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Thursday, 4 October 2012

Freedom & hate speech hypocrisy

Freedom per se has no value. It is what freedom is for. It is the use to which it is put. It is the sense of responsibility and restraint with which it is exercised. 

THE crude and disgusting video by some American citizens mocking Prophet Muhammad has caused great anguish to Muslims around the world. Blasphemous provocations by some media mavericks in France are adding insult to injury.

Even before the sacrilege perpetrated by the video Innocence of Muslims, the deeply-wounded Muslim community was living in humiliation and helplessness.

The 65-year-old American-aided genocide in Palestine continues to rage unabated.

In Syria, Western mercenaries are leading the civil war with overt and covert help from the Western alliance. Iran is under daily threat of annihilation. In blatant violation of international law, American drone attacks continue mercilessly to murder innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

There is in most Muslim minds a perception that Islam is under attack; that Muslims are under siege; that behind the beguiling rhetoric of democracy, human rights and the war against terrorism, there is a cunning plan to re-colonise Muslim lands and seize their wealth for the insatiable appetite of Western economies.

It is in this background that the exploding Muslim rage against blasphemy must be understood.

However, understanding something does not mean justifying it. Human life is sacred and no idea and no theory can excuse the murder of innocents.

It is with sadness and shame that I note the violence and deaths resulting from the airing of the obnoxious video. Equally painful is the mindless damage to Buddhist religious places in Bangladesh because of Facebook insults to Islam.

Having said that I must state that we all have a duty to show respect to others and to not denigrate what they hold as sacred.

We have a duty to censor ourselves when we speak to others about what lies close to their hearts and souls.

Blasphemy violates the sacred; it trespasses boundaries that must exist in every civilised society; it causes pain to millions.

God and all His prophets must not be defiled. Blasphemy should be a punishable criminal offence in much the same way sedition and treason are.

Unlike free-speech advocates who place this freedom at the heart of their new abode of the sacred, I think that freedom per se has no value.

It is what freedom is for. It is the use to which it is put. It is the sense of responsibility and restraint with which it is exercised.

Blasphemy is a form of hate speech. Andrew March admits that “many in the West today use speech about Muhammad and Islam as cover for expressing hatred towards Muslims”.

Geert Wilders and makers of Innocence of Muslims are hate mongers, not human rights pioneers.

Behind hate speech is the ideology of racial or religious superiority. Hate speech amounts to discrimination.

It promotes denigratory stereotypes. It attacks basic premises of the human rights system, premises as deep as equal human dignity, respect for others and equal protection.

It must be asserted that Islamophobia is a new form of racism.

Further, the claims by Western leaders, including President Barrack Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton that the constitutional principle of free speech permits no state interference is an overstatement.

In the US, the First Amendment of the Constitution has since the beginning been interpreted to mean that “prior restraints” on freedom of expression are not allowed.

But this does not exclude the legal possibility of post-event prosecutions and sanctions. For example, defamation is actionable. Contempt of Court is punishable.

For much of its history the USA has had a Sedition Act. Supreme Court decisions over the decades have vacillated between various criteria for determining the justification for invasion of free speech.

But there has always been the possibility of post-event restrictions to avoid danger to society. There is freedom of speech but sometimes no freedom after speech!

An Espionage Act exists. Whistleblowers are prosecuted. Under the Obama administration, six prosecutions under this Act were all directed against journalists exposing government wrongdoing.

At the Food and Drug Administration, they spy on their own employees’ email. At the Department of Defence any soldier who speaks about government lies in Afghanistan or Iraq is jailed. Twenty-seven laws exist to monitor social media content.

The State Department blocks Wikileaks with its firewall. The founder of Wikileaks is being hounded.

European record is even more reflective of double standards. Public order laws are used regularly in Britain and Germany to criminalise “politically incorrect” expressions or pro-Nazi ideas and to punish any comment, research or analysis that departs from the officially sanctioned version of the holocaust.

In February 2006, Austria jailed British historian David Irving for three years for denying the holocaust.

Overt and covert censorship is very much part of Western societies. Only that it is more refined; it is non-governmental; it is de-centralised. Its perpetrators are publishing houses, financiers, advertisers, interest groups, editors, publishers and other controllers of the means of communication.

Obviously free speech in the USA and Europe is not absolute save when it demonises, dehumanises and denigrates Islam and Muslims. Then it is part of the new abode of the sacred.

Shad Saleem Faruqi is Emeritus Professor of Law at UiTM 


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