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Free Speech and Double Standards

Sayyid Muhammed RizviIs freedom of expression absolute and unlimited? Can a person write, say, draw or paint whatever he or she likes? Or are there some limitations on that freedom?

Sayyid Muhammed Rizvi

A major mark of distinction of humans over other living things is the ability to speak. Speech is, after all, the most precious gift that God has given to our species.

In Islamic logic, humans are described as “the speaking animal” and creatures in general as “the silent animal.” Through speech, we can communicate with one another and articulate our ideas and feelings. Writing and drawing are dimensions of human ability to express his or her ideas and thoughts.

Is freedom of expression absolute and unlimited? Can a person write, say, draw or paint whatever he or she likes? Or are there some limitations on that freedom?

While speech is the most precious gift given to us, it also has the potential of hurting others. The key to success in character-building is achieving that proper medium in various virtues. When it comes to the virtue of speech, you have to train yourself “to think before you speak” and not “to speak before you think.” This becomes even more important when you write or speak as a public figure.

No right exists in vacuum; it is always coupled with an equal level of responsibility. In the words of Imam Ali, “A right is very vast in description. … It does not accrue to any person unless it accrues against him also, and right does not accrue against a person unless it also accrues in his favour.” In many civilized societies, saying or writing something that incites violence against an identifiable group, especially a minority, is illegal. Similarly, to defame a person’s reputation is also illegal. Britain, for example, restricts the right of free speech on grounds of national security and prevention of disorder.

Restrictions and limits are put on statements that hurt the sensibilities of certain groups in the West. Britain also has a blasphemy law which bans defamation of the Christian God but not of other faiths. Nonetheless, many European countries as well as Canada forbid questioning or denying the holocaust.

In this backdrop, it is indeed very sad to see that the Europeans have no respect or any regard for Muslim sensibilities. Muslims’ religion, culture, and their Prophet may be defamed in any way they like–all in the name of freedom of expression or free speech. They seem to ignore the present reality that France and Germany have millions of Muslims, and that Bosnia, a Muslim country, is as European as Spain or Croatia.

Lack of respect for Muslim sensibilities was first visibly felt by the French ban on hijãb in public institutions and then the Danish cartoons.

Let it be stated clearly that Muslims do not question the right of any writer or speaker, who adapts academic methods, to criticize Islam and Muslims. Articles, books, and speeches critical of Islam and Muslims are published at all the times. Caricaturing Muslims, even clerics and political leaders, is also common. But you never hear the Muslims protesting against them.

However, the Jyllands-Posten Danish cartoons were not of an academic nature and the fact that they were insulting is also beyond any doubt, especially those portraying the Prophet of Islam as a terrorist. They strengthened the subliminal stereotype in Europeans’ minds that Islam is a religion of violence and that Muslims are terrorists.

In the post-9/11 environment, it was surprising to see a relatively balanced reaction shown by the western political leaders at the time of this occurrence.

Muslims have been truly hurt by the portrayal of their Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny) as a man who promotes violence. The Prophet is the example par excellence of a perfect human being. Every aspect of his life is a role-model for Muslims.

The Prophet Muhammad is the spiritual father of the Muslim community and, naturally, no faithful child will tolerate the defamation of his or her father. So the reaction of the Muslims in the form of peaceful protest marches is very natural. And there is no law which disallows this kind of protestation, more so when we find out that such defamations were not done by mistake.

To judge the Muslims’ reaction by the current Christian attitude of not reacting against caricaturizing Jesus is nothing short of cultural imperialism.

Of course, use of violence, burning buildings and vehicles as seen in some of the protest rallies that took place is not acceptable and has been rightly condemned by all senior religious and political leaders.

The point to ponder in this entire sad episode is that no sense of remorse or apology was forthcoming from Jylland-Posten and the Danish government nor was any condemnation issued by the western political leaders until after mass protests started in the Muslim countries. The balancing act of defending the “absolute freedom of expression” and of the “responsible freedom of expression” only came about after Muslims started protesting. However, Danish Muslims’ protest in Denmark had no impact whatsoever on the newspaper which printed the article.

It is important to understand that the Muslims are not a bunch of lunatics who started expressing their anger right away. Initially, the Muslims in Denmark confronted this problem locally in a peaceful manner. Only when the newspaper as well as the government ignored their complaint, did they go outside Denmark to seek support from fellow Muslims.

This clearly shows that Muslims are not just a bunch of over-sensitive people who go around protesting at everything. Only when they realized that their sensibilities are not respected in the same way as the sensibilities of others, did they feel oppressed by the double standard of Western democracies–and the oppressed have the right to complain.

About Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi

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