Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Freedom & Decency 06-02-09

Freedom of Expression and Obligation to Decency

Mirza A. Beg
Written, Monday, February, 6th 2006

Al Jazeerah, Thursday. February 9, 2006
Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, February 12, 2006
Muslim Observer, February 10, 2006

Who will pick up the pieces when two fools collide?

A Danish paper wantonly goes out to gratuitously offend the followers of Islam invoking freedom of the press. The legitimate Muslim protests are being taken over by mindless extremists who think violence, intimidation, arson and even killing is permissible, insulting and injuring the religion they purport to defend. Let us consider the hypocrisy of both sides.

Freedom of expression, especially freedom of the press has been one of the cornerstones of the modern pluralistic democratic societies. They are enshrined in most constitutions.

Historical experience testifies that suppressing any speech can result in the suppression of all expressions contrary to the interests of those in power. Therefore to protect legitimate political dissent even reprehensible speech is protected. Often the rights to stupidity are less challenged than the right to hold the governments accountable. Horrible modern examples are the fascistic and communistic regimes of mid twentieth century.

Up to the first half of the 20th century ugly caricatures of Blacks in the US and Jews in many Western Christian countries were not only tolerated, but were rampant. The resulting Nazi holocaust jarred the West, leading to a well-deserved guilty conscience. Now the denial of Holocaust is a criminal offence not only in Germany, given its past, but also in Austria, France, Belgium, Poland and Switzerland. The result of the historic treatment of Blacks in the US has so shamed the nation that certain derogatory words have been expunged from the public discourse. In the US incendiary public speech about any particular group is considered a hate speech. Under certain circumstances it is illegal. These do circumvent the right of free speech, but evolving civil society considered it necessary to protect the freedom from the extremists.

Reprehensible incendiary speech that squarely lands in the column of bigotry need to be strongly condemned by the overwhelming sections of the polity, in order to protect the widest boundaries of free speech.

The dictionary definition of a bigot is - A person who holds blindly and intolerantly to a particular creed or opinion. The widely understood definition is- Bigots tend to generalize without exception, such as all Christians, all Muslims, all Jews, all Blacks are such and such.

Though they can, but media overwhelmingly exercises good judgement in the interest of the victims by not publishing names of the minors in some crimes.

It turns out that the right wing Jyllands-Posten of Denmark egregiously with the intent to offend published the cartoons. It may be their right to offend as many tabloids do, but those who understand and celebrate freedom of the press and civil society also had a civic duty to condemn it. On the contrary some newspapers in European countries that circumvent the right of some free but offensive speech, republished those offensive cartoons in the preposterous knee-jerk reaction claiming to defend the right of free speech. The Muslims correctly see it as hypocrisy.

It is important to remember that Western media is not particularly anti Islamic, it is often profane. In mid 1980s a Museum exhibited Andres Serrano’s Crucifix in Urine, or another painting in 1990s Madonna smeared with dung. Serrano had a right to do whatever he wanted in the privacy of his home or studio, but the exhibit was not only reprehensible by offensive and should not have been shown in a publicly subsidized Museum. In the movie “Last Temptation of Christ” Jesus was shown in a compromising position. A theater in Paris was burned resulting in one death.

It should not go unnoticed that the US and British governments as well as many European governments have condemned the egregious nature of those cartoons. The newspapers in the US and Britain as well as major newspapers in many European countries have not published them. Not because they were afraid, but because they decided not to fall in the gutter with the exploiters of free speech.

In the West in some quarters it is an open season on Islam. The widespread civil protest by Muslims is completely justified, as a long established civil right. The boycott of Danish products that subsidize the offending Danish paper through advertisements was a proper retaliation. But the rowdy behavior of some protestors is an insult to Islam and the prophet who lived and preached civility, consideration and the rule of law. Destruction of Embassies and deaths of innocent people is barbaric and against the tenets of Islam. If those countries do not prosecute to the fullest extant of the law they should be considered complicit. Prophet Muhammad and early Caliphs especially admonished the mistreatment of ambassadors.

The Iranian president is reported to have asked for the cartoons about holocaust in retaliation. Iran has many political grievances against Israel. But targeting Jewish calamity is reprehensible. If the reports are true, it does not insult the victims of holocaust; it only exposes his narrow minded, misplaced vindictiveness, and insults the tenets of Islam.

The Danish government could not have censored the cartoons under Danish laws, but an unequivocal condemnation of the bad taste would have gone a long way towards amelioration. The Muslim governments should protect the lives and property against lawlessness.

Let us hope and pray, “God protect us from our mindless friends, so we can understand our often misperceived enemies and break bread in peace to reduce animosity and enhance friendships leading to a better world.”

Mirza A. Beg can be contacted at

No comments: