The Freedom to Be Racist? How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism

The Freedom to Be Racist? How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism

The Freedom to Be Racist? How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism

The Freedom to Be Racist? How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism

Synopsis

We love freedom. We hate racism. But what do we do when these values collide? In this wide-ranging book, Erik Bleich explores policies that the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and other liberal democracies have implemented when forced to choose between preserving freedom and combating racism. Bleich's comparative historical approach reveals that while most countries have increased restrictions on racist speech, groups and actions since the end of World War II, this trend has resembled a slow creep more than a slippery slope. Each country has struggled to achieve a balance between protecting freedom and reducing racism, and the outcomes have been starkly different across time and place. Building on these observations, Bleich argues that we should pay close attention to the specific context and to the likely effects of any policy we implement, and that any response should be proportionate to the level of harm the racism inflicts. Ultimately, the best way for societies to preserve freedom while fighting racism is through processes of public deliberation that involve citizens in decisions that impact the core values of liberal democracies.

Excerpt

On September 30, 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve illustrations of the prophet Muhammad, ranging in style from straightforward depictions, to humorously intended caricatures, to menacing portrayals. This act set in motion a chain of dramatic events that unfolded over the next several months. Within Europe there were marches, law suits, hate crimes, and death threats. In the wider Muslim world, foreign ministries protested and citizens demonstrated in the tens of thousands, some burning Danish flags or embassies, others losing their lives in the process. Why did the Jyllands-Posten print these cartoons, and why did they generate such a heated response?

The publication’s editors and supporters viewed the act as a blow struck for freedom of expression and against self-censorship by those fearful of upsetting the Muslim community. In his spirited defense of the decision, the newspaper’s culture editor Flemming Rose cited the difficulty a children’s book author encountered in finding illustrators for a work on the prophet Muhammad. He also complained about the withdrawal of a Tate Gallery installation depicting the Koran, Bible, and Talmud torn to pieces, and about pressure by Danish imams to gain more favorable coverage for Islam in the national press. Critics of the Jyllands-Posten countered that the illustrations were at best insensitive and at worst overtly racist. One depiction in particular—which portrayed Muhammad with a bomb embedded in his turban— seemed to symbolize and to demonize Muslims as a whole by implying that they stand for violence and terrorism. At a January 2006 conference in Qatar, former U.S. President Bill Clinton called the cartoons “appalling,” asking rhetorically, “So now what are we going to do? … Replace the anti-Semitic prejudice with anti-Islamic prejudice?”

At the heart of this debate lies a fundamental dilemma for liberal democracies: how can we balance the core values of preserving freedom while limiting the harmful effects of racism?

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