Freedoms of Expression and Belief

Istiaq Ahmed

Posted Feb 7, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Freedoms of expression and belief —Ishtiaq Ahmed

We keep hearing that Islam respects other religions and the example given is of Hazrat Umar who when he visited Jerusalem in 638 AD as the caliph of Islam after Palestine had been annexed by Muslims from the Byzantine Empire politely declined the invitation of the Christian Patriarch to worship in a church, saying that this might encourage some Muslims to abuse that favour

The publication of a number of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) by a Danish newspaper has resulted in loud and angry protests by Muslims in many part of the world. Some of the governments of Muslim states have condemned the paper and demanded that the publisher as well as the Danish government should apologise for hurting the feelings of Muslims. The caricatures appeared first in September and resulted in ambassadors from Muslim countries seeking a meeting with the Danish prime minister to discuss the matter and express their objections; it was refused. Many observers believe that had that meeting taken place and the Danish government clarified that it has no legal power to compel a newspaper to apologise the matter could have subsided. That did not happen.

The caricatures were later published by a Norwegian newspaper and now some newspapers in France, Germany and the Netherlands have followed suit apparently to stress the importance of the freedom of expression. The result has been a worsening of the situation. Protest marches have taken place and some extremist groups have threatened violent action. In London after the Friday prayers on February 3, 2006, 700 to 800 demonstrators went around promising to avenge the insult with dire consequences and impose a ‘holocaust’ that the West will never forget.

The situation is extremely tense. Multiculturalism is again on trial and it is clear that a discussion is needed to establish the norms and rules according to which the freedom of expression can be exercised and if necessary regulated so that public peace is not subverted.

We need to put into perspective the freedom of expression as well as religion. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

With regard to the freedom of religion the UDHR lays down in Article 18:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Both these freedoms need to be considered together so that public opinion, and hopefully public policy, can be devised so that both these freedoms can be enjoyed together rather at the expense of each other.

As regards the freedom of expression, there can be no denying that it was won in the West after bitter and long struggles against the religious establishment and the ruling classes’ proclivity to censor all criticism of their actions. Yet, writers and publishers do exercise discretion and today sensible and responsible people would not indulge in anti-Semitic jokes or employ racist humour to denigrate other people. Not that it does not happen, but such attitudes are generally considered fit only for uncultivated people.

As far as the freedom of religion is concerned it too was secured through painful and protracted struggles against fanaticism, intolerance and persecution practised by the religious and state authorities. Consequently there is no compulsion to adhere to religious dogmas. This has enabled Western societies to study and analyse their religious beliefs and traditions in a scientific and analytical manner. It has not meant that individual and collective identity of Western societies is no longer derivative of Christian traditions and ethics. Christmas and Easter are occasions for much merrymaking and family reunion.

Immigrants, including the millions of Muslim immigrants, too have benefited from the freedom of expression and religion. They are able to write and propagate their beliefs without any interference from the state. Equally, they have been able to convert locals to Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and I have a Swedish friend who is a baptised Sikh with turban and other Khalsa symbols. Moreover, immigrants are able to secure financial and other support from municipalities and even central government for maintaining their cultural identity. Only recently a translation of the Quran by a Swedish career diplomat who converted to Islam, Ambassador Mohammad Knut Bernström, was published with government funding. The translation had been approved by Al Azhar University in Cairo.

Therefore not appreciating the freedoms of expression and religion that obtain in the West would be myopic and counter-productive. The West should defend both these human rights. Of course tension exists on whether hijab is a part of the Islamic faith or something some women choose voluntarily or are coerced by their families and clerics into choosing. The Sikhs have come up with the most original argument that since they fought two World Wars for the British wearing their turbans they can also survive a traffic accident wearing the same. Therefore they claimed that they did not need a crash-helmet while riding a motorcycle. On such matters more discussion is needed so that consistent and non-discriminatory public policy can be devised.

But the freedom of expression should be exercised with greater sensitivity when it refers to founders of religion such as the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Since Muslims do not accept that their Prophet should be presented in a pictorial form or in a caricature it would be wise to avoid doing so.

On the other hand, a historical-sociological analysis of the Islamic heritage needs to be attempted so that instead of an anti-intellectual dogma killing all critique of the past a more balanced and humane account is provided. It is time that serious Western and Muslim scholars try to present a more nuanced picture of Islam.

Muslim extremists have actively contributed to presenting Islam as an intolerant and violent culture. Why give only lip service to past achievements? We keep hearing that Islam respects other religions and the example given is of Hazrat Umar who when he visited Jerusalem in 638 AD as the caliph of Islam after Palestine had been annexed by Muslims from the Byzantine Empire politely declined the invitation of the Christian Patriarch to worship in a church, saying that this might encourage some Muslims to abuse that favour. Today fanatical Muslims are killing innocent tourists and setting fire to churches as has happened many times in Pakistan. Hindu girls are forcibly converted to Islam and Ahmadis are gunned down while praying.

It is unfortunate that mischievous individuals and other vested interests exploit such situations to present Islam only as a violent creed? The solution is not censorship and suppression of dissent and criticism, but educating people to exercise the freedoms of expression and religion with greater sensitivity and discretion.

The author is an associate professor of political science at Stockholm University. He is the author of two books.

Originally published in the Daily Times on February 7, 2006 at\02\07\story_7-2-2006_pg3_2