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Keith Ellison on freedom of speech: "It's a good and bad thing" [INTERVIEW PART 3]

Ellison: "There are people in America who would ban Islam if they could."
Ellison: "There are people in America who would ban Islam if they could."

As the first Muslim elected to Congress, Keith Ellison often serves as an Islam spokesman of sorts.

Last week was especially difficult in that respect, as violent protests erupted across the Middle East in response to an anti-Islam film trailer published on YouTube.

SEE ALSO:
-- Keith Ellison: "Let's say that the war on drugs is over" [INTERVIEW PART 2]
-- Keith Ellison on Chris Fields: "He should be ashamed of himself" [INTERVIEW PART 1]
-- Michele Bachmann's Keith Ellison comments: Media criticized for "unconscionable" headlines

In the penultimate installment of our interview with the congressman, we asked Ellison how he makes sense of the anti-America wave that crested with the attack of the American embassy in Libya, and about how he reconciles the right to free speech with the reality that "speech" like the anti-Islam film can have deadly consequences.

-- On what he makes of the recent Libya embassy attacks that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens --

First you have to understand what is actually happening. There were literally millions of people calling for Mubarak to step down. In [the case of the embassy attack], you have hundreds, not millions. What you see is the religious extremists and the regime loyalists engaging in counter-revolutionary activity. That's what it is.

We shouldn't look at this and say, 'Oh my God, what did we do wrong? We're messing up again.' What we should say is, 'we support the democratic movement emerging in the country.' We shouldn't get chased out. They are cooperating, [Libyans] denounced the violence. March 'til the tips of your shoes wear off, but do it peacefully. The U.S. government didn't do any of that, we aren't getting chased out by some counter-offensive.

[The embassy attacks and pro-democracy protestors] aren't the same people. They aren't any more the same than tea partiers and occupiers. A person in a foreign country might see the occupy movement, and see the tea party, and say 'They are all Americans doing this.' They are all Americans but they don't have the same point of view...

And so, we have to understand what we are looking at. We aren't looking at democratic movements, we are looking at extremists and ex-regime loyalists and in the case of Egypt, soccer thugs, yes, soccer thugs. A group called The Ultra, look them up, they are soccer thugs. If there's glass breaking they want to be there, and that's how they are.

This is why what Romney's doing is so bad, because he hasn't taken the time to understand. He would run the risk of alienating people who are truly on our side, on the side of democracy and freedom. In Libya, there are people holding up signs saying they apologize, talking about how much they loved Chris Stevens.

-- On the civil war in Syria and on how America should be involved, if at all --

The Obama Administration has done a lot in Syria that they don't get credit for. There are reports now and then of the CIA being on the border, but they don't want to be seen neck-deep in another Middle Eastern war.

People like McCain say we have to do more there -- I personally think we need to set up a safe zone on the border of Syria and if the Assad regime breaks the line of the safe zone, it should be defended militarily. It should be for the express purpose of providing medical assistance and refugee help, and we should explicitly say we aren't here to aggress against you.

-- On the free speech issues raised by the anti-Islam film trailer that sparked last week's Middle East protests and attacks --

Well, let me see that not only is freedom of expression a constitutional right, it's deeply rooted in American history. But other countries don't have that same heritage. They just don't.

 

I believe that the movie is not in the heartland of what we call political speech. I believe that when we talk about political speech, [we're talking about] people who are making controversial but perhaps legitimate points of view based on their interpretation of some set of facts. This particular movie wasn't in that realm. This was what I would describe as 'incitement.' But, for a democratic society like ours, incitement is kind of a problem.

Ellison ascribes last week's anti-America Middle East unrest to 'religious extremists and regime loyalists.'
Ellison ascribes last week's anti-America Middle East unrest to 'religious extremists and regime loyalists.'

Most of the time, political speech, even if wrong or ill-advised, it invites a counter-argument and in the course of the back and forth maybe society learns an even greater truth. The clash of ideas is the sound of freedom, right? I might pull out an idea, maybe it's good, maybe it isn't. 'Maybe blacks should be able to sit anywhere they want on the bus' -- I think that's a fine idea, let's do it. So if you ban somebody because you didn't like it you would foreclose debate and not reach higher truth.

This isn't that type of speech. It is incitement. But, given our constitutional heritage and our culture, we don't have any good way to deal with it. Let's face it, there are people in America who would ban Islam if they could. I'm not joking. So what's the answer? There's only one. The only answer is that people of good will and good faith have to use their constitutional right to free expression to condemn incitement. Trying to craft a bill or statute to ban it is nearly impossible without banning some other type of speech that may be legitimate. I think it's crappy for the guy to have [created the anti-Islam film]. I think it's despicable actually but it's like when people want to burn a Koran.

What legitimate point of view is that? It's like Nazis marching to incite Jews in Skokie. There's no way to stop them from doing it, so I don't think there's any way to have a rule to ban the kind of incitement contained in that movie.

[But] we aren't helpless. Speaking up on a more powerful truth like saying all faiths should be respected, you don't have to like their faith but you shouldn't be openly antagonized. You see Coptic leaders denouncing this film, you see Jews, Christians, Muslim leaders, it's more powerful than just banning.

[It's like Don Imus] calling the Rutgers' women's basketball team 'nappy-headed hos.' It's the right of the private employer to take him off the air, the right of the listeners to demand that the speech was wrong and then [the employer] to say, 'I don't want to be associated with that.' The best thing to do would be with this movie, Koran burning, Nazis marching, is for people to say you have a right to do it but you're wrong.

A lot of foreign leaders don't understand. Nasrallah [leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah] said if [America] was really against the film, you'd ban it. Actually, no, you're wrong about that, but you don't understand this country.

Nasrallah doesn't understand that as a law abiding person he'd be able to practice Islam more freely in American than anywhere else in the world. If you are a Shia Muslim in Saudi Arabia, life is going to be hard. A Sunni in Iran, life is going to be hard. If you want to wear a religious [emblem] in Turkey, tough times. France, they want to ban you from wearing religious symbols. In Switzerland you can't build a mosque with a minaret on it. The thing about it, freedom of speech, it's a good and bad thing. It applies to everybody. Once you start making exceptions, you start the erosion of the principle.


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