‘We Need to Educate Them’: Cyberlibertarianism, Democracy, and Information Freedom

Last Tuesday–not coincidentally, on some accounts, September 11–US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens was killed following an attack on the US Embassy to Libya in Benghazi. The attack, followed by others and by widespread protests against US and other Western diplomatic missions in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, is purported to have been set off by a low budget anti-Muslim film trailer titled “Innocence of Muslims” recently posted on YouTube by American Christian activists and associated with the radical Christian pastor Terry Jones, famous for burning the Koran.

At bottom, there is an issue here of some relevance for the political ideology of the internet. Many of us–in the West in particular, but also all over the world–make two connected claims about the impact on information distribution accompanying or caused by the development of the internet. On the one hand, we claim that the distributed nature of the internet represents a profound democratization of information, which sounds like it means the control of the people over the distribution of information. On the other, we see a widespread and often knee-jerk advocacy for “open” and “free” information often accompanied by a general libertarianism, even a cyber-libertarianism, that says that the only acceptable or even legible account of proper democratic control of information distribution is absolute freedom–or absolute freedom of a particular sort.

These claims or principles often work together, much as the capitalist free market and the free market of ideas appear to work together. Yet they conflict much more often than we want to admit. We in the United States, at least, believe that laws as enacted by our representatives and endorsed by the judicial system express our democratic will. Some of our laws specifically protect forms of information secrecy, especially for corporations and governments, and to a lesser extent for individuals (under the rubric of “privacy”). For a variety of reasons in these circumstances, many but not all of us will readily admit that the proper politics of information is not “everything must be freely available and distributed at all times.” Despite our rhetoric of absolute openness–and despite the occasional, paradoxical, and triumphalist proclamations of entities like WikiLeaks and its advocates–we do not in fact live in a world in which information is or ought to be freely distributed in an absolute sense.

The reason to raise this issue now is that in much of the discussion of the “Innocence of Muslims” trailer, we hear both that we in the US have an absolute right to create and publish such noxious propaganda, even if its only obvious purpose is to outrage those who don’t share our beliefs; that citizens of other countries must respect our beliefs about which information should be freely shared and which should not; and that the solution to this clash of belief systems is for us to “educate them” about “how free speech works.”

I am not writing this to endorse any sort of violence or in any way to condone the reprehensible attacks on the innocent (with regard to the “Innocence of Muslims” film trailer) diplomats who have been injured or killed in the protests surrounding this event. My point is to note that “democratic control of information” and “absolute freedom of information” are two different things, and that on the surface, the decision to rule out certain forms of representation as unlawful or illegitimate, whether we agree with it or not, precisely is democratic control of information.

This is of the places where cyber-libertarian ideology starts to reveal its covertly jingoistic character. Few doctrines are treated with more contempt in our culture than the aniconism of Islam (a parallel Jewish philosophy is much less frequently commented upon, no doubt in part due to the lack of both obscene violations of the prohibition against representation, and violent responses to those largely nonexistent violations), although the so-called Chinese “firewall” one of whose main purposes is not the suppression of dissent but the resistance to Western commercial images and values comes close. In both cases, it is hard to understand why only absolute freedom–or absolute freedom within the precise commercial and statutory limits described in the West–should be understood as the only reasonable information policy. On the contrary, the decision to endorse or allow some forms of representation and to disallow others would appear to be at the heart of any reasonable account of freedom of information.

anti islam film protests

A Muslim youth pauses near a poster during a protest against an anti-Islam film in Jakarta, Indonesia, Monday, Sept. 17, 2012. Indonesians enraged over an anti-Islam film hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta on Monday, marking the first violence in the world’s most populous Muslim country since outrage exploded last week in the Middle East and beyond. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Again, I do not endorse any sort of violence against information practices, and I do not mean to be suggesting that the virulent responses toward mocking portrayals of Mohammed constitute a “democratic” information policy.

