associate director of the Bridge Initiative, Mobashra Tazamal, the brief essay completely misunderstands the meaning of free speech. Protecting free speech means protecting offensive, vile, and insulting speech. But Tazamal argues that free speech is predicated upon the intention of the speaker. A speaker whose intentions are malign (i.e., “Islamophobic” in this case) may not exercise free speech.
Thus, she writes that those who “hold deeply Islamophobic views” and who “aim to harm Muslims around the globe” are not “practicing their rights to free speech, rather they seek to provoke, harass, and incite hatred against a community that is already facing increased levels of hate crimes and discrimination.”
The author’s list of the violators of free speech include, “far-right personalities and politicians like Geert Wilders,” “Rasmus Paludan, a Danish far-right politician and founder of the far-right Stram Kurs party,” and other unnamed “far-right politicians who are unapologetic in their hostile and racist views against Muslims.” Only Salwan Momika, an Iraqi living in Sweden known for tearing pages out of the Koran in front of a mosque in Stockholm, is spared the “far-right” label. Tazamal argues that because these men “hold animosity towards Islam and Muslims,” their demonstrations are “hateful acts” and not free speech. She fails to see the subjectivity of her premise.
Tazamal makes no effort to contextualize Koran “desecration” or compare it to speech that followers of other religions deem offensive or hateful.
When Andres Serrano photographed a crucifix immersed in a jar of his own urine and called it art, was that not free speech? When Chris Ofili painted an image of Mary, mother of Jesus, using elephant dung, was that not free speech? How about burning the American flag? These are all examples of odious behavior, but also of protected free speech.
But, like all Islamists, Tazamal wants special treatment for her religion and its scripture. “The Quran is not merely a book,” she professes, adding that, “Muslims believe it to be the literal word of God.” Because Islam compels Muslims to “treat it with utmost respect and reverence,” Tazamal seems to believe that non-Muslims are also compelled to do so.
The most obtuse part of the obtuse argument comes when Tazamal denies that “free speech” is actually free. After reading 423 words identifying the “far-right” enemy, readers are treated to this bit of sophistry: “These representatives view free speech as an absolute, but that’s not the reality. Insulting the president or head of state in a number of European countries can land someone in prison.”
Apparently, it never occurred to Tazamal that anyone who could be imprisoned for insulting a leader is by definition not free to speak, and thus enjoys neither free speech nor freedom. She should have consulted Natan Sharansky and Ron Dermer’s “Town Square Test.” In The Case for Democracy (2004), Sharansky and Dermer write, “If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society.”
Tazamal also cites Holocaust denial, “illegal in many European countries,” as an example of something outside the boundaries of free speech, but the uniqueness of the holocaust makes it unfit for comparison. Also, she fails to acknowledge that Holocaust denial is illegal only in countries that carried out the Holocaust, or colluded with the nations that carried it out, or stood by and watched it happen without doing anything to prevent or combat it. Meanwhile, Holocaust denial is not illegal in free countries like the U.S. nor in very unfree countries like Egypt or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The argument ends as it began, completely misunderstanding the very idea of free speech. Because Koran burning is “a bigoted act that encourages hate crimes, incites hatred, and sows greater divisions in society at a time when social cohesion and understanding is needed the most,” she writes, it “is not an expression of free speech.” Protecting free speech is not about creating social cohesion. But of course, the Bridge Initiative is not interested in protecting free speech, but rather in imposing limits on it in the name of anti-“Islamophobia.”
It is tempting to dismiss Bridge’s latest piece of “research” as an inconsequential and foolhardy exercise, but it is exactly the kind of argument being made by Muslim majority nations like Pakistan and Turkey, and NGOs like the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Even the UN is undertaking efforts to confer upon Islam and the Koran special status that criminalizes criticism. That an American university is providing ammunition for such efforts is shameful.
The Bridge Initiative must be falling on hard times to promote such a weak argument as “research” and feature it so prominently. Esposito will need a team of structural engineers to repair the faults in his Bridge Initiative.
A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsburg-Milstein fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.