Sunday 30 September 2012
Last Update 30 September 2012 1:19 pm
JUST as diplomatic relations, based on mutual trust, are crucial to a sound global dialogue of cultures, so are interfaith relations, based on open-mindedness, equally crucial to a peaceful world.
So where does the issue of free speech come into the equation? How far do Americans need to go in order to protect their First Amendment privileges? And where do Muslims, in the Arab world and beyond, draw the line when that right appears to represent an assault on their most sacred values?
Search no farther than the forum of the General Assembly of the United Nations, where American President Barack Obama and Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi, both addressed the issue earlier this week, respectively on Tuesday and Wednesday. I quote in detail (and bear with me here) from both, the leader of the most influential nation in the world, and from the leader of the most populous country in the Arab world.
President Obama was bluntly assertive in making the American point of view clear in the wake of violent anti-American protests that followed the release of a crude online video denigrating Islam and its Prophet (peace be upon him). “(E)fforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics,” he said. “We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect... (Americans) have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views.”
President Mursi, who condemned recent outbursts of anti-American violence, nevertheless disagreed — or seemed to, at first blush — with Obama’s broad analysis of the role of free speech in a free society. He said: “Egypt respects freedom of expression, freedom of expression that is not used to incite hatred against anyone. We expect from others, as they expect from us, that they respect our cultural specifics and religious references, and not seek to impose concepts or cultures that are unacceptable to us. Insults against the Prophet of Islam are not acceptable. We will not allow anyone to do this by word or deed.”
So does that mean we have two irreconcilable views here, two colliding cultrual paradigms? Far from it. Both the American and the Egyptian presidents, I say, were simply climbing the same mountain from two different sides.
In Western culture, freedom of expression is considered both a sacrosanct right and a necessary function of a robust public debate. It is also recognized as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the individual the prerogative to hold, seek and impart opinions without interference from anyone or fear of retribution from the state. All well and good. But that does not include the right, say, to slander and libel. Above all, it does not include the right to incite violence or the right to disseminate “hate speech.”
This is encoded in the laws of both the United States and several countries in the European Union. In Germany, for example, “volksverhetzung” (inciting the people) is a criminal law that bans provocative statements whose aim is to incite hatred against a segment of the population, including holocaust denial, a law very much akin in the US to “hate speech,” that vilifies a person or a community based on race, religion and ethnicity. Certainly if the federal authorities in Washington were to determine that that a buffoon in California with a cheap video camera, who shot a crudely made Islamophobe film, had intentionally released it in order to “persuade, encourage, instigate or pressure” others to commit violence, the buffoon would have been arrested by now.
The laws are there on the books, and these laws penalize that category of speech aimed at inciting discrimination against a community because of its members’ racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds. In America free speech, contrary to how Arabs and other Muslims have read President Obama’s speech at the UN on Tuesday, is not a free for all. Not only hate crimes, and hate speech intended to incite, are against the law, but in American culture — in its everyday manners of social exchange in the public debate — Americans are enjoined, at penalty of social ostracism, against being “politically incorrect.” Political incorrectness, the tendency to be offensive to, or dismissive of, the sensibility of minorities, is not a crime, but it comes at a price, at times a heavy price indeed.
And when you consider the case in 1999 of David Howard (a case I was peripherally involved in), then we are looking at an extreme price, exacted by a kind of semantic police. Howard, an aide to the then new mayor of Washington, was made to resign (read, fired) because he was quoted in the media as having said, haplessly, that he would use his budget “in a niggardly manner.” Niggardly, of course, is a perfectly legitimate word in the lexicon with etymological roots in old Swedish, meaning “to be frugal.” Unfortunately for the mayoral aide, who just happened to be white, niggardly sounded too much like the racial slur associated with the N-word.
Trust me on this one: The overwhelming majority of Americans do not condone bigotry, of which Islamophobia is but one expression. But they do value free speech, and the thought of restricting it is anathema to the very ethos of their political culture.
That’s what President Obama was talking about at the UN. And President Mursi did not, at a seminal level, disagree with his American counterpart’s speech so much as with its modalities — a simple case of how two different societies see, read and interpret the meaning of freedom of expression in the public domain. So let’s all get a grip and move on.
- This article is exclusive to Arab News