Free speech, religious violence, and constructivism

Constructivism is an approach to IR that focuses on the mutual constitution of structures and agents, or, in other words, the constitutive effects of intersubjective understandings. Its focus on the socially constructed nature of the world around us claims to provide valuable insights of change in the international system: “For constructivists, stability is not presumed …” (Jackson and Jones 2012: 111). In the wake of recent violence in the Middle East, and its representation of what seems to be a repetitive conflict between values of free speech and respect for religious belief, I thought it would be interesting to think about this along constructivist lines. I think it is particularly interesting because of the ‘stability’ of the conflict, by which I mean not only its persistence, but the way its iterance’s seem to repeat in much the same way.

First, no matter its seemingly intractable nature, the relationship of enmity between extremists in both the US (especially) and the Muslim world (especially predominantly Islamic countries), from a constructivist perspective at least, is not a necessarily fixed and stable fact. It is instead a result of ongoing, albeit mediated, interactions between the two groups. While these interactions may reinforce the relation of enmity, or they may change it, it seems so far that they keep being reinforced (perhaps giving credence to the Clash of Civilizations thesis?). At this point it should be noted that the antagonists in these two groups both exist in broader social structures, which in turn interact at an even broader level. Thus there is a real difficulty in using a constructivist approach for this issue, considering their interactions with each other are significantly mediated. However, it may still be fruitful to look at the issue through the norms involved.

Thus, I think, there are at least two ways to look at this issue from a constructivist perspective. First, and probably most ‘traditionally’ you could look at the way states contribute to making the institutions and norms of international life, which in turn to contribute to defining, socializing and influencing states. From this perspective we would look at the way the conflict in question is mediated by states, and other significant international actors, of which I would include some Islamic leaders who, while not being heads of states, nonetheless influence international relations. The right of ‘free speech’, in this respect, becomes something either defended or attacked, generating flow-on effects that may or may not influence and change the next iteration of what seems a perennial issue.

The second perspective would bypass statist mediation (although it would, of course, not be completely removed) and try focus on how the conflict manifests as a direct confrontation. It would thus look at the way the different social contexts involved responded to the stimuli of information which reflects upon specific groups’ appreciation of their respective values. I’m not sure how much constructivism works like this, ‘below’ the statist level, as it seems it still focuses on ‘state identity.’ (I make this presumption from reading about constructivism in the recommended texts published respectively by Oxford and Cambridge). But it seems to me that we have two relatively distinct sub-national groups in conflict over normative ideas, the ramifications of which are felt in international relations.

From this second perspective, we might like to think about why large groups in a number of Islamic countries resort to violence when their prophet is denigrated by individuals and groups from Western countries, who then resort to their right to ‘free speech.’ While accepting that conflicts are often manipulated by political entrepreneurs, it can be pointed out that conflicts about values are more prone to violence than conflict over resources (Hasenclever & Rittberger 2000). There are three reasons for this. Firstly, values are about group identity, thus threatened values represent an existential threat. Secondly, the use of violence is therefore morally justified. The defence of a framework that determines right and wrong, just and unjust, is part of the groups identity; those who attack it appear outside this framework and thus forfeit their right to non-violent treatment. Thirdly, value-based conflicts become violent because protagonists believe that compromises are impossible (Hasenclever & Rittberger 2000: 652-653). Having noted the centrality of values to groups, and their seemingly intractable nature, the question then becomes, is constructivism a helpful approach to studying value-based conflict? After all, these values are unlikely to change, and thus conflict is likely to persist. But then again, we shouldn’t expect their values to change, but just how they respond to others insulting their values, right?

So perhaps ultimately we are talking about state identities, in particular whether states are democratic or not. Crawford (in Jackson and Jones 2012: 109-110) argues that there is a relationship between norms of violence and (deep) democratic norms: “Democracy is an institutional arrangement and a set of attitudes and beliefs that create the opportunity to deliberate, to argue. And if we are to argue fairly, with some hope of coming to an un-coerced understanding with one another, we must renounce violence and threat of violence…” While the example I am referring to is not a dispute to be resolved, the inference is that if democratic norms were established in Islamic society it would be less likely that residents there would resort to violence. Take the example of the response to the video in Australia. While there was still some violence, it was considerably less than in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. Furthermore, Crawford states that “the renunciation of violence as a means to any ends except defence is as much a cornerstone of democratic institutions as its widely recognized counterpart, freedom of expression…” Accordingly, without democracy, Islamic groups, not just fundamentalists (although they may be mobilized by Islamic elites who are also fundamentalist), are always likely to respond to denigration of their beliefs with violence.

