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Freedom of expression


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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.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (51) Closed

Umesh Oct 05, 2012 03:54pm
Freedom of expression is not freedom to steal government property/secrets. If Julian Assange comes up with something original on his own, he would be certainly protected.
Umesh Oct 05, 2012 03:43pm
What about minorities getting persecuted in Pakistan? How well are other religions respected in Pakistan? Respecting other religions and not offending religious sentiments of other people equally applies to Muslim countries and we see that Muslim countries are the biggest offenders in this regard. Muslims need to respect other religions first before crying wolf about hurt religious sentiments.
Monayem Chowdhury Oct 05, 2012 02:33pm
MONAYEM CHOWDHURY USA When you advocate boundaries on Freedom of Expression, you are inconsistent with the basic premise of the right of Free Speech and Freedom of Expression. Then what you consider as a Fair Boundary, someone else might find that suffocating.
Freedom Oct 05, 2012 02:42pm
I'm sure there is not a topic in the world that is not offensive to someone or the other. So should we ban talking altogether? I go into a library and find many things offensive. That shouldn't mean I have the right to burn down the library or have it shut down. If I find something offensive, I avoid it, not find a way to ban everything offensive to me. If a muslim or a christian or a hindu says that only his/her religion is valid, I view it as an insult to other religions, but that does not mean that person should be persecuted for saying that. I value freedom of expression above all.
Mario Henrique S. Lins Oct 05, 2012 03:59pm
The religion of a man can be a joke for another, that?s life.
Arshad Khan Oct 05, 2012 03:05pm
Very well written and informative. The writer is an enlightened Muslim, the likes of whom are needed more and more in the Muslim world. My question would be, whether in today's world where information goes viral, that the law of freedom of expression should be made more discriminating when it is expressed in medias that will go round the world. This is difficult as at the same time good ideas and information in general will also suffer. Oct 05, 2012 03:22pm
By being a monotheist, you are offending other religions because you say they are wrong. So, get used to being criticized by others, for you are one of them.
Tom Oct 05, 2012 03:10pm
The author fails to understand that "free speech" and to a greater extend "freedom of expression" is an inalienable right, not law. Anotherwards that right is given by God, no muslim protest or complains are going to change the 1st amendment right. No one can pass laws(congress or the president) agnist 1st amendement. America is not tyranical muslim land.
mamoon Oct 05, 2012 07:32am
sir, you had defined it in quite manners revealed some hard realities which were being politicized by u.s admin. to indulge psychological war all around the Muslim world
Krishna Bhagawan (@KrishnaBhagawan) Oct 05, 2012 01:51pm
If you want others to be respectful to you you need to be respectful to them. Muslims need to show respect towards others beliefs first. To start with stop saying Islam is the only true religion. Its disrespectful towards me.
Aman Oct 05, 2012 01:51pm
Terrorists take advantage of such events and make peaceful protests violent
Aman Oct 05, 2012 01:48pm
good blog
Idrees Humayun Oct 05, 2012 01:42pm
All of us know what is better for America but not the America itself. Instead of changing ourselves, we are full of advice for others.
mazharuddin Oct 05, 2012 09:09am
Julian Assange too has the right of freedom expression in general. It is condemnable to deny his rights. At the otherside I do not agree to deny any persons right of freedom of speech that is a divine right by God. We should follow prophet Muhammad who denied his forefathers religion and brought Religion Islam with simplicity and main theme that Believe in one God and Pray him, Adopt right path and avoid evil. There is need to have general discussions to realize truth by each other. Tks Mazhar
krishnan,India Oct 05, 2012 07:43am
True but that has nothing to do with the subject matter.Both need to happen.
Badal Oct 05, 2012 10:45am
I disagree. Anybody should be allowed to challenge and criticize another's belief, including religious. Violence against another on the other hand cannot be tolerated.
Bill Moyer Oct 05, 2012 02:37am
perhaps the sooner Pakistan modifies its blasphemy laws, the better it is for that country. If it is not too late already.
naveed Oct 05, 2012 07:38am
Please read it before demanding a modification
abc Oct 06, 2012 10:35am
because, it is the only religion of peace and the absolute truth. And truth cannot be challenged and truth has no versions
Aman Oct 06, 2012 01:23pm
Insulting a religion is a real blunder. I demand ban because these site are openly supporting blasphemy acts.
gulab Oct 05, 2012 04:51am
I do support the words of writer, america reshapes its laws the better it is.
Ranjan Oct 05, 2012 12:57pm
The muslims love to criticize and challenge other religions. It is only when their religion is discussed by others that they stop breathing easy.
Rajeev Nidumolu Oct 05, 2012 03:59am
Problem comes when a belief system assumes a mantle of political ideology and claims it has universal answers . Does it become a legitimate subject for attacks and criticism in media? Catholicism faced similar attacks in history when it assumed political mantle.
