Experts weigh freedom of speech against religious tolerance

GARLAND, Texas -- After two men armed with assault rifles and poised to storm an event featuring cartoons of the prophet Mohammed were fatally shot by a traffic cop on Monday, many people talking about freedom of speech and whether it trumps religious tolerance.

That kind of violent exchange has happened before in the United States and across the world when one group disagrees with what another is saying about their religion, and experts say right now, there's more sensitivity around Muslim issues than ever before.

In the wake of the shootings, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn issued a statement which reads in part, "My thoughts and prayers go out to the entire Garland community and all those affected by last night's shooting. Quite simply, an attack on free speech is an attack on all Americans."

The Council on American-Islamic Relations released the following statement: "We reiterate the American Muslim community's support for freedom of speech - even bigoted speech – and its repudiation of terrorism in any form."

At the LBJ School of Public Affairs, the issue of free speech, especially when it comes to religion, is a common one.

"Religious issues are open to free discussion," said Jeremi Suri, the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs. "There's a long history of violence around Jewish issues, Christian issues and Muslim issues in our society. What happened in Garland is the demand for religious tolerance running against the demands for free expression."

Suri said he believes in this case, the group that organized the art show knew what it was doing.

"Legally, they were in the right. The question beyond that through is what as a society is the message we want to send, and I think we do want to send a message of tolerance and freedom, " Suri said.

Suri said right now, both sides in the Islamic religious debate want to make their voices heard. He hopes it will be done without violence.

"We should support the expression of opinions but we should encourage people when they express their opinion to do it in a way that is substantive but also sensitive," Suri said.

Suri also believes partisanship around this issue could encourage more violent behavior from both sides.


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