Freedom Of Speech Vs. Hate Speech: Usama Dakdok In Grand Forks

Freedom of speech is a highly-valued tenet of American law and custom, but when hate speech pops up like an ugly weed, parting the thicket of thorny issues can be painful: Free speech, hate speech, censorship, private vs. public, sunshine laws and religious bigotry among others.

Usama Dakdok spoke in front of a crowd of about 125 people on Tuesday night at the National Guard Armory building in Bemidji.
Usama Dakdok spoke in front of a crowd of about 125 people on Tuesday night at the National Guard Armory building in Bemidji.

Anti-Islam speaker Usama Dakdok came to Grand Forks twice. Generally speaking, Dakdok believes that “Islam is a barbaric, savage cult,” that President Obama is a Muslim and that Democrats are dumb. The first time Dakdok spoke in Grand Forks, he was met with picket-signs and protests and the second time with a counter-event taking place elsewhere at the same time.

Unfortunately, Dakdok’s second visit also prompted a city council member to call a meeting to talk about “efforts to clearly express that this is an inclusive and welcoming community” — a meeting that the press was originally explicitly not invited to attend. Fortunately for everyone except the lawyers of the parties involved, the press was allowed in to the meeting after all, so we got to hear the solutions proposed to the hate speech problem.

Many people have expressed their opinions on this issue. My opinions expressed here are mine, not those of the Herald, whose editorial on the subject can be found here, and not those of the city council member calling the (initially) no-press meeting, which can be found here.

Short version: I don’t agree with anybody.0904DakDokWb

0. I don’t agree with Dakdok.

1. The city council member, who writes “This was not about free speech.” The press was specifically uninvited because he wanted people at the meeting to speak freely, and while this is understandable its legality is extremely questionable under North Dakota’s highly stringent sunshine laws. But there is a question, and that means it is about free speech.

2. The Herald’s editorial, which states that “there’s not a darn thing Grand Forks should do about it.” I don’t agree with that at all. I think the best remedy for bad speech, including Usama Dakdok’s, is good speech. I would support another counter-event planned at the same time as Dakdok’s. I would support one comparing his “translations” of the Koran to real ones, or an event comparing the Koran to the Bible, the Torah and the Upanishads, or any relevant texts. I would support local churches pointing out that Dakdok does not reflect their own Christian faith, or that his work is doctrinally unsound.

3. The city council member, who suggested throwing a block party near any future speech of Dakdok’s, in order to make it impossible to park for Dakdok’s speech. To me, that would be inhibiting the speech of others.

4. Letters claiming that Dakdok’s speech isn’t hate speech. It really is. Calling Christianity a “barbaric, savage cult” is hateful; calling Islam one isn’t magically different because the target has changed. That doesn’t mean saying either of those two things is illegal, though. The government can’t prevent him from saying that, and it shouldn’t even try. Of course, he isn’t allowed to go onto private property, such as homes or businesses, and say it there, if the property owner decides otherwise.

5. Letters claiming someone is being censored if Dakdok isn’t hosted by the Empire anymore. The Empire cannot be forced to provide a venue to anyone who asks, and people cannot be forced to attend Dakdok’s presentation, either. Here’s a pretty good webcomic explaining this. Criticism of Dakdok is not censorship of Dakdok; he is allowed to say what he likes, but he is still responsible for what he says and he is not immune from consequences.

6. Letters claiming there were no consequences for Dakdok’s speech because there were no riots, deaths or property destruction afterward. Most likely people, especially white people born in America, did not see any consequences of Dakdok’s speech because none of them were directed at them. It doesn’t follow that there weren’t any. I didn’t see many negative effects from bigotry against Native Americans or Hispanic people either, because I’m white, so negative effects aren’t going to be directed toward me. Were there more people using slurs against Somalians after Dakdok left? Were there more people who will tell others what they heard, who will be violent or destroy property in their own communities? Were there more people who will try to shut the gates to desperate refugees afterward? All these are consequences. Whether they occur, and whether they are bad enough to worry about if they do occur, are valid questions, but claiming there were no consequences seems shortsighted to me.

7. I would not support deliberately holding an event in a nearby location to Dakdok’s in order to make it hard to find parking for Dakdok’s event. That falls under the category of attempting to squelch him, which I do not support. That’s inhibiting speech, not creating more speech to counter bad speech.

8. I would support the city politely asking the Empire not to host him–with the proviso that the city should not attempt to impose any penalties if the Empire hosts him anyway. The city is perfectly within its rights to ask; the Empire is perfectly within its rights to decline if it desires. Asking the Empire to decline hosting him doesn’t impinge on Dakdok’s free speech; he will just find a different venue, and there are many here in Grand Forks to choose from. Places like the Empire are not obliged to provide a venue to anyone who wants one.

4 Responses

  1. Carol W.

    I agree with your second point wholeheartedly. I encourage everyone to research Islam. Although I no longer live in Grand Forks, I love your city, and appreciate your current difficulty in grappling with a complex subject, not easily penetrated by Western audiences.

    I have lived just outside Washington DC for the past 20 years. My study of Islam began September 12, 2001. At that time, my nearest library, Chantilly Regional, in one of the largest public library systems in the country, and an incredibly well-funded one, had very few books on Islam per se, vs. conflict-specific books. Things are somewhat better now.

