Freedom of expression and reaction

By: N. Elahi

Ever since the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten committed the temerity to publish caricatures of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in 2005 and defended it on the basis of the right of freedom of expression, the inviolability of this right has come under fire. It has become divisive and disputed. No doubt the perennial parameters of freedom of expression are too simple to be comprehended without any external guidance. Its understanding is natural and axiomatic: my freedom ends where the domain of your rights starts.

Even Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognises the right to freedom of expression as a human right, does not believe in unfettered freedom. It adds that the exercise of rights of expression and speech carries “special duties and responsibilities“ and may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions when necessary for respect of the rights or reputation of others”, or “for the protection of national security, or of public order (order public), or of public health or morals.“
But intentional intrusion into the sanctity of this right has made it a weapon to bruise others sensibilities. People like Sam Bacile, who produced the profane film, Innocence of Muslims, and newspapers like French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that published anti-Muhammad caricatures, have wielded this right to cut and injure millions of Muslims’ sensibilities with impunity.

In fact, everything has its jurisdiction. Its operation beyond it raises a serious question of morality, legality and legitimacy. Freedom of any sort is no exception. Rather actions and words causing destruction and distress to others fall clearly out of the ambit of freedom of action and expression. It is abuse of freedom. It causes confusion that is further compounded when it earns grossly disproportionate reaction. This is what happened in Libya, Egypt, Pakistan and other Muslim countries where protestors went violent over the profane movie against the Prophet (PBUH). Fuming demonstrators attacked American embassies in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen.

Huntington’s clash of civilisations does not seem a distant cry anymore. The global village has been on the verge of falling apart since 9/11. As if wars were not enough that the so-called right of freedom is being wielded unscrupulously causing seething unrest among Muslims. One profane film has not just undermined the interfaith harmony, but has widened the gulf between the Muslims and the Christians and Jews. It is high time to redefine the right of freedom of expression on good old traditions of honouring others sentiments, especially the religious sentiments. Stubbornly clinging to the so-called freedom of expression and press at the cost of peace and tranquillity of the world would lead to disaster. The pick and choose of accepting or rejecting this right is even more dangerous.

The French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, published extremely blasphemous cartoons. François Fillon, the Prime Minister, voiced support for Charlie Hebdo and refused to take any action against it on the basis that freedom of expression and press was their fundamental right. Ironically, on the other hand, the French government rejected a request by the Muslims to hold demonstration in front of the Paris Grand Mosque. According to the police ban, organisers of a possible demonstration will face six months in jail and a fine of 700 Euros ($900). In a similar move, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls ordered a ban on any further demonstrations against the anti-Islam film made in the United States.

Moreover, France’s sincerity to observe this right fairly was further exposed when a French court just put the kibosh on publication of the British Princess Kate Middleton topless pictures. The court called the invasion of Kate and Prince William‘s privacy a “brutal display” and ordered Closer magazine to immediately turn over all digital copies of the photographs.

This uneven approach, myopic mindset and partisan modus operandi need to be bridled. Legislation of some sort is inevitable antidote. It can be in the form of UN backed international laws like Geneva conventions or bilateral laws like extradition treaties. Leaders and legal eagles ought to sit down and set legal parameters to confine it to acceptable limits. Further, delay in this regard can propel the world to the brink of destruction with the weapon, which was once considered the right of an individual in the free and modern world.

People have generally become intolerant over the years, especially in Pakistan. They tend to act irrationally and react disproportionately over the religious matters. There have been cases of killing and lynching of persons, who were allegedly involved in desecration of the Holy Quran. Some horrendous attacks on minorities were experienced during the recent years. Is it due to increase in religious intolerance or slackness in implementation of laws that people tend to react violently, disproportionately and mostly quite unintelligently?

What is unintelligent reaction and protest? If somebody pours invectives and the one being subjected to it resorts to chest-beating and hair-pulling what difference it would make to the perpetrator. Rather he would gloat over giving maximum pain and tension to his target. An unknown Coptic Christian Egyptian fraudster, a small-time porn Director, Sam Bacile, (whose actual name is learnt to be Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a California man who was convicted in 2009 of bank fraud) made a third rate low quality movie to malign the Holy Prophet (PBUH), and the Muslim world went into flames. Bacile aka Nakoula and Pastor Terry Jones and their behind-the-scene supporters must be gloating over the roaring success of their conspiracy. In Benghazi, Libya, the American Ambassador, three other Embassy officials, and several Libyan security staff members were tragically killed. Only in Pakistan more than two dozen people have died in the protests against it and property worth millions has been destroyed. What a way to go! What harm it would do to the perpetrators? Couldn’t we find less self-destructive ways of protest?

There could have been a range of options to protest in a more effective manner starting with challenging the issue in the court. Muslim countries could send petition to the UN. In Pakistan, instead of taking out hundreds of small but violent processions, one mammoth but peaceful rally could have created a much greater impact. The governments of Muslim states could summon the Ambassadors of respective countries to register protest. The best option was people-to-people contact; to address the people of America, most of whom are not anti-Islam bigots, to make them realise of our sentiments. Why couldn’t we demonstrate our reinforced and reinvigorated love for Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) by declaring to name every new born baby in the world after his name for one month?

It is important for us to avoid taking the bait of the conspirators, who want to pit the Muslims against the non-Muslims, especially the West. Islam is religion of peace. Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) was the greatest harbinger of peace and tolerance. If we are his true followers, we must learn the lesson how he endured gross injustice and insults without retaliating. In these turbulent times, we can take cue from the pragmatic policies of great intellectuals like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, who made prudent endeavours to befriend British rulers in order to foil the conspiracies to pit Muslims against them. Today, there is a greater need to avoid falling into the evil traps of the conspirators. Conscious and constant efforts ought to be made to prevent the clash of cultures.

The writer is a security and defence analyst. He holds master’s degree in Intelligence and International Security from King’s College, London.

Pakistan Press Foundation

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