I would just like to finish off with some final questions, and then an idea (which I think I’ve been trying to get to through these rather winding thoughts). Are these interactions between devout Islam and the freedom loving West ever likely to change the fundamentalism of (especially) the US’s claim to the freedom of speech? Does the violence surrounding these interactions have the potential to change Western people’s perspectives on their right to unconditional free speech? The fact that there are plenty of people in the West who claim that free speech shouldn’t be unconditional is perhaps a part of this constructivist movement. Perhaps we could actually see a constructive movement towards democratic ideals in Muslim countries if the West comes in a little bit from its own form of fundamentalism? Because if neither the West nor Islamic societies change their stances then this conflict is likely to persist.

If I were to speculate about such a dynamic, it might look like this. If the West, the US in particular, moved in from its unconditional defence of free-speech, then Islamic societies would have less of a need to resort to violence. Having to resort to violence less often would help reduce familiarity to violent recourse. Resorting to violence less often would then help with the project of strengthening democratic norms. The strengthening of democratic norms would include the right to free speech, and once this is established in Islamic countries, well then the US can have its precious right to say whatever it wants.

Hasenclever, Andreas, and Volker Rittberger. “Does Religion Make a Difference? Theoretical Approaches to the Impact of Faith on Political Conflict.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 29, no. 3 (2000): 641-74.
Hurd, Ian. “Constructivism.” In The Oxford Handbook of International Relations, edited by Christian Reus-Smit and Duncan Snidal, 298-316. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus, and Joshua S. Jones. “Constructivism.” In An Introduction to International Relations, edited by Richard Devetak, Anthony Burke and Jim George, 103-18. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.


3 comments on “Free speech, religious violence, and constructivism

  1. henning says:

    Sai, I also think that the debate on free speech is quite a dynamic one, but not just in the West. The question of what the right of ‘free speech’ entails is certainly not clear-cut in Western democracies. In the U.S., free speech principles do not allow the government to limit speech based only on content of the speech. They can limit speech in a context that directly intimidates specific individuals, and even here the debate is ongoing as to where the line is to be drawn. Other democracies, e.g. Canada and Germany, have laws against speech that is biased against racial, ethnic, and religious groups, even if no specific intimidation is demonstrated.1

    But also many (if not most) non-Western countries allow some degree of freedom of speech and I would refrain from pitching the free West against the despotic rest. I find the notion that Islamic groups in general, not just fundamentalists, are always likely to respond to denigration of their beliefs with violence problematic. Yes, there have been mass protests and thousands, though at times only hundreds or dozens, of people on the street, but I don’t believe they are representative of a majority. I further don’t think that non-Western societies have the monopoly over violence; our society, though definitely benign compared to the mayhem we see in places like Afghanistan and Sudan, is rife with violence, which suggests that many of the values that guide our co-existence are at times only moderately entrenched in our social fabric. Certainly also in our society values frequently clash, though this rarely involves multiple deaths, probably thanks in large part to a functioning rule of law and the accepted state’s monopoly over violence (here’s to Guantanamo and all baton-battered demonstrators in Spain and elsewhere).

