Sunday, February 05, 2006

Hate Speech in the Guise of Freedom of Expression

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

“Freedom of expression is important, but so is respect for other people.” This was the opinion of Danish Vice Prime Minister Bendt Bendtsen in an interview with daily Jyllands-Posten about the paper’s action in publishing 12 demeaning caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that has pitted Denmark against the Muslim world.

“Freedom of speech is an important right, but it also carried with it an obligation to use good judgment,” he contended. “What Jyllands-Posten did is totally legal. I’ve got nothing against freedom of speech — it is important for us all — but if it can offend and hurt a lot of people, why use freedom of speech for that? This is about respecting other people’s cultures.”

Bendtsen reminded: “It was not unheard of for Danes to get upset over misused religious symbols: Two summers ago, a grocery store was forced to stop selling flip-flops with pictures of Jesus after religious groups complained.”

“Danish newspapers could possibly learn something from US newspapers, which tended not to try to push the limits of what was permissible,” he advised. “In the US, freedom of expression is also important. At the same time, there is also a tradition of showing consideration for others.”

I don’t think I can put it any better. It is amazing, though, that he needed to state the obvious.

The editors of the Norwegian, Danish, French and Jordanian newspapers that published the caricatures have something in common. They run small-time newspapers, and were probably trying to make waves, build up reputation and boost sales. This might sound cynical, but it is much better than the alternative explanation — religious hatred. One can’t call what these papers did an exercise of “maximum free speech”, as the Danish paper’s editor put it. If so, why not start with your own? Muslims believe in and respect all of Allah’s prophets and messengers and would not tolerate disgracing any of them.

If practicing “maximum free speech” was the real motive, then there are other ways to flex your muscles. Try, for example, casting a single shade of doubt on the “official” number of the Holocaust victims. People get imprisoned, fired and their character assassinated for discussing the issue.

Denmark and Norway are among the few European nations that have clean history with the Muslim “Ummah.” They didn’t join in the Crusades. They never colonized Muslim lands. They didn’t help in the creation and support of Israel. They took no part in the so-called “war on terror” against Arab and Muslim nations. Therefore, they have never been on any black list of the terrorists, the anti-Western, or anti-globalization activists.

With such a clean record, spotless history and profitable business relations with over 1,200 million Muslims, you expect Danish leaders to be wiser.

Why would the queen, prime minister and conservative Christian groups go out of their way to squander all these fortunes?

Why would they, out of the blue, insist on inflaming Muslim passions with mindless, hurtful, hateful statements and caricatures?

What is the cultural, intellectual value of depicting the holiest symbol of a fifth of the world’s population as a suicidal bomber, womanizer and terrorist ?

Hate speech got the world into its worst conflicts and wars, most on ideological grounds — Christian Crusades, European holy wars, Muslim sectarian civil wars, World War I and II, down to recent conflicts in Ireland, Bosnia, Chechnya, Lebanon, Rwanda, Kosovo and neocon “crusade” on terror. Hate speech killed millions of Native Americans, blacks, Armenians, Jews, Bosnians, Indian untouchables, Chinese and Cambodian intellectuals, Chechens, Gypsies, and Kosovars. All started with some hateful doctrine based on race or ideological superiority, such as Nazism, Zionism, white supremacy and Mao’s Cultural Revolution. By dehumanizing and demonizing the other, it makes you feel superior and helps you rally your own behind a cause. It also justifies your acts of aggression, suppression and injustice.

So, what could and should the civilized world do to fight this disease? When Jews suffered because of hate speech, we invented the anti-Semitism law to protect them. I propose widening this umbrella to include the rest of us. The UN and other concerned international organizations, governmental and nongovernmental, must start collaboration to come up with such rules.

Otherwise, the current clash of civilizations will continue at a larger and more dangerous level and rate.
Humiliated people of a certain religion, race or culture may take it only for a while. The world’s most devastating war, World War II, was a direct result of humiliation the German race suffered at the hands of victorious World War 1 powers. Humiliating over a billion Muslims can’t go on for long without a hit back. Extremists, terrorist organizations and hate preachers are already working on it. Can we afford to wait until the damage is irreversible? We waited too long before and did too little. We should wake up earlier and do better ... this time.

1 comment:

Bint Alshamsa said...

I am no expert on such matters but here is how I see it:

Even though newspapers perform a public service, they are first and foremost corporations. Their goal is to make money. Conflicts generate business for newspapers because even people with no interest in politics are drawn to find out about current events due to their curiousity.

The Danish newspaper that started this ruckus is not new to their business. They knew full well what the likely reaction to these cartoons would be.

Just a few months ago, the world dealt with a "trial run" of a similar type when American news media reported that guards in the Guantanamo Bay prison had flushed a Qu'ran down the toilet. That controversy led to riots and resulted in the death of fifteen individuals before the story was retracted.

With that barely in the shadows, this newest event was orchestrated. So, when the riots and bigotry escalate, who will profit from it all? Why, the very people who started it, of course! The newspapers who can gleefully hide behind "freedom of speech" as an excuse for their violence-baiting.

In the end, it's not about anything more than generating an income for themselves even if it's at the expense of those who act before they stop and notice who's yanking on the strings that control them.