Freedom of speech and defence of values

By Shafqat Hussain

There has been an overkill of analyses worldwide with regard to Muslims’ reaction to the hateful video disrespecting the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the Western media. These analyses can be divided into two types. The first type focuses on the Muslims’ reaction in terms of the Muslim ‘psychology’, concluding that Muslims are unable to handle difference of opinion and get angry easily and may turn violent. Most of the analyses of this type have focused on violence that this reaction has triggered, which is both wrong and unproductive.

This line of analysis maintains that no matter what you do, Muslims will always get angry at something because they are irrational. This analysis maintains that Muslims cannot understand freedom of speech because they have not yet evolved to a higher stage of cultural (or even perhaps, biological), refinement which the European societies have attained, thus there is no point trying to have an honest discourse with Muslims on the issue. This analysis is promoted mainly by the likes of Fox News and adopted by its viewers and the followers of the Tea Party. They argue that Muslims cannot live with difference of opinion and their solution to the whole situation is that we should not pay any heed to these barbarian Muslims and stick to our defence of freedom of speech. They and the news media that they follow maintain that if they don’t stick to the defence of freedom of speech, then the next things Muslims will do is shove Sharia law down their throats. For these people, defence of freedom of speech seems to have become more important than what one actually defends because of it. This is the crux of the matter and I will return to it shortly.

The second type of analysis in the media is intelligent and historic and that is why it is limited to fringe TV channels, newspapers and websites. It looks at the deep-rooted cause of Muslims’ reaction, correctly portraying that reaction as not only about disrespect to the Holy Prophet (pbuh), but also a reaction against the long history of disrespect to peoples’ own sense of dignity and beliefs by the US, directly through wars and aggression and indirectly through installing and supporting puppet dictators to rule them. I like this analysis and agree with it wholeheartedly.

I want to take a third route, however, and build on the analytical thread that is developed in the second type of analysis. Rather than putting the spotlight on Muslims and their reaction to the blasphemous video and the historical reasons behind it, I want to put the spotlight on the reaction of those who are reacting to the Muslims’ reaction, that is, the first group of analysts, those who believe in Fox News and its ideology and forward the defence of the freedom of speech argument. I want to ask not why Muslims get offended so easily, but rather why these people are so ready to insult others. I want to look at what these people understand by freedom of speech, and what I think it should be about. I want to propose that the knee-jerk reaction of this group to defend freedom of speech, and not an idea or a value or any substantive thing using it, is emblematic of something very serious. It is emblematic of the fact that these people have freedom of speech but no voice. In their society, they are free to defend it, but not their values and interests with it. Now, I am sure, even this group will agree that disrespecting other people’s beliefs just for the sake of it, is not one of their cherished cultural values.

Their interests and values are different: they are about jobs, decent education, accountable corporations, honesty in politics and governments, in sum, good life and good governance. On these issues, society at large feels that it has no say and no voice, although it may have freedom of speech. Thus, their hollow defence of the issue in this domain of anti-Muslim sentiment is emblematic of their lack of voice in other domains — of politics, economy, culture; domains that really matter to them. For we know that it is Fox News and others like it that have the voice, because their speech matters, since those who speak through it are powerful people with powerful interests, which do not overlap with those who just follow (and may occasionally comment on the channel’s website or on its Facebook page). These people are like us, like many wretched Pakistanis, who also feel voiceless, unable to change the course of their history. Like us, they also fall into the trap of the powerful, of Fox News and the likes, easily. Like us, they are also unable to see that the interests and values that the channel promotes are not theirs but of the powerful. They have been duped by the powerful media to believe that freedom of speech amounts to leaving a comment in the ‘comments section’ of a news item. This definition of freedom of speech is promoted actively by the powerful media and done in order to divert attention from those interests and values that freedom of speech should defend.

So, the issue is valuable only in the context of what it defends. It becomes valuable only when speech that matters, that changes the course of history, is allowed to flourish — the speech that Martin Luther King gave on the steps of the Lincoln memorial, or the speech that Hazrat Zainab (RA) gave in the court of Yazid, 1,400 years ago — speech that defends the interests and values of the wretched of the earth. We need defence of that speech, which speaks the truth to the powerful. Freedom of speech should not defend the indefensible (such as unprovoked insult to other people’s beliefs) but the undefended. The undefended and the wretched should be defended with the kind of passion for freedom of speech that Faiz talks about in his verse, that I quoted.

Pakistan Press Foundation

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