    There’s an ongoing debate on whether the right to freedom of speech should be absolute or whether it should be conditional also in view of other values and norms. Julianne Schultz suggests “the right needs to be balanced against the damage that its unfettered exercise may cause”, suggesting that an absolute right could be toxic and “does not turn the level of civilisation up”.2 Indeed, if we belief the common good, as well as justice and diversity, to be fundamental beliefs of a democratic society, I dare say also many in the West lack a comprehensive appreciation of what a democratic society should aspire to. A recent article in the Jakarta Globe suggests that it’s not America’s free speech laws and values of openness that are in question, but the way how they are applied, as it’s difficult not to read a double standard into how some values are celebrated while others conveniently ignored at times.3

    I would also take issue with the notion that values are unlikely to change. Certainly social changes initiate an adjustment of modalities governing affected societies. How else could we speak of democratisation – isn’t that just the reflection of societies practising democratic values? James Dorsey recently argued that the recent protests also initiated debates in the Middle East on the role of religion in politics; on how Muslims should respond to blasphemy and the limits of freedom of expression – not only in view of mockery originating in the West but moreover based on the experience of the difficult relationship between Islam and the state in places like Tunesia. The protests further triggered demonstrations against militant Islamists as well as stimulating government initiatives and efforts by religious authorities to engage constructively with the West. Many Muslims in the Middle East also wonder why some fanatics loose their marbles over a 13-minute film but remain silent in view of the state-sponsored massacres of Muslims in Syria.4 The radicals might be losing the little legitimacy they built up throughout the war on terror. The changing dynamics in many Muslim societies might be due as much if not more to domestic social change and less to external efforts to democratise the region.

    1 Douglas Clouatre, Hate Speech. In: David Schultz and John R. Vile, eds, The Encyclopedia of Civil Liberties in America, Vol. 2. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference, 2005, p.445-447.
    2 Should we have an absolute freedom of speech?: THE QUESTION, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 March 2011.
    3 Free Speech ‘Red Lines’ Feed Muslim Film Rage, Jakarta Globe, 25 September 2012.
    4 James Dorsey, Impact of Anti-US Protests: Healthy Change in the Muslim World, RSIS Commentaries No. 179/2012, 25 September 2012.

    • saitongbor says:

      Henning, I agree with everything you say! You’re quite right that it’s an extremely complicated issue, and one that I did not do justice to. Let me apologise for generalizing so much. What you have here is, in a sense, my working. I was generalizing so as to get at the idea I had in my head, and I feel I may have been misinterpreted because of it. I will now try and clarify the general point I was trying to make, and respond to your points so I can salve my conscience.

      First, I was really just trying to make the argument that if individuals and groups actions and reactions are socially constructed, it would be ‘constructive’ if people did not abuse their right to free speech (in those countries where they have it).

      Second, the right to free speech is definitely not clear cut, for example some European countries, such as England, have hate speech crimes. However, I don’t think the video in question would be subject to them if they existed in the US, one of the most common places where acts that upset a problematic group of Muslims originate from.

      Third, I definitely did not mean to imply that violent acts in response to such inflammatory stimuli in any way represent societies in general. Hence my caveats that those mass protests that sometimes turn violence are often (perhaps more often than not) the result of manipulation by political entrepreneurs.

      Finally, I understand that values change. I should have been more specific. I was meaning to refer to the right to free speech, versus the Islamic belief that their Prophet should not be denigrated. I think that as far as those values go, while having the potential to change, they are most likely some of the more persistent ones. Also, I was trying to say that these values do not necessarily have to change to be helpful in reducing violence (although I am obviously saying that free speech should be moderated). If placed within a ‘deep’ democratic framework, people should be able to keep their values (as long as they don’t contradict democratic values, of course).

      P.S. I completely agree that many in the West lack a comprehensive appreciation of what a democratic society should aspire to. Crawford, in the piece I referenced (Jackson and Jones), talks about Aristotle’s conception of democracy as embodying the quality of friendship. In such a spirit, I leave you with the quote from Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics:

      “Friendship seems too to hold states together, and lawgivers to care more for it than for justice; for concord seems to be something like friendship, and this they aim at most of all,…and when men are friends they have no need of justice; while when they are just they need friendship as well, and the truest form of justice is thought to be a friendly quality.”

      If only we could all just be friends…

  2. henning says:

    “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival” (C.S. Lewis) or, as Tom Waits would have it, “Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends”.

    It will be interesting to follow the repercussions of this latest episode of ‘clashing cultures’ and more interesting even to get an idea of the debates unfolding in predominantly Muslim societies. To me the most interesting question in this debate is really to what extent free speech should be (formally) moderated. Moreover, we might have to ask ourselves the question whether and how democratic values can at times contradict each other…

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