But when we read that citizens of the Middle East “need to be educated” about “freedom of speech” as we understand it, I don’t hear the chimes of freedom in my mind’s ear: I hear the echoes of us telling them what to do. (I am also not surprised not to hear the comments by many American Muslims who must themselves feel very queasy about defending a free speech absolutism that violates a central tenet of their deepest religious belief system–do they need to be educated too?) I hear proclamations that they must accept our standards for the tools to work the way we want, and that our definitions of “freedom” and even of “the sacred” somehow trump theirs, and none of that sounds even remotely like freedom as I understand it.


For some background, here are comments from a Sep 13 piece in the Global Focus column on the Los Angeles Times titled “Islamophobia as free speech — a notion that escapes many Muslims,” where Carol J. Williams writes,

“Like anywhere else, there are informed, educated people who have traveled and have experiences with other cultures who are able to make a differentiation. That applies increasingly to the middle classes of the region, to the youth of the region who are plugged into social media,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and frequent visitor to Libya.


Among Egyptians and Libyans only recently liberated from authoritarian rule, the idea that Americans are free to express even outrageously distorted views “is really not understood at all,” said Isobel Coleman, a U.S. foreign policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Reflect on how well Americans understand, when they are reading about extremists overseas, how representative that is of those societies. The answer is that it is not well understood at all,” said Coleman. “The fact that Morsi is calling for prosecuting the makers of the film indicates he really doesn’t understand how our system works or that he is playing this naively.”

In an opinion piece published Sep 14 in the Indian FirstPost titled “Anti Islam video: Free speech at what cost?,” Seema Sirohi writes:

In the hyper-connected world where a film allegedly produced with Christian and Jewish money can arouse mob passions among Muslims a continent away and take lives, requires a rethink of concepts designed and established in an earlier age when information didn’t have to be contained, it simply stayed home. The sanctity of principles and the right to freedom of speech could be maintained and enforced by governments. Today sophisticated and grounded western concepts are hurtling headlong into societies much less educated and sophisticated, where the distance between religion and politics is often zero.


Free speech absolutists want the US government to assert First Amendment rights and not compromise this most sacred principle. But they don’t explain how a government is to protect its citizens — a task more sacred. In India, where incendiary messages recently triggered a widespread movement of peoples because they feared attacks, is struggling with similar issues although more ham-handedly than one would hope.

Arguing the primacy of freedom of speech, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine wrote: “I think the only response of the US government in these cases should be the following: “A private citizen has expressed a controversial view. If you disagree with that view, please take it up with him. The only responsibility the US government has in these cases is to uphold the person’s right to free speech. Free speech is a sacred principle of our culture and civilization.” One hopes governments have a wider view of their responsibilities than simply ensuring free speech.

It’s not accidental that Goldberg uses the word “sacred”; it’s the right word. What is sacred to us–or specifically the non-Muslims among us–is not necessarily sacred to them; that is the nature of diversity and respect. That representation of their major religious figure would be sacred does not seem to be mysterious or remarkable; what is remarkable is that we have such difficulty processing that sentiment with anything like the respect it deserves, including the respect we expect them to show for our beliefs–our “sacred” beliefs.

As Gillian Flaccus reports in “Free Speech, Religion Clash Over Anti-Muslim Film” (AP, Sep 19),

“Yes, we understand the First Amendment and all of this stuff,” wrote Khalid Amayreh, a prominent Islamist commentator and blogger in Hebron on the West Bank. “But you must also understand that the Prophet (for us) is a million times more sacred than the American Constitution.”

In “Top Muslim Calls for UN to End Free Speech” (WND, sep 19), Drew Zahn notes that “one of the world’s most influential Muslims … Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, a professor at King Abdul Aziz University in Saudi Arabi,” has petitioned the UN to place limits on freedom of speech with regard to anti-Muslim sentiments. It’s notable that this request does not differ tremendously from the reasoning used to prohibit–legally, but also in terms of civility–certain forms of so-called “hate speech” in the US:

“We ask everyone to ponder the ramifications of provoking the feelings of over one billion people by a small party of people who desires not to seek peace nor fraternity between members of humanity,” bin Bayyah wrote. “This poses a threat to world peace with no tangible benefit realized. Is it not necessary in today’s world for the United Nations to issue a resolution criminalizing the impingement of religious symbols? We request all religious and political authorities, as well as people of reason to join us in putting a stop to this futility that benefits no one.”


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