A Freedom Gone Too Far
By Faisal Sanai
The Muslim community is seething. Last September, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten commissioned and printed offensive caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), as an experiment in testing the limits of freedom of speech. Not since Salman Rushdie penned the blasphemous Satanic Verses has the Islamic world faced such an act of religious provocation.
centuries-old wall of self-censorship was effectively breached as newspapers in
The debate, in the context of religious sensibilities, is not unfamiliar or new. Moralists and free thinkers have been at loggerheads for decades and the tide, at least in the Western world, has turned in favour of free expression. Victorian morality that had persisted in the West till the early 1950s has gradually been eroded by a bolder and uncensored press. Martin Scorseses 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ, tested new boundaries by its abysmal portrayal of Jesus Christ. The film was condemned by virtually every Christian denomination, and labelled an affront to conventional piety.
In the same year, Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses and incensed the Muslim community with its blasphemous content. There again followed a similar round of protests, but this time much more violent, with fervent calls for boycott and ending in the eventual Iranian fatwa against the life of the author. All this only managed to push up the sales of a book not worth the paper it was written on. How is it that attitudes between the Islamic and Christian world differ so much? For much of the Western world, and in effect the Christian one, attitude toward religion has been largely liberal and permissive.
What separates us from the Christian and Judaic followers is not our sense of piety and reverence but our sentimental threshold. We are undeniably too sensitive and take offence easily. We are fiercely protective of our beliefs and value systems. But this is our prerogative. What shameful right does a Christian newspaper hold in patronizing us over a personal belief that neither defies basic human or moralistic values, nor infringe on cross-cultural sentiment? The idea of reproducing the caricatures is offensive and distasteful. In an era where the rift between Islam and the West is close to a civilizational clash, there can be no justification for such provocation. Carsten Juste, the editor in chief of Jyllands-Posten, in a half-baked apology to the Muslims writes that offending anybody on the grounds of their religious beliefs is unthinkable.
There seems to be a tendency to undermine this hurt and anger by citing ignorance of our sensitivity. Surely, ignorance of a peoples sensitivity is not enough an excuse to trample on their religious sentiments.
of expression is a privilege to be cherished and not a stick to abuse with.
Unfortunately, the permissive European media seems determined to add salt to
the festering wound. When Muslim sentimentality was already mortally bruised,
there exists no rationale for other newspapers in
The debate can now go either of two ways either the Muslims consider the damage already done and put up with it, or we ratchet up the rhetoric further and call for more stringent action. An unofficial boycott of Danish goods, although meaningless and pitiful, is already under way in Middle Eastern countries. However, now that other bigger and more politically important countries have stepped into the fray, it is doubtful if such a boycott is even feasible. And if attempted, precedents tell us that such boycotts are short-lived and doomed to failure.
Are we then destined to tide over such media arrogance as unfortunate collateral of free speech? Would we then not be opening the doorways to suffer more of such outrages? Certainly matters cannot rest here. There has to be a system in place that, while acknowledging the privileges of free expression, has to safeguard our inherent values. These are the same values that make us a moralistic society and are the essence of our civilization. To well over four-fifths of the world that adheres to any given religion, it is faith per se that gives us our sense of morality, ethics and sense of righteousness. To abandon these in the face of extended freedoms of expression is senseless and defeatist.
A stand must be taken. It must be emphasized in no uncertain terms that our religious values and beliefs take precedence over individualistic and subjective rights. There has to be concerted action along the lines of the Arab League and the OICs initiative to seek a UN resolution banning contempt of religious beliefs. Diplomatic pressure in the form of severance of political ties or official sanctions should be an option when countries fail to take steps against their erring media.
the law of a country, as in the case of these European nations, allows such publication,
then it is a law that needs to be amended. This debate is not so much about
subjective civil values that countries like
is not entirely a wrong concept and it is the medias responsibility to
understand its limits. While it is true that self-censorship is a slippery
slope against freedom of expression, we must shun irresponsible and provocative
testing of boundaries. As Edgar Bronfman, the