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Free Speech - A Universal Concept or Only a Western Value?

By       Message Dave Lefcourt     Permalink
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The U.N.'s General Assembly annual meeting opens today and "free speech" is at the heart of the agenda, particularly as it relates to the prevailing values, attitudes and beliefs operating in all the countries of the world.

But before getting to what has precipitated this sudden concern over "free speech", there are two important questions (which may or may not be part of the "official" discussion today, yet from here, there are two diametrically opposite questions that are at the crux of the controversy):

1. Is "free speech" a universal concept that should be accepted by all peoples of the world?


2. Is "free speech" just a Western concept, not accepted universally and is clashing with the sectarian and cultural values of other peoples, particularly in the Muslim world?

Over the past two weeks there has been protests and violence precipitated by the video made in California denigrating the Prophet Mohammad. To Muslims, such denigration of the Prophet is blasphemy and should be condemned as offensive to all Muslims.

To Western minds, or better non-Muslim believers, denial of free speech, even speech that may be considered hateful must be protected on the grounds that limiting any speech is unlawful and in the U.S. is protected by the 1 st Amendment clause in the Constitution.

Of course all Western societies are not uniform in protecting free speech. In the U.S. neo Nazi's are allowed to march and spout their venomous speech as being protected under the Constitution. In Germany any reference to the Nazi era i.e. wearing the swastika, saying "Heil Hitler" is banned.

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So is what we have been witnessing recently in the Arab/Muslim world a "clash of civilizations", a concept written about by Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard in the early 1990's an example of the irreparable breech he said will be the "fundamental source of conflict"along cultural and religious lines" between the West and Islam?

From here, Huntington's "clash of civilizations" concept doesn't take into account the ability of societies with different cultural and sectarian values being able to mutually respect their differences.

Let's take the concept of "progress". It is a totally Western idea. From this writers perspective there's a commonly held assumption which exists in the U.S. that progress is universally accepted, is inevitable and the natural way of humankind. Yet progress is a relatively new concept in the West that certainly didn't exist in the "Dark Ages" before the Renaissance.

Assuming Western values are universal is a form of conceit, arrogance and possibly with Americans connected with their sense of being exceptional.    

Is it a stretch to say in the West and particularly America, there is little knowledge of Islam, the Prophet Mohammad and what they mean to Muslims? Ever since 9/11, considering the negative reactions of many Americans to the building of Mosques in their communities and particularly near the site of the former Twin Towers, it is hard to imagine such antipathy is not felt by American Muslims as well as Muslims everywhere.

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So now with the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York that brings many of the world's leaders to the event, this whole furor arising from the denigration of the Prophet and what that means to Muslims is front and center. Even Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan has declared all 57 Islamic nations "should speak forcefully with one voice" calling for "international legal regulations against attacks on what people deem sacred."

There is little doubt the sensibilities of Muslims have been deeply offended and Western ideas of "Free speech" is in their cross hairs.

The final question is, will there be recognition on all sides that there are values each holds dearly but are irreconcilable to the other? That is the dilemma which from here can only be overcome by the mutual respect of those differences.

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