RECENTLY, disturbances erupted throughout the Muslim world against the film Innocence of Muslims which was deliberately made to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.

US President Obama refused to ban it or take any action against its makers citing the American law on freedom of expression. Obama said that as long as this law exists in America, he cannot take any action against the producers. Also, it is election time in America and President Obama’s opponents can exploit any slight mistake on his part to reduce his chances of being re-elected.

This should be understood and appreciated. It is what it is. Of course the violence against Americans has to be strongly condemned. But the situation has given rise to an important question: can such a right be absolute as American law makes it out to be? Should it have any limits or not? According to this law, there is no limit and religious sentiments do not count. Even outright and wilful blasphemy cannot be barred or punished.

For example, in a number of New York subway stations posters were recently put up which said, “In any war between the civilised man and the savage, support the civilised man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” The relevant court also upheld the ad as permissible according to American law.

Rick Jacobs, a Jewish scholar, commented on the ad thus: “What is the message of this ad, directed at the multitude of subway riders of countless faiths and ethnicities?” Mr Jacobs then continues, “By using the term ‘jihad’ in the context of war against savages, the ad paints Islam as inherently violent, evil and bent on overthrowing the Western democracies and their key ally in the Middle East , Israel….”

This ad implicates all Muslims as wagers of jihad in the sense of war, though hardly a handful of extremists indulge in this and millions of other Muslims take jihad as a spiritual struggle against selfish desires, greed and lust for power. But it is quite legitimate according to American law. Interestingly, an Arab activist who spray-painted one of the posters was arrested. Perhaps we have to understand why such a law was made by America’s founders.

Those who came to America after its ‘discovery’ were mostly persecuted Protestants from all over Europe. The Catholic Church was persecuting them for defying its authority. They did not want its repeat in America and hence they wanted a law which allowed them absolute freedom from all such persecution in the name of religion. And so this law was made.

There is another factor which must also be taken into account to understand the American law. At the time when this law was made America had mostly Protestant Christians and no other religious groups had yet migrated to the country in significant numbers. In their eyes this law was not only justified but greatly needed so that no one used religion for the persecution of others. Had there been a plurality of religions as is the case today, such a law perhaps would not have been enacted. This law gives full freedom to any individual to defy, to blaspheme or to ridicule one’s own or others’ religions.

First we must understand what freedom of religion means. Religion is a system of belief and belief is rooted in one’s conscience. In any democracy, or even non-democratic system, freedom of conscience is a very important freedom which cannot be tampered with. The Quran also greatly respects this freedom of conscience when it says “There is no compulsion in religion….” (2:256).

This right to freedom of conscience or religion can certainly allow a serious critique of certain religious or cultural practices as long as the motive is philosophical.

Yet this freedom cannot allow ridiculing or attacking other religious belief systems just to humiliate one’s opponent, either by a powerful majority or minority. So in all multi-religious and multicultural societies the freedom of expression should be qualified by other laws not to offend others’ religious feelings. If a law on freedom of expression is not so qualified, it may lead to serious law and order situations in multi-religious societies.

It also needs to be seen in a political context as to which religious group or part thereof wants to misuse this freedom to attack religious beliefs or practices of other religious groups for political purposes.

The same situation arose when Salman Rushdie published his novel The Satanic Verses and the West defended it in the name of freedom of expression. This publication also led to violent demonstrations in the Muslim world and threats to Rushdie’s life. In multi-religious societies and with political power struggles between different religious communities, such laws have to be duly qualified through other laws. But such laws should not curb genuine freedom of expression and that is always for the courts to decide.

Freedom of expression, then, is a very delicate matter, not to be taken lightly on either side. The law on freedom of expression has to be quite balanced. While it should allow genuine freedom of expression it should not be made absolute so as to enable certain mischievous groups to attack others’ beliefs.

The situation in America has now greatly changed. It is no longer a uni-religious or mono-cultural society. Perhaps the earlier America modifies its law the better it would be for that country.

The writer is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.

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