Last week, opponents of free speech had a great time in New York City.
During the annual UN General Assembly meeting, some Arab and Muslim leaders, including the head of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, took advantage of recent Muslim riots against a hyped YouTube clip denigrating Islam’s Prophet Muhammad to revive longstanding efforts to impose a global ban on anything deemed offensive to religion. According to the secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), it was now time for the international community to “come out of hiding from behind the excuse of freedom of expression.”
While the representatives of OIC member states took to the UN podium to demand restrictions on freedom of expression, one of the organization’s member states had the great satisfaction to see one of its nationals demonstrating right there in New York that there was always something to offend Islam.
Incensed by an ad in the New York subway that denounced violent jihad as “savage” and called for supporting Israel, the prominent Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy decided to register her objections to the ad. She did so, however, not – as one might have expected – by writing an article explaining her objections and her apparent identification with violent jihadis, but by seeking out one of the ten posted ads and defacing it with spray paint. A brawl ensued when Eltahawy encountered a woman who tried to stop her from defacing the ad, and Eltahawy was arrested and held overnight to face a criminal mischief charge in court on the following day.
Given that she has a large following on Twitter, it was hardly surprising that, as soon as the news of her arrest spread, her supporters started a campaign with the hashtag #FreeMona. It was then that it first became clear that Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood was pleased with Eltahawy’s actions: Ikhwanweb, which represents the “official opinions of the Muslim Brotherhood,” posted a tweet in support of the #FreeMona campaign.
When Eltahawy was informed about this after her release, she, in turn, seemed pleased enough to retweet it.
A day later, an Egyptian newspaper reported that President Morsi had instructed Egypt’s consul general in New York “to closely follow the case of Egyptian-American journalist and human rights activist Mona Eltahawy.”
Responding on Twitter, Eltahawy ultimately rejected Morsi’s concern, advising the Egyptian president that he had enough challenges at home and that there was no need to worry about her.
But apparently, Eltahawy didn’t bother to ponder the question why Morsi and the Brotherhood had been so eager to show support for her.
After all, she had made a name for herself as a “heroine of the Arab Spring” by being very open about the physical and sexual abuse she suffered when she was arrested while covering demonstrations in Cairo in November 2011. Half a year later, she caused a heated controversy with a feature essay in Foreign Policy magazine. Under the title “Why Do They Hate Us?,” Eltahawy asserted that there was a “war on women” in the Middle East and that “Arab societies hate women;” she also sharply criticized the views of the Muslim Brotherhood and its spiritual leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi on female genital mutilation.
While we can safely assume that the Brotherhood didn’t appreciate that at all, they were of course astute enough to warmly embrace Eltahawy now when she was acting in a way that was obviously very useful for the OIC’s efforts to push for restrictions to free speech.
Indeed, completely absorbed in her own breathless efforts to style herself as a latter-day heroine of the Civil Rights movement – helped along greatly by a truly disproportionate and uncritical media coverage of her “protest” that included an eight-minute segment on CNN International – Eltahawy proudly announced on Twitter that her act of vandalism had been vindicated: “Thanks to all who defaced those racist piece of shit ads: MTA Amends Rules After Pro-Israel Ads Draw Controversy http://nyti.ms/QY0KzG.”
This is of course exactly what Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz foresaw when he was asked by The Algemeiner to assess the revised advertising guidelines announced by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Dershowitz described the change not only as “clearly unconstitutional,” but emphasized that “it incentivizes people to engage in violence. What it says to people, is that if they don’t like ads, just engage in violence and then we’ll take the ads down. It’s very bad policy […] and it’s just plain dumb, because it is going to encourage violence.”
At the same time, she has so far avoided to use her freedom of speech and her many possibilities as a prominent writer to explain why she would take offense when violent jihad is described as savage, and why she is so outraged by Qaradawi’s views on women, but apparently unperturbed by his glorification of genocidal jihad against the Jews.
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This post was originally published in The Algemeiner. In the meantime, The Guardian’s Comment is Free site has published a piece by Mona Eltahawy, claiming: “If anti-Muslim ads are protected, so must be my free speech right to protest.”
Asserting once again that the ads she defaced were “racist and bigoted” and suggesting a “coincidental correlation” to various instances of anti-Muslim violence and verbal abuse hurled against her (who loves to hurl verbal abuse against others), Eltahawy fails again to explain why condemning violent jihad as “savage” is “anti-Muslim,” but she does repeat her identification as a #ProudSavage.
In any case, my headline here – “Mona Eltahawy claims victory for vandalism” – remains sadly appropriate. As a new Washington Post article by Jonathan Turley notes:
“Free speech is dying in the Western world. […] A willingness to confine free speech in the name of social pluralism can be seen at various levels of authority and government.”
Referring specifically to the “savage jihad”-ads and the change of advertising rules celebrated by Eltahawy as a victory for those who defaced the ads, Turley writes:
“Such efforts focus not on the right to speak but on the possible reaction to speech — a fundamental change in the treatment of free speech in the West. The much-misconstrued statement of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that free speech does not give you the right to shout fire in a crowded theater is now being used to curtail speech that might provoke a violence-prone minority. Our entire society is being treated as a crowded theater, and talking about whole subjects is now akin to shouting ‘fire!’”
Read the whole piece to see how far free speech has already been undermined. Turley concludes grimly:
“The very right that laid the foundation for Western civilization is increasingly viewed as a nuisance, if not a threat. Whether speech is deemed inflammatory or hateful or discriminatory or simply false, society is denying speech rights in the name of tolerance, enforcing mutual respect through categorical censorship.”