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Freedom of speech is an ideological construct

The recent events in Paris have engendered a series of questions relating to “freedom of speech” and the role of the Muslim communities in the West. Subsequently, the responses resonating across the Muslim world have failed to engage with the underlying assumptions which inform the debates. Notions of “freedom of speech” and integration are left unquestioned whereas questions about Islām and identity are forced on Muslims across the world. In turn, our engagement remains self-defeating and apologetic. In this piece, we will aim at providing an alternative response which begins by putting under question the previously domineering assumptions that inform the political discourses of Islamophobes and apologetics alike. In particular, we will examine the notion of “freedom of expression”. Secondly, we will explicate the parameters which ought to inform our engagement with the West and delineate the difference between historical products which can be adopted and those which cannot.

Are Western Values Universal?

Values, especially political values are never neutral and are always linked to a conceptual system (i.e. a worldview and an epistemology). As Alasdair MacIntyre points out, Western values are not exempt from this rule. Values like “freedom” and its derivatives such as “freedom of expression” ought to be examined in light of their ideological underpinnings and limitations.

An example of a non-neutral construct is the notion of “freedom of speech”. What are its origins, its limitations, and what is the Muslim perspective on “free speech”? Academics and thinkers in the West have long disputed the notion of “free speech” as being an essentially contested concept. These include thinkers such as Stanley Fish and Talal Asad among others.

Accordingly, we can ask: What are the limitations imposed on notions of “freedom” by their underlying secular norms and assumptions? The idea of “free speech” has its origins in the Kantian idea of an open-public and “neutral” space which provides a platform through which autonomous and rational individuals could engage in debate and dialogue. According to the ideologues of the Enlightenment, the public space would serve as a platform through which Secular values and legislation could be produced. In other words, freedom of speech is an ideological product of the Secular epistemology which emerged during the Enlightenment. More so, freedom of expression was posited as a medium through which Secular reason and discourse could be channeled. Having explicated its ideological-historical origins and the ideological function of the “public-space” – it becomes all the more clear that the so-called “neutral” public space is not a neutral and open one at all, but rather it is fundamentally demarcated by a hegemonic ideology and bound by its normative commitments.

How do we engage with the West?

Having explained that all values cannot be delinked from their ideological and historical context, how do Muslims pro-actively engage with other civilizations and societies? We must distinguish between neutral constructs such as technologies, and conceptual constructs such as political values. The former is a product of our empirical faculties and is universal, whereas the latter is informed by underlying ideological assumptions. This is illustrated clearly in the pedagogy of Mūsā (ʿalayhi al-Salām) in rejecting the construction of idols for his people, and examples of adopting neutral constructs can be derived from the history of the Caliphs with ʿUmar (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) adopting the administrative structures of the Persian empire. To begin with, what is technology? And what is scientific progress?

Technology (from Greek τέχνη, techne, “art, skill, cunning of hand”; and -λογία, -logia) is: The use of scientific knowledge to solve practical problems, especially in industry and commerce. The specific methods, materials, and devices used to solve practical problems.

Technology and scientific progress are in reality the products of the usage of our empirical and scientific mental faculties, a capacity which is common to all man. In other words, we all have the ability to empirically understand cause and effect, the structure of organisms, and so forth. Our ability to employ scientific thinking is based on our ability to use our sensory faculties to transmit information to our brains and process that information accordingly. Science is defined as:

“systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.”

It is not however based on the extent to which one is Islamic, Secular or Communist. Therefore, by merely looking at the definitions and the nature of technology and science we can see that it is indeed a product of the human intellect and not an exclusive product of the Western ‘mind’. Definitions aside, history provides another explicit example of this reality; numerous civilizations which preceded the rise of the ‘West’ were advanced. Take for example, the Islamic civilization whose discoveries and findings paved the way for the scientific advancements of the European enlightenment. There was nothing ‘Secular’ or ‘Western’ about the Islamic civilization. The Philosopher Bertrand Russell explains that:

“Our use of the phrase ‘The Dark ages’ to cover the period from 699 to 1,000 marks our undue concentration on Western Europe From India to Spain, the brilliant civilization of Islām flourished.  What was lost to Christendom at this time was not lost to civilization, but quite the contrary… To us it seems that West-European civilization is civilization, but this is a narrow view.”[1]

And while technology and our mental capacities tell us what we can do, our morals, ideology and concepts tell us what we ought to do. For example, we have the technological capabilities to create massive worldwide networks, but should we use this capability for surveillance? We have the scientific and technological capabilities to compress atoms, but does this mean we should create atomic bombs? This is where ideology and morals come in.

