• Issue 103 / January - February 2015

    The Problem with Hate Speech: An Islamic Perspective

    Daniel Hummel

    According to Webster's New World Dictionary, hate speech is, "speech not protected by the First Amendment, because it is intended to foster hatred against individuals or groups based on race, religion, gender, sexual preference, place of national origin, or other improper classification" (Hate speech, 2010, para. 1). This definition starts by clarifying that "hate speech" is defined as a violation of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution. The First Amendment reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances" (Bill of Rights, 2010, para. 1). There are some serious conflicts between what this amendment states and the definition of hate speech in Webster's dictionary.

    Hate speech is much like propaganda in that it targets specific audiences that are sympathetic to their message. Manjoo (2008) called this selective exposure. All one has to do is go to any discussion board posted by various hate groups to see that most people commenting there are vehemently opposed to some group without any counter-messages. Manjoo (2008) explored another related concept, selective perception. Hate speech can simply be an issue of perception.

    Manjoo (2008) describes how these different perceptions are actually a result of different beliefs and world-views. Manjoo (2008) described this phenomena with 9/11 conspiracy theorists such as Phillip Jayhan, whom he describes as harboring distrust for government. Manjoo, who described himself as having different beliefs than Jayhan, noted that, "as a consequence of his ideas about the world generally, he is naturally prone to seeing something in those pictures that I - as a consequence of my (Manjoo's) own vastly different beliefs about the world - do not (Manjoo, 2008, p. 75)."

    These dual truths can be considered a natural product of communication patterns, which Todd Kelshaw elaborates on in his chapter in the book by Shepherd, on communication perspectives. According to Kelshaw, people form meaning by communicating with each other. He notes a pushing and pulling process in communication in which truth or fiction is not necessarily the premise, but values are (Kelshaw, 2006). Kelshaw (2006) adds, "since everything we know is relationally made, relationships may be defined in this way: as negotiations of values that gird personal and social ethnical frameworks and - in effect - make us who we are in light of others" (p. 158).

    This definition of meaning through a process of communication adds a significant detail to this concept of selective perception. While Manjoo (2008) points out the stratification of the population into like-minded networks, values begin to develop as those individuals interact. What is apparently hate speech to others outside the group is considered normal discourse for those inside the group. When these groups attempt to spread out their message of hate, many of them might not even understand why their message is being opposed so vehemently.

    Dharmapala and McAdams (2001) present, in an economic analysis, the potential linkage between hate speech and hate crimes. The authors focus on the esteem theory in which motivation is based on fame, whereas the utility of committing a hate crime increases as this motivation increases. In this case, perpetuators of hate crimes are highly influenced by hate speech. The authors note that if individuals possess common prior beliefs, engage in Bayesian inference (the adjustment of beliefs/values in relation to evidence or observations), and are risk-neutral, than speech will likely not influence them. The paper notes that this is typically not the case where Bayesian inference is replaced by correspondence bias. This correspondence bias is akin to Manjoo's selective perception, whereas any contrary evidence is filtered through deeply held beliefs about the world. The authors backup their claims with various economic and psychological models not elaborated on here. The authors do conclude, "thus, even if potential hate offenders overestimate the number of hate crime approvers (as is likely), they will overestimate more in the presence of high levels of hate speech than they will in the presence of low levels of hate speech" (Dharmapala McAdams, 2001, p. 24).

    The link between hate speech and hate crimes is where hate speech becomes problematic. When speech induces an action that hurts others - whether through institutionalized prejudice or non-institutionalized prejudice - or provokes violent actions against the group the hate speech is directed against, than that speech should not be allowed and criminalization could be an option. The problem is that because the First Amendment in the United States is so broad on free speech, it is unlikely that hate speech will ever be forbidden or criminalized there. There are differences in legal approaches to hate speech and even cases of discrimination depending on the identity of the person involved in different countries. (Elgot, 2013). While free speech of some groups might be criminalized in a given country because of their lyrics and social media statements for conspiring to provide material support to terrorist groups (Muslim Legal Defense Fund, 2013), in another country a to-be terrorist could be allowed to reference to hate speech perpetrators as many as he likes (Daily Mail, 2011).

