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Is Freedom of Speech Absolute?

One of the rights which civilized communities and societies agree that every individual must be able to enjoy is the right for freedom of speech. What exactly is freedom of speech and should limits be placed to this right? Is it an absolute right guaranteed for everybody?
It is natural and normal for human beings to carry opinions, beliefs, and convictions which may be influenced by environment, culture, experience, media, or propaganda.

We may share our opinions with our friends and give our two cents regarding different topics including social, political, or religious affairs. However, logic and common sense dictates that there are boundaries to the expression of opinions and crossing the limits of respect is one of these boundaries. Hurting the feeling of others and offending their faith are red lines that must not be crossed especially when it comes to the most valuable personal right to belief in your religion.

We may criticize someone who acts in an immoral way, we may criticize how immodestly a person dresses, and we may give our views about a political event or governmental jurisdiction. We may possess the freedom of speech in some countries to speak our voice and condemn a certain matter. However, when it comes to your personal belief in religious affairs and creed, it is an absolutely sensitive area which must be treated with care and caution. Sure, we may disagree with others in what they believe or what religion they follow. Nonetheless, there are limits to the freedom of speech when it comes to ridiculing or mocking the faith of others.

Many people around the world have defended the right of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to publish inflammatory cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (s) in the wake of the massacre by Takfiri extremists at its Paris offices and subsequent attack on a kosher supermarket in which three gunmen killed seventeen people. The debate about the limits of freedom of speech is ongoing and the consequences of crossing its limits are evident in the Paris attacks.

Recently, in regards to the Charlie Hebdo killings, Pope Francis said there are limits to freedom of expression, especially when it insults or ridicules someone’s faith. The Pope spoke about the Paris attacks on the way to the Philippines, defending free speech as not only a fundamental human right but a duty to speak one’s mind for the sake of the common good. He even drew an example to demonstrate his point, “If my good friend Doctor Gasparri [who organizes the Pope’s trips] speaks badly of my mother, he can expect to get punched,” he said, throwing a pretend punch at the doctor, who was standing beside him.

“You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit,” the Pope declared.

Free speech and a free press is neither the same thing, nor are they absolute values. Because of scope, scale and influence, the press has a far greater impact than an individual, and therefore has a greater responsibility to limit the offense they may cause. Both freedoms are always and already restricted anyway – by laws (of defamation, confidentiality etc.), by social norms, by their conflicts with other values (such as privacy or national security), and so on.

Those who have rushed to republish the controversial images have done so in the name of free speech, claiming that free speech is ‘non-negotiable’. Yet those same organizations have been critical of UK tabloids for printing stories in the name of free speech where it has violated other values, such as privacy, or failed to pass a public interest test, or where it is symptomatic of corporate power’s corrupting influence over politics and public life. Surely the recognition that free speech is a negotiable (and strategic) right in those instances undermines the claim that it is non-negotiable when it comes to addressing the offense taken at images of Prophet Muhammad (s), whether or not one agrees that their publication, or even republication, is justified.

In Islam, it is the creator of human beings, Allah (swt) who gave the right of speech to people and defined the limits on what is acceptable and unacceptable speech. The Messenger of Allah (s) said: “Whosoever believes in Allah and the Last Day, then let him speak good (khair) or remain silent.” There is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech and we cannot claim that we can say whatever we want, however we want, and to whatever extent we like. As human beings living in a civilized society, we must respect others in order to gain respect. Also, we must give regards to other people so that they give regards to us.

We cannot expect that our fellow neighbors respect our property if we are trespassing their property or throwing trash in their backyard. As Muslims, we cannot expect respect and regards to our sacred symbols and holy personalities if we make offensive comments or say insulting words about the followers of other religions. The same applies to all faiths and all devotees to any religion. We must act responsibility to everything we say and do. Treating others as we would like to be treated is among the principles of Islam. Everyone deserves and desires respect, and it is universal right that is acknowledged by every devout Muslim, Christian, Jew, and every sensible human being.

About Jerrmein Abu Shahba

Jerrmein, originally from Egypt and guided by the grace of Allah (SWT) to the truth path of AhlulBayt (AS), obtained her bachelors degree in Biology and masters in Chemistry. She contributed as a writer in the past for the Islamic Insights, AIM, Muslims4peace, and Voice of Unity magazines. Jerrmein volunteers as an editor for the al-Islam.org website, and translates Islamic literature.

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