Virtuous speech is not speech itself, but the impact it has on oneself and others. This is why freedom of speech has its boundaries defined in law. Perhaps it’s time for the West to be equal in its interpretation of this principle and to legislate against mocking Islam and its Prophet, at least for the sake of a more harmonious global village.
Embassies are razed, diplomats are lynched, protesters have marched with unbridled aggression from east to west. The Islamic world and the West once again finds itself at loggerheads arising from two conflicting principles, the right of ‘freedom of speech’ against the right to ‘defend one’s honour’. What ensues is a repetitive discourse occurs between the two.
The argument a Liberal-Secular puts forward is that he can say what he wants without the Muslim having the right to be offended. He will then further propose that Muslims should be mature enough to handle such insults. The Muslims would argue that it is well understood that the freedom of speech is not absolute. Exceptions have always been made against blasphemy. Why then, the Muslim would argue, that these exceptions do not apply when Islam or its Prophet are in question?
The right to freedom of expression has been articulated both in the UN’s Universal declaration of Humans Rights as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), however it is well understood that this concept is not absolute. The ICCPR states that restrictions are imposed to “respect of the rights or reputation of others” or “for the protection of national security or of public order…”. Even within the United States, the most liberal in terms of freedom of expression due to its Constitution’s First amendment, defamation and censorship laws exist.
In other words there is a fine balance between the freedom of speech and the freedom to offend. Freedom of speech is curtailed if it dishonours unjustifiably or if it can cause harm to the wider public. The Muslim would argue that the west, when it applies this principle to Islam, does so with an element of prejudice. It fails to consider the unjustifiable attack on the reputation of the Prophet Muhammad, or the public disorder that such expressions can lead to. In a world which is increasingly resembling a global village, the later must surely come into consideration.
There are many examples which highlight the inconsistency in which the freedom of speech is applied in the west, which implies an underlying prejudice against Islam and Muslims.
The Holocaust perpetrated against the Jews is a dark page in human history. Muslims sympathize with the many innocent lives that were lost during the Nazi era. Nevertheless Holocaust deniers do exist. These Holocaust deniers are not given the freedom to express themselves across 17 European nations in which it is considered a crime. The EU further advocates an optional maximum term of three years in jail to all member nations for denying or grossly trivialising crimes such as the Holocaust. The Muslim will ask why is the balance here towards suppression and not expression? What makes denial of the holocaust a crime while insulting a Prophet of God is not?
Staying in Europe, in 2007 a Swiss court convicted Doğu Perinçek, a Turkish politician, of racial discrimination because he denied the Armenian Genocide. In his defence he argued that he had a right to freedom of expression and added, “I have not denied genocide because there was no genocide”. It is a crime in Switzerland to deny the Armenian Genocide and this was also the case in France until recently. Muslims see only duplicity in this.
We just have to look at events over the last week to further strengthen the case of prejudice against Muslims.
In the UK, an advert showing a pregnant nun having ice-cream was banned because according to The Advertising Standards Authority, “it mocked Roman Catholic beliefs”. The Muslim will ask why its ok to mock Islamic beliefs but not Roman Catholic ones?
Again in the UK, a Muslim teenager was charged with “sending a grossly offensive communication”. The teenager posted on facebook, “all soldiers should die and go to hell” two days after 6 British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. The judged ruled that the comments were “derogatory, disrespectful and inflammatory” and understandably so. The Muslim however will ask why “derogatory, disrespectful and inflammatory” comments against Islam go punished while a Muslim is punished when Western sentiments are offended?
The French take the cake though. In the country where the cartoons demeaning the Prophet are considered acceptable, protesting against these cartoons is not. Interior Minister Manuel Valls said, “There will be strictly no exceptions. Demonstrations will be banned and broken up”. We are not even allowed to express our objections via peaceful and recognized democratic avenues?
Even in Australia, Senator Cory Bernardi was forced to resign as Tony Abbot’s personal parliamentary secretary because of his perceived homophobic comments; but when he called for banning the burqah or an end to multiculturalism, his leader or party did not see the need to censure him.
It seems, at least from a Muslims point of view, that if a value in question is closer to Western culture, the balance between the freedom of speech and its curtailment shifts towards the latter while in the case of an Islamic value such as the honour of the Prophet Muhammad, the opposite holds true. This inconsistent and perhaps even biased application of this value only compounds the hurt Muslims feel when Islam or any of its symbols are demeaned. This perspective towards understanding the reaction of Muslims towards recent events has long been overlooked.