Moving Forward

As a Muslim community we must boldly set the parameters for engagement without falling into reactionary discourses or apologetic tropes. To do so we must delink science and technology from modernity whilst recognising the biases of Western values. In turn this would allow Muslim communities to counter demands for integration in a more objective and principled manner. A positive and critical engagement as such cannot be reduced to merely joining the Paris marches or adopting counter-productive hashtags – what is required is far more radically altering. This will require major efforts on part of the Muslim community’s scholars and intelligentsia who are entrusted with leading our critical engagement with the West. The process is not merely an intellectual one but will also involve the gruelling task of soul-searching and re-appropriating our identity.

Read today’s post: In response to last night’s shocking BBC Panorama by Dr Salman Butt

bbc paranoia

Reactions to Charlie Hebdo

The Charlie Hebdo shootings have provoked a storm of sensationalist reactions from opportunists across the spectrum. At Islam21c we have been working hard to sift through the rhetoric and find reasoned analysis from all quarters – links are available below to read. Don’t forget to like, comment and share! To keep up with the latest articles on Islam21c.com subscribe to our mailing list here

We also direct your attention to the seminal report written by Prof. Arun Kundnani since empirically-refuted connections are being made left, right and centre, between these shootings and the shooters’ incidental ideology – read the ground-breaking report that shows that Extremism does NOT cause terrorismA Decade Lost; Rethinking Radicalisation and Extremism

a decade lost

Also read:

charlie hebdo banner

Visit our dedicated page to #CharlieHebdo with all our hand-picked content here

Source: www.islam21c.com

Notes:

[1] History of Western Philosophy,’ London, 1948, p. 419.

About Reem Ahmed

Reem is a journalist, researcher and graduate from the University of London. She is currently studying for a Masters, and her areas of interests include but are not limited to Education and Current Affairs.

13 comments

  1. What this article basically says is that despite the west’s far superior scientific progress and technological advancements, Muslim’s have the right to engage with the west on an equivalent level as if they too were responsible for such advances, hence that their way of thinking is of an equally progressive value.

    We have heard this sort of arrogance before, it is that which is required to perpetuate a religion as questionable and intolerant as Islam.

    • O’ the irony! You speak of arrogance yet you arrogantly assume that these technological advancements are the property of the West. This is racial and imperial hubris at its finest. It was this very same hubris which deprived the “third-world” from accessing these technologies. As I noted in the article, a point you seemingly missed, scientific progress and tech. advancement are not the products of Western ideology but rather own innate and HUMAN empirical faculties. The benefits of science were not a gift which the West endowed on the world. Secondly, it seems that your history is a bit off. Contrary to popular opinion, the world (besides for Anglo-Europe) was not lavishing in darkness prior to the so-called “age of science” – in fact, the Muslim world had not only developed these sciences but also employed them in numerous domains. You also seem to forget that these sciences were not discovered until the West discovered the Muslim world vis-a-vis the Crusades, trade, and so forth.
      Yes, Islam and humanity at large are partners in the advance of science.

      • How many Muslims have walked on the moon?

        How may muslim aircraft manufacturers or car manufacturers are there?

        How many computers have been invented by Islam?

        the list goes on….

        Don’t quote me conjecture of what ancient Islamic societies supposedly invented either!

  2. You have really not said anything (sorry). Mentioning that Freedom of speech is an ideological construct sounds great and is true as a definition BUT what’s the point? You are failing to “cut the mustard”. How should Muslims’ respond? Perhaps by realising that the the society in which they are living is Western (historically Judaic Christian) and a secular one. They are in the minority (this is a fact) so if they wish to earn respect, then they either accept the more Liberal Western tone (yes, you can raise examples that it’s not at times) or go against this, perhaps according to their faith and be perceived as aliening with more radical views.

    Jim

    • It’s eerie how closely this mirrors my thoughts on the article.

      The article accomplishes nothing, I’m sorry to say. A thesaurus isn’t a substitute for cogent argument.

      • ‘You have really not said anything (sorry). Mentioning that Freedom of speech is an ideological construct sounds great and is true as a definition BUT what’s the point? You are failing to “cut the mustard”. How should Muslims’ respond? Perhaps by realising that the the society in which they are living is Western (historically Judaic Christian) and a secular one. They are in the minority (this is a fact) so if they wish to earn respect, then they either accept the more Liberal Western tone (yes, you can raise examples that it’s not at times) or go against this, perhaps according to their faith and be perceived as aliening with more radical views.’

