A few months back my criticism of the Islamic State reached a point many felt had obviously crossed a line. In response to a movement my friends began in Beirut, Lebanon, I made two videos (Part 1 and Part 2) where I burned the ISIS flag. My videos and the videos my friends made were quickly picked up by major media outlets, where I was quoted in the New York Post:
“I call on everyone to show their contempt for ISIS,” self-avowed atheist Rayan Zehn of Norfolk, Virginia, said in his own video, in which he burned a printout of the flag. “Go ahead,” he added. “Burn the f–k out of a symbol of both ISIS and Islam.”
(Censorship of the word “fuck” theirs, not mine).
At the end of the first video I also added, “Fuck Islam.” Surprisingly, I only faced a major backlash for this statement in the comments section on the Youtube video. The real backlash occurred simply because I burned the ISIS flag. I can say anything I want about Islam, and I’ll only be yelled at and maybe receive a death threat or two. But if I dare to burn the ISIS flag, which contains the most sacred saying in Islam — the Shahada — then I’ve stepped way over the line and even Western Muslims begin a campaign to censure me.
I’ve kept this under wraps because I didn’t want to say anything that might undermine my efforts to protect free speech at my university. But the dust settled long ago, and I’ve come out not only as the victor but also with newly recognized respect from the university itself, which recognizes the intrinsic value of free speech.
The problems began when a Muslim student and personal friend of mine (perhaps paradoxically, we’re still friends; friendship has nothing to do with personal opinions, as long as we respect each other as people) saw the videos and confronted me. He brought a local Imam to meet with me and urge me to remove the videos. I told them I was expressing an idea and that they could both freely and legally express an opposing idea that condemns my idea.
So they did… well, kind of.
A group of Muslims at the university attempted to bring me up on disciplinary charges for 1) violating their freedom of religion and 2) fostering a hostile environment for Muslim students. Of course, this is not what I had in mind when I told them to publicly criticize me. And I was quickly surprised to see a small group of non-Muslim students taking their sides (these are students who changed their minds after the Charlie Hebdo attacks). This is what happens when you have an organization made up of students who still believe they can make a positive impact on this world and that respecting people’s religious ideas is necessary.
Thankfully, the university practically completely ignored these students. I faced no charges. I faced no disciplinary hearings. No one even came to me and asked me to tone my actions down. The university’s position was clear; the freedom to criticize ideas — even deeply held religious ideas — was a necessary component in a properly functioning higher universal education. To censure or punish me simply because someone doesn’t like something I said or did is to undermine the university experience. But still, I feared the situation might make it more difficult to further my career.
A month prior to making the videos, I applied for acceptance into a very difficult modeling and simulation program funded by the US military and NATO in the most advanced political science M&S research center in the world, which happened to be built on my university’s campus. Certainly the videos and the publicity around them, particularly amongst our own students, would be a difficult hurdle to overcome when choosing who to accept into this program.
I had my heart set on it. I’ve been active in qualitative research analysis for years, and I was excited that a program would open up locally that would allow me to expand my analysis skill set into cutting edge M&S and quantitative research. I spent many nights wondering if I’d made a huge mistake by posting those videos.
In the end, however, the public backlash against my videos was completely irrelevant. Not only did the school refuse to even shake their finger at me for burning the Shahada, they still felt that my works were compelling enough to grant me entrance into the metaphorical (and perhaps literal) future of political science.
Now granted, if I worked for a private firm, my free speech would be less important. I don’t necessarily think all my readers should feel they can say whatever they want and get away with it. Free speech is only protected by the state. Your job is free to fire you if you say something that brings discredit upon the company’s image. But still, this experience can be chalked up as a victory for free speech and a loss for those who attempt to dismantle it.