Muslims vs Free Speech

Written by Anam Gill on . Posted in Anam's blog: Global issues, E-Magazine, General Information, News, Publications, Regions, Take Action

The recent attack on the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo by gunmen who are understood to be Muslim extremists did remind me of the publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper years ago. Violent protests erupted over a series of cartoons which satirized Prophet Mohammad in Denmark. Moreover I was reminded of the murder of Theo Van Gogh who directed a provocative film that talked about women in Islam.

Not to forget in Pakistan we are having a YouTube ban after the release of a film, Innocence of Muslims. The ban is in place since September 2012 and apparently the chances of it being lifted are slim.

I hold the right to freedom of expression very dear and this debate that has been going on for years regarding Muslims versus free speech has always fascinated me. I am somehow shocked to know that people are being killed in the struggle to protect freedom of speech. People are murdered for what? Cartoons!

No wonder I still prefer Captain Planet, a cartoon series in my childhood that talked about saving the planet. A message that did create awareness and let’s not forget didn’t harm anyone.

In an open democratic society freedom of speech is the bedrock but in my opinion it should not include the right to offend. Today we live in a pluralistic society where we face many grave problems already, be it politicization of religion, terrorism and marginalization to name a few. Yes we do live in a multi-cultural society and have diversity hence we need greater limits on free speech. Freedom of speech does not mean the right to offend the sensibilities of others for the sake of enjoying greater power.

When free speech is used merely as a provocation that does not support dialogue or debate as it should then it definitely raises few questions. Is it about opening up a debate or attacking a minority community?

Today the clash between freedom of speech and Muslim sensibilities is becoming a major fault line. In this polemic it is important to note that there is a thin line between freedom to do anything and being offensive and if the equilibrium is maintained we need not to worry. I support freedom of speech but I do not support hate of any kind. In a democracy we already have censorship laws like the libel law and the blasphemy laws (exploited a great deal in many countries like Pakistan). We can’t just say whatever we want to. There are restrictions imposed by the law. Similarly with the freedom of speech which is our fundamental right there comes a responsibility. As civilized, sensible, sensitive and polite human beings, which we rarely are these days, we need to know what to say on a given day in a given format. Freedom of speech is not a western concept; it is a craving of the human soul.

As Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, the British civil liberties advocacy organization rightly said on the issue of Muslims vs Free Speech :

“It is important to make a distinction between your legal right in a free society of free speech not unfettered because we don’t want child pornography and incitement to murder so there is always necessary and proportionate limitations on free speech but let’s separate your legal right that I would defend to the death actually from whether as a moral and ethical human being you on a given day in a given format to say this or that. That is really really important. You have a right of free speech but it not your duty to say the most offensive things possible and I must say that free speech is under attack but not for Muslims or Christians or just people of faith but from big brother politicians. It is a bit of a shame that we are talking that it is just about Muslims because it is not. I defend free speech and other liberal value, freedom of expression is incredibly important so why don’t we lead by example if we want to say to the Muslims, as I do in solidarity and friendship, don’t be overly offended by profane cartoons. While stick and stones may break your bones but not cartoons. If we want to say that then why should we be offended by women who choose to wear a headscarf or a hoody or anything else. Everybody is entitled to their human rights but sometimes in a democracy it is minorities who need human rights protection the most.”

This is not a battle between Muslims and the West. This is a battle of messages and counter messages. If some groups promote hate, death, intolerance and destruction- we call for life, pluralism, alliance of civilizations, compassion and peace.

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Anam Gill

Believes that empathy and compassion can trigger change. A media professional passionate and committed towards issues of human rights and social justice.