Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Outer Limits of ‘Free Speech’

September 21, 2012 - Pakistan’s national day of reverence for the Prophet (pbuh) turned into a national day of shame when death and destruction reigned in Karachi, its largest city, just as it had happened there in the name of ‘justice’ earlier on May 12, 2007. The incidents left several dead and injured, though the demonstrations in most other cities remained largely peaceful. Has the cost of a human life become so cheap in Pakistan, or did it reflect the collective incompetence of the government, leadership and people, particularly the leadership for failing to harness the public anger and give a positive, constructive direction to the masses, or did some people have a vested interest in death and destruction to reinforce their credentials to power as the only ‘moderates’ who could be engaged or trusted, lest the heavens might fall!?

As the Nakoula Bassey Nakoula aka Sam Bacile video produced in the U.S. was not enough, a French magazine Charlie Hebdo put more fuel on the fire by publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), last Wednesday. These are two highly offensive, ridiculing and repugnant portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and Islam, and by implication all Muslims around the globe. It is ironic that the publication of these cartoons in France comes a day after the French magistrates issued an injunction with a fine on Closer for publishing topless images of the Duchess of Cambridge and a day before the Louvre Museum opened to public its new wing of the Islamic Art. It is even more paradoxical that the West would be conscious of the sensibilities of the royal families, particularly the House of Windsor of the United Kingdom and the House of Chakri of Thailand, and refrain from their disrespect or distasteful portrayal, let alone release of private photographs. Likewise, one really can’t say anything about God’s chosen people, good or bad. So it is a simple question that if one can’t be prejudicial to the royals or to God’s chosen people then how could one condone such derogatory acts against the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and Islam and their 1.6 billion followers? This is neither free speech nor a work of art, but a reflection of ill-informed minds. Prima-facie, its goal was/is to use imagery and the science of semiotics to provoke and enrage Muslims and create false stereotypes in the minds of non-Muslims, so as to instil hatred and Islamophobia.

In recent years, there have been repeated vile acts, done purposefully to debase the Holy Quran or the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) – highly revered by the Muslims in general, regardless of their commitment to religious practices or teachings otherwise. Any such action can therefore make a lethal cocktail with already festering domestic political systems, socioeconomic inequalities and inequities, and disillusionments and frustrations with the status quo. It is, therefore, extremely critical for the Muslim countries and their leadership to not commit a collective suicide by letting their own houses on fire. The best approach for an ordinary person in such a situation would have been to ignore such demeaning actions and ask/let their scholars, leaders and governments address the issue. But as love and fear are the key basic emotions and so hate and hope by inference, it is but understandable that a stimulus of affront, especially an affront to a deeply held cardinal belief, is likely to trigger a response, the severity of which may vary from person to person depending on each individual’s sociocultural milieu. So if there were a protest, it ought to be peaceful and civilized, not violent. This is what the Muslims must learn and better learn fast. Regretfully, there has not been a long history of dissent and civil rights movements in the post-colonial Muslim countries or kingdoms, and as a consequence most previous protests in the Muslim countries have been so disorganized and foolish that they ended up causing more harm to their own public properties, infrastructure and lives. The Muslims across the world have reacted to these latest acts of provocation, but it is vital to act calmly and sensibly with patience and reason. It is feared that any irresponsible violent actions could incite religious or sectarian riots within the Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, Bahrain, Iraq or Syria and derail the Arab Spring and the struggle for freedoms throughout the Muslim world, or may even necessitate deployment of foreign troops for security reasons in the foreign diplomatic missions across the Muslim world. The Muslims must learn from the gracious and magnanimous personality of the Prophet (pbuh) because it is not one’s beliefs alone but one’s behavior that makes one a good person. So while it is essential for Muslims to not get provoked, it is equally critical to seek a permanent solution to such recurrent provocation and hate speech and its reaction, but in a peaceful way.

The choices before the Muslim leadership are therefore clear. Since the public outrage, the leadership has been slow in articulating a meaningful and strategic response to the virulent publications in the name of free speech that have resultantly stirred up further Islamophobia in the West. The Arab Spring has taught us that the power is gradually shifting from the palaces to the streets, from the old media to the new media and from the old guard to the youth in the Muslim countries, and it is important that their leadership realized and seized on this shift.

It may be challenging but very helpful if the Muslim countries seek a UN resolution that would identify any defamation or slander of Islam and other religions as ‘hate speech’ and an offence punishable under law, as these are actions against religious peace and inter-faith harmony.  It is time that the international community defines the outer limits of free speech, not for a particular faith but for all faiths and above all for protecting the much-cherished Western principles of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Ridiculing a historically accepted portrayal of a religion or a Prophet in movies, caricatures, advertisements or other written or visual presentations should be a matter of political and social concern, because several people other than the party aggrieved can base their decisions upon such broad-brushed, vilifying information about certain people or groups of faith, which could have drastic consequences as, for instance, the conveniently forgotten Anders Breivik or KKK manifestos, or the Congolese, Rwandan, Serbian and Burmese genocides, not to forget the Sabra/Shatila massacre or the Holocaust.

It is even more challenging but extremely necessary for the Muslim countries to achieve economic self-reliance and technological progress, which would remain a mirage with the current state of their internal differences, particularly sectarian. An empty bag can not stand upright and an OIC Economic & Monetary Union can be the channel to give impetus to that much needed economic self-sufficiency and technological growth. Historically, the Muslims have not proved to be good financial managers and have chosen to live in a self-imposed dependence. Despite owning over half of the world’s oil and other rich natural resources, exporters of one third of world’s raw materials and significant overseas investments, only a quarter of the Muslim countries are democracies, most of these lie buried under external debts, and large populations within Muslim-majority countries remain disenfranchised or marginalized. Even if these economic strengths were used at a micro, bilateral or international policy level, a practical solution to such defamatory, slanderous, libellous or hate speech could be realized. It may be a curse of geography that one can’t choose one’s neighbours but one can surely choose where to hatch one’s eggs.

Ideological tolerance in both camps, East and West, comes with education and positive interaction. It is, therefore, naive to prescribe or condone a recipe of provocative and obscene speech, hoping that it might usher in the much needed mutual respect and tolerance. The right to free speech can not be unfettered and must be able to coexist with religion.


  1. Excellent. Please watch this 5 minutes doc, "Who is Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)?

  2. Double standards. In 2005, a French court had banned a clothing advert mocking Jesus Christ -- see