The Hypocrisy Called ‘Freedom of Expression’
The place of Muhammad in the hearts of Muslims is a special one. Muhammad, peace be upon him, is the link between the Divine Instruction and each Muslim.
Insults, caricatures and defamation of his character do not diminish the Divine honour bestowed upon him. Muhammad remains the Messenger of God and God’s Majesty is Absolute.
It is an article of faith for Muslims to believe and revere the Divine prophets and messengers, whose spectrum include Abraham, Moses and Jesus, (peace be upon them). A Muslim’s regard for them is that of utmost respect.
Time and again, Muslims are told that they have to learn and understand how freedom of expression works in the West. Apparently, such an understanding seems to imply accepting the notions that profane and desecrate the bases and symbols of their belief and identity.
Ideas of ‘clash of civilizations’ have been advanced whenever Muslims have rejected assertions of unbounded freedom of expression. Yet, it is well-known that such freedom has never been absolute even in the countries of the ‘enlightened’ sphere that claim to be its champions.
A number of Western countries have statutes on their books that criminalise “hate speech.” Perceived tendencies and pronouncements considered anti-Semitic have cost dearly the careers of academics, politicians and public figures, on both sides of the Atlantic.
There are laws throughout Europe that criminalises anyone that “trivializes” or “plays down” Nazi crimes. Anyone who “disparages the memory of a deceased person” may serve a jail term of up to 2 years, under a law of 1985 as amended in 1992 in the German criminal code.
In 2002, Denis Leroy, a French cartoonist, lost his appeal against conviction by seeking protection under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights for free-speech. A regional court had earlier convicted him for complicity in “condoning terrorism” through a drawing.
The European Court of Human Rights upheld Leroy’s conviction on the basis that, even though it was low-circulated, his ‘cartoon had provoked a certain public reaction, capable of stirring up violence and demonstrating a plausible impact on public order…’
It should be logical to believe that conventions that seek to protect public order as interpreted by the European court in Leroy’s case should be applicable to instances of insults to beliefs of a faith community such as Muslims.
For now, however, the protection of freedom of expression that disregards sensitivities of Muslims now estimated to be at least 1.6 billion-strong, hypocritical to notions and values of mutual understanding, peaceful co-existence and respect.
Islam acknowledges the role of freedom of expression in order to promote common good. For example, Muslims are commanded to stand for justice and challenging oppression in all its manifestations.
For a Muslim, it becomes not just a right but duty for a believer to stand up to authority in order to bring about a just order where dignity and honour are upheld for all.
A Prophetic tradition goes: “Every Muslim is the brother of a Muslim, he should neither harm him, nor should he leave him alone when others treat him unjustly…” It is from such teachings that Muslims shall never standby at any time of libel and disparaging of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW).
For this reason, in the defence of honour and dignity of the Prophet and regardless of the divisive ploy of labels such as ‘conservative’, ‘moderate’ or ‘extremist’, any insult to the prophet(s) will always evoke similar emotions from all Muslims.
Circulation of material that provokes Muslims is contemptuous and represents continued and orchestrated attempts to marginalise Islam and Muslims, negating the values of mutual understanding and respect.
The sustained lampooning of the personality of Muhammad (SAW) serves to re-enforce stereotypes created by anti-Islam forces and they are nothing short of provocation.
Einstein defined insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ If it is not insanity, it would appear that those who are dedicating themselves to provoking are on a project of testing how over the years Muslims have become tolerant to and accepting sacrilege and insults.
Just as anti-Semitism has been criminalised in many countries around the world, manifestations of Islamophobia, as a negative reaction to Islam and Muslims should also be criminalised.
Islamophobic discourse masquerading as freedom of speech is a threat to inter-faith harmony and therefore a threat to peace, the world over. It should be treated accordingly, without triumphalism and subjugation.
A number of leaders from Muslim countries taking to the podium at the recently concluded United Nations General Assembly have called for a legal instrument that would curtail freedom of expression that insults and in many ways, is inspired by hate for Islam and Muslims. Such an instrument is crucial and long overdue.
The dignity of an individual and by extension, a community, is not contingent on freedom of expression. Rather, every human being that subscribes to notions of decency and fair-dealing should accordingly enjoy freedom from insult.
Newsletter of Council of Muslim Theologians, South Africa Vol 7. No. 39