        So you’re basically saying that Muslims have to passively assimilate to any hegemonic status quo, regardless of whether their ideas are valid and legitimate in theory?

        ‘The article accomplishes nothing, I’m sorry to say. A thesaurus isn’t a substitute for cogent argument.’

        I would argue the opposite. I think it provides critical engagement with the very notions that shape the fabric of your society. If Muslims feel that this is pushing them into intellectually and peacefully engaging with ideas they disagree with, then I think it most certainly accomplishes something.
        Your inability to follow a coherent argument and/or appreciate lexical terminology does not detract from the overall accomplishment of this piece.

    • “You have really not said anything (sorry). Mentioning that Freedom of speech is an ideological construct sounds great and is true as a definition BUT what’s the point?”

      – The point is that ‘freedom of speech’ as applied in many countries masquerades as a universal and neutral value when it is not. There are many people, both in the muslim community and outside it who buy into this hook, line and sinker. By demonstrating and exposing this is a significant point; it is hardly “nothing”. In fact, you acknowledge it, but you simply don’t see the importance of this.
      If the article was arguing in the 16th Century that the Earth revolves around the Sun, Copernicus could easily say “It does, but you’re not really saying anything”. Well, Copernicus knows it but the rest of the world doesn’t. The point in conveying this fact is to demonstrate it to those that are unaware of the facts. Apparently, you agree that this is ‘true as a definition’. However, you are not the only person out there. This article is aimed at those who are not aware of this, as it isn’t accepted as a truism.

      “How should Muslims respond? Perhaps by realising that the the society in which they are living is Western (historically Judaic Christian) and a secular one.”

      – First off, a ‘realisation’ is not a response. A realisation is an acknowledgment of a state of affairs; a realisation by itself (and since this is all you advocate here I have to take it this way) is specifically a lack of a response.
      Furthermore, I have to assume that you mention the Judeo-Christian historicity together with the secular nature of the West descriptively. Bear in mind that this is a contradiction. You can’t be both Judeo-Christian and secular; they are antithetical concepts.
      I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that by this, you mean that Islamic concepts are alien to the West (which isn’t true since the West has been exposed to the Islamic world at least since the time of the First Crusade in the 11th Century). A secular society does not assume that religion is inherently bad; it is predicated on the notion that the State does not endorse any particular religion and does not prefer any belief system to any other. Which leads me to respond to your final point which you phrased as follows

      “They are in the minority (this is a fact) so if they wish to earn respect, then they either accept the more Liberal Western tone (yes, you can raise examples that it’s not at times) or go against this, perhaps according to their faith and be perceived as aliening with more radical views.”

      – Why? If a value is universal, it is meant to include everyone by its very definition. To suggest that those with a dissenting view should pack up and go home is to admit that a value is not universal. I’m not suggesting that you make the argument that it is, but I am arguing that the notion of ‘freedom of speech’ as it is currently (mis)applied is making this claim. Your argument that everybody should adopt the values and viewpoints of the majority is pretty unnerving. The point is to demonstrate that there is a serious double-standard and that any response must take this into account. To demonstrate this and to persuade others that this is true is my point.
      My article is aimed at persuading others of this point; if you missed it, perhaps try reading it again.

      • You are flogging a dead horse sister, take it on the chin – they are right on this one, you have written much but said little

        • “They have ears but do not hear” – the only time you will get their approval is if you give up the Deen and surrender to their line of thought

          JCM and James, you are right because you are always right and whoever disagrees with you is wrong and is always wrong, please try to read again with an open mind, it is a well written article

          She may not have said much to you but it is a reflection of your inability to understand a resonable argument when it hits you in the face

  3. Spot on sis! This article is excellent.
    Jazakallah for the posting of this article.
    Sima

  4. Assalam u Alaykum wr wrb

    Please share this video with non Muslims.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6MMUDJXBBk

    WaSalam

  5. AsalamuAleikum,

    Truly excellent article MashaAllah tabarakallAh. Well articulated – perfectly balanced (neither apologetic or counter-crtitical) and most of all PRACTICAL and productive.

    “A positive and critical engagement as such cannot be reduced to merely joining the Paris marches or adopting counter-productive hashtags”

    “As a Muslim community we must boldly set the parameters for engagement without falling into reactionary discourses or apologetic tropes”

    Most people reading these pages are looking for solutions, answers and direction – such articles instill pride, reassurance and most of all – direction and balance for the readers, do not underestimate the power of words – least of all when we have a large population of young people who are frustrated, incapacitated and mostly lost for guidance.

    JazakumullAhu Khayran to team 21c for THIS article,
    looking forwards to more articles from this Author

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