Is freedom of speech absolute?

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Zafar Bangash

Dhu al-Qa'dah 14, 1433 2012-10-01

Editorials

by Zafar Bangash (Editorials, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 8, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1433)

While the west claims free speech is absolute, there is prohibition on anti-Semitism. There is also systemic targeting of Muslims in the US on mere “suspicion” that they might be “thinking” to harm Americans. Why the double standard?

Every time Islam, its sacred texts or the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh) are insulted and vilified, Western officials and media commentators are quick to tell Muslims this is “free speech” and they had better get used to it. When it affects Muslims, the notion of “free speech” is invoked and turned into an absolute. But is free speech an absolute, having no responsibility attached to it? Why is a person not permitted to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre or a shopping mall? Would the free speech argument be invoked if it were anti-Semitic? Why the double standard?

The latest outrage occurred with a blasphemous third-rate movie produced by a convicted criminal, one Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a virulently anti-Islamic Coptic Christian from Egypt residing in the US. He was convicted of bank fraud charges in 2010 and fined nearly $800,000 as well as sentenced to 21 months in prison. The convict was out on probation. His release terms included not using a computer or the internet. Nakoula, however, is not operating alone. There are American Christian fundamentalists and Zionists working with him. Their purpose in making this blasphemous movie was to provoke Muslims and advance an anti-Islamic agenda.

While initially, the movie did not evoke much response even after it was uploaded on YouTube, the producers were not going to let the matter die there. The movie was dubbed into Egyptian Arabic by inserting foul language that the original actors/actresses had not used and then sent to a number of television stations in Egypt. Once broadcast there, it aroused immediate reaction. Protests outside the US embassy in Cairo were followed by others in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city. US ambassador Chris Stevens who happened to be visiting the US consulate was killed together with three other Americans when it was attacked. Who was responsible for the attack is still unclear. The US administration has come out with conflicting (covered-up) versions of what happened in Libya. Whether it was a premeditated attack or a freak occurrence, we will never know for sure.

Protests then quickly escalated worldwide and resulted in scores of protesters’ deaths in different countries. Reaction to the two sets of casualties — all innocent deaths must be condemned and mourned equally — also reveals how Americans consider themselves superior to others. This is part of the Muslims’ list of grievances against the US, which habitually attacks and kills Muslims in different parts of the world. Over the last decade, the US and its allies have murdered at least two million Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. War is also being threatened against Islamic Iran. Did all of these victims and potential victims in the wars to come not have any “free speech” rights? Or even more basic, the right to live?

American officials, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for instance, have said the film had nothing to do with the US government. Technically this is correct; it was not produced officially; but the US government is not in the business of producing films even for propaganda purposes. That task is outsourced to Hollywood or to the myriad media outlets. But the US government as well as its allies cannot escape responsibility for creating an environment in which Islamophobia has become respectable. Thousands of Muslims have been rounded up on mere suspicion that they might be “harbouring” thoughts detrimental to US interests. Muslims even thinking about something — real or imagined — is considered a crime, but when it comes to anti-Muslim filth and blasphemous utterances against the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh), the notion of free speech is immediately invoked.

This, however, is not the first time. It started with Salman Rushdie’s blasphemous book, the Satanic Verses, in 1988. In 2003, American soldiers desecrated copies of the Qur’an and flushed them down the toilet in Guantanamo Bay. In the same year, Muslim women and men were not only tortured but raped at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. In 2005–2006, we had the scandal of the Danish cartoons. Again, the doctrine of “free speech” was invoked. German Chancellor Angela Merkel even awarded, in 2010, the editor of the Danish paper for running the cartoons. The same year, a clownish pastor from Florida, one Terry Jones with a total congregation of 50, declared September 11, 2010 as “Burn the Koran Day”. And earlier this year, American soldiers burned copies of the Qur’an and urinated on dead Afghans.

The French weekly, Charlie Hebdo followed the filthy movie by publishing insulting cartoons of the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh). Naturally, Muslims in France were angered by this new insult. While proclaiming the weekly’s right to “free speech”, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on September 19 that Muslims would not be allowed to hold a rally on September 22 to protest the blasphemous US-made movie that has caused so much anguish in much of the Muslim world. Ayrault told RTL radio station there is “no reason why we should let conflicts which do not concern France to come to our country.” Would he have invoked the same argument if some Jews had wanted to condemn anti-Semitic remarks or a film made in another country?

Why do the French, Americans and Westerners think they can insult the most revered personalities of Islam but Muslims must put up with it because of this sacred cow called “free speech”? It appears the notion of “free speech” in the West means the freedom to insult, in foul language, the revered personalities of Islam.

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