This man's trial on charges of encouraging young US Muslims to hate what he believes the US stands for, and possibly to act on that hatred, is likely to define the limits of freedom of speech for Muslim opponents of US policy in the contemporary US. There is a lot to think about here.
The government and the defense seem to agree that Ali Al-Timimi didn't commit any terrorist acts against people in the US (or anywhere else) but he certainly said some condemning and hurtful things about this country. He's accused of saying that the 9/11 attacks meant that the time for Muslims to train for violent jihad had come; apparently "in 2003, he celebrated the crash of the space shuttle Columbia in a message that prosecutors say reflected his view that the United States itself should be destroyed" according to the Washington Post.
Defense attorneys acknowledged that some of Timimi's statements constituted "very obscene and offensive speech,'' …
"Some of it, frankly, rises to the level of hate speech,'' defense attorney Edward B. MacMahon Jr. told the 12-member jury. "Remember, he has a First Amendment right to have these opinions. You don't have to agree with him to realize he has a right to free speech. Ladies and gentlemen,'' MacMahon added, "that's the truth. Muslims around the world believe the United States is their greatest enemy.'' Washington Post, April 4, 2005
But, but, but…"He is not accused of anything except talking. It's all about him saying something," said Shaker Elsayed, a member of the executive committee of Dar Al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church. "If this isn't a First Amendment issue, I don't know what is."
Can the Feds really put someone in jail for inflammatory speech? Well, we've heard about the case of the crowded theater -- and that limitation makes some sense. But what about speech that is merely fairly conventional fundamentalist fire and brimstone, albeit from an unpopular minority?
Amir Butler, executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee, argues this is the right way to understand Al-Timimi.
In many respects, the reaction of the Bush Administration to Islamic fundamentalism resembles the case of the child with a hammer: every problem is a nail. However, the tragedy is that by conflating Islamic fundamentalism with Muslim extremism, the Bush Administration has hindered and obstructed the only people in the Muslim world who are able to successfully engage the extremists in the ideological war: the scholars.
Butler contends that an intelligent approach to Islam would distinguish between puritanical fundamentalists who repudiate Western social values but are not terrorists and the Muslim extremists who wreak havoc primarily in Muslim countries, only infrequently carrying their indiscriminate war to the US. He asserts: "It is possible that the United States might be able to kill its way to an abatement in extremist-orchestrated violence, but it will never be able to win a war declared against Islamic fundamentalism no more than the Islamic extremists can readily win their war against the nostrums of the secular West."
But can fundamentalisms -- totalizing religious systems that admit no truth-bearing rivals -- co-exist without war? And are those of us who do not accept the hegemony of any of them just passive roadkill in their contests?
The authors of the US Constitution aimed to build a secular society, in which the state established no religion and religions in turn were free from the interference of the state. And they aimed to build a democracy by ensuring the right of (originally) male, white persons, (later the rest of us) to speak our minds freely. They saw these measures as goods in themselves, but also as the building blocks of federalist, pluralist survival in what was already a quite diverse polity.
In US history, when the country has for one reason or another been afraid, these building blocks of pluralism have been threatened. There were the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, attempts to proscribe anti-slavery speech before the Civil War, Prohibition of alcoholic beverages which imposed the moral notions of one faction on the whole country, Senator McCarthy's persecution of political enemies through hysterical anti-communism -- and now fear of terrorism, concurrent with the political rise of home-grown Christian fundamentalism.
This bad stew endangers Mr. Al-Tamimi (who may indeed be a hating person, though it is darn hard to tell from media accounts) and it endangers all of us. And threading our way through the maze of real dangers will take real thoughtfulness and some courage.
Mr. Butler, the Australian Muslim quoted above, has his own brave prescription drawn from a context where 'hate speech' laws are being promoted to protect Muslim rights. "Faced with offensive speech, the most appropriate responses are to ignore it or correct it. If we create an atmosphere where people cannot speak freely - however offensive that speech might be - it is impossible for these ideas to be appropriately repudiated or debunked in the public square."