    In Islam, speech is not just words without ramifications. In 50:18 (al Qaf), the Qur'an says, "Not a word does he utter but there is a watcher by him ready (to note it)" (Ali, 2010, p. 354). The watcher is referring to the angels that watch over every living person and record all their words and movements to be used in their judgment (Ibn Kathir, 2013).
    Further, it is recorded from the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in which he states, "Let him who believes in God and the Last Day speak good, or keep silent; and let him who believes in God and the Last Day be generous to his neighbor; and let him who believes in God and the Last Day be generous to his guest" (Nawawi, 2013, website).

    In this verse and Prophetic saying, the Muslims are warned against saying anything that will cause them to be judged poorly in the hereafter. This speech most definitely includes hate speech. Islam recognizes the extreme harm that wayward speech can cause and includes injunctions against it. For instance, the Qur'an states (6:108), "Do not revile those whom they call upon besides God, lest they out of spite revile God in their ignorance. Thus have We made alluring to each people its own doings. In the end will they return to their Lord, and We shall then tell them the truth of all that they did" (Ali, 2010, p. 92). In this verse, the Muslims are told not to insult the deities of others because of the potential for it to lead to bigger evils than any benefit that may be received by doing so. Additionally, those insults tend to spread like wildfire, causing bigger ramifications than at first perceived (Kathir, 2013).

    During the time of the Prophet in Medina, harsh words of unbelievers were addressed to him and his community in different ways. One time, Abu Bakr, one of the leading Companions of the Prophet, entered a Jewish school and met Finhas, who was one of the respected rabbis there. Abu Bakr invited Finhas to Islam. Finhas retorted that God was poor, but they were rich so it is God who should submit Himself to them. This comment angered Abu Bakr to the point that he hit Finhas. Later when retelling the story to the Prophet, the Prophet received a revelation concerning the situation (3:186): "(So O believers, as a requirement of the wisdom in, and purpose for, your life of the world,) you will surely be tested in respect of your properties and your selves, and you will certainly hear many hurtful things from those who were given the Book before you and those who associate partners with God. If you remain patient (are steadfast in your Religion, and observe the bounds set by God in your relations with them) and keep within the limits of piety (in obeying God, and in your conduct toward them), (know that) this is among meritorious things requiring great resolution to fulfill." (Ishaq, 1967, p. 263. The translation of the verse is from Ali Unal, 2006).

    In this verse revealed about Abu Bakr and his exchange with Finhas, the Muslims are enjoined to be forgiving, patient, and forbearing with the words of those who do not believe in Islam. Ibn Kathir adds in his commentary that, "indeed, the Messenger of God and his Companions used to forgive the (polytheists) and the People of the Scriptures, just as God commanded them, and they used to tolerate the harm that they suffered" (Kathir, 2013, website). In the modern era, this advice is more than adequate when dealing with hate speech directed against the Muslims and the religion of Islam. When people insult the religion and its followers, Muslims are enjoined to forgive and bear these insults patiently.

    Bearing patiently and forgiving is also not an excuse for inaction. Responses to hate speech are to be measured with a strong foundation of forgiveness and patience, but it does merit a response. Hate speech and its potential negative effects have to be addressed either by calling attention to it through research, lobbying, providing counter messages and rallies, and legal actions, if needed.

    Unfortunately, hate speech is becoming more pronounced in the modern era. As fiscal crises continue to cause unemployment and economic hardship across Europe and the United States, people search for an easy scapegoat. In the past, religious minorities such as Jews were these scapegoats. Hate speech abounded decades and even centuries before the atrocities of the Holocaust in the early 20th century. This should cause some alarm amongst the Muslim minorities of Europe as far-right groups continue to emerge, spewing hateful speech mostly directed at the small Muslim communities there. Muslims are reminded to follow the advice contained in the Qur'an and hadith regarding this speech while seeking means to be involved in making their communities a better place to live for all people.

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    Bill of Rights. 2010. In The Charters of Freedom. Retrieved May 30, 2010, from
    Dharmapala, D. McAdams, R. H. 2001. Words that kill? Economic Perspectives on Hate Speech and Hate Crimes. U Illinois Law Economics Research Paper No. LE02-004. Retrieved from
    Elgot, J. (2013, June 26). Pamela geller and robert spencer banned from the UK by home office, due to speak at EDL Woolwich rally. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from
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    Manjoo, F. (2008). True enough: Learning to live in a post-fact society. Hoboken, New Jersey, John Wiley Sons Inc.
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    'We could have another Timothy McVeigh': U.S. authorities warned against anti-Islamic terrorism after Norway shooter 'inspired' by Robert Spencer and Unabomber. (2011, July 27). Daily Mail. Retrieved from


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