How much thought do everyday Americans give to their First Amendment rights? For the majority, censorship is seen as something inherently alien, associated with repressive regimens abroad. Freedom of speech is considered to be inseparable to the very meaning of being an American or a citizen of the "free" world.
However, the attack last week on famed novelist Salman Rushdie revisits a rather pertinent question: What is the best way to define free speech in America? Does it imply we can voice or publish whatever, wherever, or whenever we want no matter how inflammatory, incendiary, undermining and polarizing the message?
In its definition of free speech, USCourts.gov maintains freedom of speech does not include protections for obscene materials. When broken down, the obscene encompasses words like indecency, vulgarity and crudeness.
It is for this reason that images like swastikas and public executions on the evening news are not considered tolerable expressions of our First Amendment right to free speech.
Salman Rushdie has undoubtedly gained fame and notoriety as an outspoken atheist and secular humanist. Rushdie self-identifies as a "hard line atheist." However, is he also an equal opportunity one? To paraphrase Rushdie when called out on his Islamophobia, he responded: No, it is unfair to label Islam violent, but to my immediate knowledge, no writer has never gone into hiding for criticizing the Amish.
As a Muslim American, I cannot resist wondering: Has Rushdie criticized the Amish in the same way he criticizes Islam and Muslims? Rushdie's magnum opus, "The Satanic Verses," is arguably best described as a work caught somewhere between religious romanticism, pre-Islamic mythological allegory and new age metaphysics centered on the duality of man.
Every character in his seminal novel carries equal capacity to be the protagonist in a subplot of the greater narrative, where the story line imagery never seems to leave the Judeo Christian-inspired Garden of Eden.
If Rushdie really wanted to prove he is in fact not an Islamophobe, why did he limit his focus in "The Satanic Verses" to Islam? Why not develop the work into a multivolume trilogy equally targeting Christianity and Judaism the same way Rushdie targeted and subsequently attacked Islam?
Could the author that wrote "The Satanic Verses" write a novel on a Jewish concentration camp inmate coming of age by assuming the identity of an SS commander because one night he received divine revelation prophesying Hitler as the long-lost messiah who would deliver the chosen people from their corruption due to hidden knowledge of Hitler's paternal Jewish ancestry?
Had Rushdie written such a distasteful novel, would we continue to hail and cherish his work as championing free speech in the free world? In a sociocultural reality where any ounce of criticism weighted against Israel is instantly considered anti-Semitism, such a plotline seems unimaginable, as it should be.
A very real double standard is alive and well in America and the West. Some groups and ideas are touchable, but others are not. From Rushdie's standpoint, as a leading influencer in an otherwise "free" society, is it truly responsible to incite backlashes from people when exploiting free speech to attack important beliefs, teachings and traditions held sacrosanct by 1.8 billion Muslims in the world?
Has "The Satanic Verses" assisted in furthering dialogue to bridge disconnects with the Muslim world specifically and the Global South generally and help it to modernize and emerge out of the developmental backwater? Or has it produced the opposite effect? How can one engage distinct groups of people when antagonizing them simultaneously?
As a free society, we share a civic responsibility to use our First Amendment rights to build bridges rather than reinforce divisions if we have any hope in restoring "defamatory equality" and justice in speech and press freedoms.
We do not tolerate anti-Semitism; therefore, we should not tolerate Islamophobia.
Omar Alansari-Kreger, of Richfield, is a Muslim American activist and writer.