Pradeep Oct 06, 2012 05:53am
America is what it is because it is America. The founding members of USA are greatest visionaries (no matter how much you argue you should agree on this) and because of their foresight and the laws they made America has become what it is now (the only super power remaining on the face of earth and I bet if a green card is offered we would be ready to tear down our own passports) the beacon of modern world. If Americans do follow all your advice it may become another India, Pakistan or Libya but not America (USA).
Raj Oct 05, 2012 07:12pm
In any case movie or ad is much better way of expressing oneself then killing somebody in the name of so called peaceful religion.
malik Oct 06, 2012 01:41am
So I guess I dont enjoy freedom of experssion in this article.
sb Oct 05, 2012 10:49pm
Completely agree. There's some hypocrisy and lack of consistency in Mr. Engineer's thinking. He's been ok with non-Muslims being treated as second class citizens in the past.
Neeraj Oct 05, 2012 04:56am
america should change its law but your 50 countries will not take religion out of politics.
Praveen Mathur Oct 05, 2012 12:59pm
Writer was supporting the right of painter MF Hussian to depict nude paitings of hindu goddess. He is hypocrite.
BRR Oct 05, 2012 04:36am
The esteemed writer should realize that what one finds objectionable would be just fine for a host of others. Justifying banning of some expression because it affects the writer's sensibilities even though millions of others don't mind it is bordering on unjust and definitely immoral. Subjective emotions cannot be allowed to silence dissent or another opinion, however distasteful.
Cyrus Howell Oct 05, 2012 03:30am
"The innocence of Muslims was deliberately made to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims." NO DOUBT.
Mustafa Razavi Oct 05, 2012 03:30am
I will believe their commitment to freedom of speech when they honor Julian Assange's freedom of speech.
Alan Oct 05, 2012 03:52am
would be more compelling if the author researched the level of respect Muslims show for the religion of minorities in their countries and preach what they want others to practice.
Indian Oct 05, 2012 12:29pm
I am trying my best to convince you that what I am saying is truth whereas you want me to believe what you say is true. Truth is standing on side, wondering why are we not searching for him.
Truth Speaker Oct 05, 2012 04:37pm
If Pakistan would implement full freedom of speech and revoke its blasphemy laws--Encourage discussion of religion--i can bet they would progress much faster.
Cindy Oct 05, 2012 08:35am
Jesus is ridiculed in movies, writing and art regular but I don't see riots and killings. Posters are not violence and America all have to tolerate this, though speaking out against it is fair enough.
Yusuf Oct 05, 2012 04:59pm
Yes freedom of expression is good but Why speaking against Holocaust is prohibited? One can't even see the records for authenticity. Whatever has been told must be accepted. Food for thought
Krish Oct 05, 2012 05:00pm
Better for whom?
Surinder Singh Kade Oct 05, 2012 03:24pm
Who is to decode,what is offemcive,this is very subjective. Surinder Singh Kade New York
KKRoberts Oct 05, 2012 08:41am
No civilized society will enact a blasphemy law.It should be scrapped.
rex Oct 05, 2012 08:51am
Why don't you talk to freedom of other religions in Muslim countries? Why these countries have Islamic laws?
Pankaj Narula Oct 05, 2012 06:14pm
..... or allow minorities to practice their religion "freely". Moreover, the Saudis have the audacity to ban practicing of other religions in their country. Who else but the muslims could do this ?
uk Oct 05, 2012 06:20pm
I just wonder whether you have read the policies of read the Freedom of Expression
sam Oct 05, 2012 05:24pm
Can I criticize certain aspects of Islam, like imposing Jizya on Hindus and other weaker religious followers in the historical context ? This was such a burden on mostly poor Hindus, which economically forced them to convert to Islam.
Utkarsh Oct 05, 2012 06:33pm
Julian Assange is suffering not because of what he says, but what he does. He's illegally acquired sensitive information and he's posting it for all to see. While you and I may support his reason for it, legally it is still treason and a threat to national security.
Bools Oct 05, 2012 09:16pm
Good! Deal with it!
Concerned Oct 06, 2012 02:52am
How would Julian Assange have fared in Pakistan if he was broadcasting Pakistani diplomatic cables?
omkar Oct 05, 2012 11:43pm
Mr.Engineer expends so much energy bellyaching about freedom of expression that you wonder whether he wants Pakistan like blasphemy laws all over the western world.No thank you.Your mobs cannot impose their will half the world away.As an islamic scholar,he should advise muslims to respect non-believers and stop being crybabies all the time.Incidentally,not a word against mobs burning their own country!
Concerned Oct 06, 2012 02:46am
"Had there been a plurality of religions as is the case today, such a law perhaps would not have been enacted." Most Americans would claim that freedom of expression is even more important with the plurality of religions.
Joe Oct 05, 2012 11:26pm
The subway poster is now surrounded in all of it's locations with two other posters, one Jewish, one Christian, to that counter it's message of hatred. This is better than banning the poster. Hate cannot be defeated with hate, or with bans. It can only be defeated with love.
Allaisa Xuver Oct 05, 2012 11:26pm
No body has denied Julian Assange's right to free expression. But no one has a right to steal information and publish it.