    From what I can glean reading the GFH online, Usama Dakdok’s speech is shaded by his firsthand experience as a Coptic Christian growing up in Islamic Egypt. There’s a sizable settlement of Coptic Christians in northern Virginia. My daughter works with an Coptic woman who fled Egypt after Mubarak was deposed. She recounts 25 Coptic Christian churches were burnt to the ground in one night alone. No one in her community felt safe.

    One of the first things that strikes me about Dakdok and the city’s concerns, is a town/gown difference of expression. He speaks in what I call the ‘vernacular of the peasantry,’ (no, I don’t think he’s a peasant!) about a painful subject. Most Americans have little exposure to Islam, except from melodious, well-modulated NPR-speak of the media. Also, discourse between work or school friends, in stores, etc. is subtly modulated now by a tightly controlled speech code, so hearing someone state beliefs emphatically, in a political-correctness-get-stuffed-manner can be shocking. Although you have a thoughtful understanding of Dakdok vs. the Empire Arts Center, you are no where near understanding Islam.

    An excellent start to historical Islam is from Dr. Bill Warner. From his website: “Bill Warner holds a PhD in physics and math, NC State University, 1968. He has been a university professor, businessman, and applied physicist. He was a Member of the Technical Staff in solid-state physics at the Sarnoff Princeton Laboratories in the area of integrated circuit structures…For eight years he was a professor at Tennessee State University in the Engineering School. Dr. Warner has had a life-long interest in religion and its effects on history.”
    His You Tube piece:

    Some books I recommend highly (in the order I read them)
    1. “Among the Believers,” by V.S. Naipaul 1981
    When I wrote what I thought was a simple review of this book (shortly after
    the end of the Iranian hostage crisis, 1981) for the Dakota Student, the DS
    received a letter with 12 signatures by Muslim students, objecting to my
    daring to approach this complex subject. In hindsight I see they were right

    2. “The Looming Tower,” by Lawrence Wright 2006
    This book earned Wright the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction 2007.
    I, and many others, contend this is THE best historical analysis to date
    recounting the complex background of most of the players involved in the
    2001 World Trade Center/Pentagon/Shanksville, PA attacks

    3. “While Europe Slept,” by Bruce Bawer 2006
    After George W. Bush was declared the winner of the 2000 election, Bawer
    and his homosexual lover moved to Amsterdam, to escape what they
    perceived to be impending Christian fundamentalist backlash against
    homosexuals. He bravely shares the error of this judgement as they
    discovered what’s really happening in Europe. They were confronted with
    brutal Islamic extremists bent on ridding the world of non-Islamic sanctioned
    love. Very eye-opening

    4. “Willful Blindness,” by Andrew McCarthy 2008
    McCarthy was the top federal prosecutor of the perpetrators of the first
    World Trade Center attack in 1993. Sentient, profound observations about
    the power of the chief defendant, the Blind Sheikh to influence Muslim
    witnesses in the courtroom.

    5. “The Grand Jihad,” by Andrew McCarthy 2010
    McCarthy was the first writer I’d read to address the ‘how’ and ‘why’
    so many American communities are carving out exceptions for
    Muslims (less than 1% of the population) to policies previously for the general
    public, and why this is dangerous.

    In between these 5 books I’ve read nearly 60 other books on this subject, and I’ve still barely scratched the surface.

    “An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.”
    -Thomas Jefferson

    1. I wouldn’t go to a guy with a doctorate in physics and math for information about a religion and history. I would likely go to someone with expertise and education in those subjects instead, such as someone with a doctorate in religion, philosophy, history, or even ministry.

      Currently Dakdok’s ministry is affiliated with Baptist beliefs, according to its website, but yes, I agree it’s likely his upbringing in Egypt influenced his beliefs.

      I think I know plenty about Islam, actually, but that wasn’t the topic of this piece, nor is it really relevant. If he said the exact same things about Christianity (and by being selective about what evidence you provide, anyone absolutely could say the exact same things about Christianity and be just as accurate) I could make the exact same arguments.

  2. Carol W.

    I agree with your post’s points #2, 3, 5, 7, and 8, and appreciate your thoughtful analysis and insight into your reasoning. But I am surprised by your declaration in point 4. that what Dakdok said at his talk was “hate speech.” I guess you have to define hate speech. Anything said that disparages another group? Even if true? The very purpose of the category, ‘hate speech’ limits freedom of speech.

    Islam is quite relevant to this blog post about freedom of speech because the media treats it differently. Christianity is maligned by the courts, the media, public education, all facets of modern life. Yet when someone spoke publicly in Grand Forks warning about Islam, 200 people showed up-to protest. Can you seriously imagine anyone showing up to protest a comparable person warning about Christianity?

    This following link is about what’s happening in Europe when Islam is criticized:

    1. Calling a thing “hate speech” doesn’t limit speech in any way. All it does is let others know what you think about the content. Freedom of speech is absolutely not freedom from criticism, nor is it freedom from consequences.

      Also, quite a bit of what Dakdok said was demonstrably false, starting with his declaration that the president is a Muslim.

      And yes, I think significant numbers of people would turn up to protest hateful speech against Christianity in Grand Forks, judging from similar criticism online.

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