Freedom of Speech

Why does the Muslim world expect to be treated as an exception when it comes to free speech, asks Kunwar Khuldune Shahid

Freedom of Speech
Freedom of speech has become a major talking point in the Muslim world since the Rushdie Affair in the late 1980s. Since the phrase has such a positive ring to it, everyone from the mullahs to the hippies seems to be all for freedom of speech, albeit after the addition of their preferred asterisks. No asterisks needed for anti-blasphemy calls though, which is but a subset of freedom of speech – for obvious reasons, of course.

tft-5-p-24-bA reverberation of the Rushdie affair was witnessed in September 2012, when ‘that’ YouTube video enraged Muslims enough to force them to burn their own countries causing over 50 deaths, with around 700 people being injured. Freedom of speech again took centre stage, and thenceforth everyone condemning the video gave their mandatory ‘support’ to free speech by saying that freedom of speech should exist but (insert whatever they personally deemed offensive) should not be allowed.

This ‘but’ or the aforementioned asterisk basically defeats the whole concept of freedom of speech, and maybe we all need a tutorial in how free speech works.

Once you ban criticism of any particular ideology, or forbid any statements that might be offensive for a particular group you’re curbing freedom of speech. It’s rather obvious actually, when you say that something cannot be questioned, criticised or mocked, there obviously isn’t any freedom to say whatever one might want to say.

This does not, however, mean that there is any compulsion to adhere to the ideals of free speech. If one believes that religious sentiments should be protected from the flipside of freedom of speech, one has every right to believe so. But then one can’t simultaneously be the torchbearer of free speech. More crucially if one’s free speech asterisks protect whatever one finds offensive, and only that, obviously this inconsistency and double standard would make a mockery of any claim for freedom of speech. And eradicating these double standards is something that the Muslim world needs to work on.

This is not to suggest that the West has perfected the art of freedom of speech. Far from it.

UK has a ban on abusive and threatening speech. Australia does not allow speech that is offensive or humiliating to groups or individuals. Canada and Denmark ban anything that is dubbed insulting or degrading. Germany doesn’t allow speech which “maliciously degrades or defames” a group, and of course bans Holocaust denial as well. While in the Netherlands deliberately insulting a particular group is a criminal offense.

Even the vanguard of freedom of speech the United States of America has exceptions to its freedom of speech clause, which revolve around the concept of “hate speech”. If the Supreme Court deems that any speech would lead to “imminent hate violence”, it has the right to ban it. This basically leaves freedom of speech at the mercy of the US Supreme Court’s interpretation.

[quote]At least the West's contradictions are consistent[/quote]

Since everyone is putting a “hate speech” asterisk on free speech, no one can claim to have perfected it. And since the concept of “hate speech” does not, and cannot, have a universal meaning, the double standards would continue to exist – at least in the near future.

What the US dubs “hate speech potentially leading to hate violence” is your average Friday sermon in Pakistan, and what Pakistan dubs “misuse of freedom of speech” is a harmless academic debate in Europe. Hence, for the time being consensus with regards to the concept of “hate speech” seems to be a bit idealistic. Consistency while peddling freedom of speech, however, should be more realistic.

Around the time when the YouTube video was busy enraging the Muslims, the West’s ostensible double standards regarding free speech came into question after Britain banned a pregnant nun ice cream advertisement, since it hurt the religious sentiments of orthodox Christians. People seem to have forgotten the fact that the UK and the US are two different countries. And the “freedom of speech” clause of the American constitution that allows criticism of religion does not exist in the British common law – no Bill of Rights, or Constitution, in the UK. It means that UK won’t allow advertisements that mock Islam either. In fact the collective British reaction to the recent Maajid Nawaz cartoon controversy reveals how they might just be too accommodating towards the Muslims. Ditto for Germany that has dubbed Holocaust denial illegal. The Germans don’t allow religious insults as well.

Whether all forms of “hate speech” should be a part of “freedom of speech” or not is another debate. What the Muslim world can learn from the Western asterisks is that even if they contradict the core concept of free speech their contradictions seem to be consistent. If there’s a ban on mocking religious sentiments, all religions are shielded. If provocative speech against a particular group is forbidden, all kinds of minorities are protected.

Juxtapose this with Saudi Arabia that bans minorities from constructing places of worship, and does not even allow non-Muslims to enter the two Holy cities. Or let’s look closer to home, where our constitution defines who can and can’t call themselves a Muslim; where Ordinance XX debars Ahmadis from reading Islamic texts and where mainstream “entertainment”, and school curricula is brimming with bile against Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism. Similar inconsistencies are ubiquitous in the Muslim world.

[quote]There is an argument that the right to offend is also a part of freedom of speech[/quote]

There is an argument that “hate speech” or the right to offend is also a part of freedom of speech, but of course the Muslim world currently is light years away from reaching that point of deliberation. Erasing all asterisks from freedom of speech, or reaching universal consensus over hate speech might be impossible as things stand. However, the first step that we need to take is that if we want our asterisk to ban any criticism of religion, that rule should equally apply to every single religion and every single sect.