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Preserving Freedom of Expression with Provocations

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Message Muhammad A Hussain

Freedom of expression, a basic human right, is the most prized achievement of the human society. It is the central marker of the liberal civilized society--achieved solely in Western democracies at the cost of great sacrifice.

The fight for freedom of expression started in ancient Greece with Socrates' insistence on speaking his mind--for which, he was put to death in 399 BC. Dead for long, the struggle was revived in Europe during the Renaissance. John Milton--emphasizing that freedom of expression was central to government's duty of serving the people--urged the British parliament in 1644: "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties." After another 145 years, a government charter, the French Constitution, adopted freedom of expression as a fundamental human right for the first time in 1789, which gradually became the hallmark of all Western democratic constitutions.

The U.N. also adopted it in Article 19 of its Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which reads:

"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."

However, the arrival in the West of large number of Muslim immigrants, whose home countries have no concept of freedom of expression and tolerance for dissenting views, have posed a serious threat to the survival of this hard-earned prized achievement of humanity. Muslims are a supersensitive people with unrestrained propensity towards violence and vandalism. Any criticism of their customs, culture, behavior, and particularly their religion, sends them into violent fury--which obviously is a serious threat to freedom of expression.

The first eruption of Muslim intolerance took place in the Salman Rushdie affair (1989), for his novel The Satanic Verses, critical of Islam's Prophet. Then came Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh's film, Submission in August 2004--depicting Quranic justification for mistreatment and violence against Muslim women. Van Gogh was shot and stabbed to death by a Muslim zealot in November 2004.

The Rushdie and van Gogh affairs had their terrorizing effect on Western society imposing a de-facto gag on any criticisms of Islam--frustrating the artists, writers, and critics.

To break the spell of unspoken taboo and censorship surrounding criticisms of Islam--cartoonists in Denmark, braving sheer dangers, published caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in September 2005, depicting him in unflattering and violent lights. Predictably, Muslims unleashed widespread violence and vandalism all over the world, causing death of dozens of people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and Nigeria. The cartoonists, and their publisher Fleming Rose, are still being hunted by Al-Qaeda assassins.

Next, Pope Benedict provoked the Muslim sensitivity in a speech in September 2005 by unwittingly referring to a 1391 document based on a conversation between Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus and a Persian Muslim scholar--in which, the Emperor charged that Prophet Muhammad brought only violence and nothing new. Muslims responded with violence and vandalism in early 2006, only to prove the Pope right. It, however, passed off with more protests than violence with only one known death, namely of an Italian nun, in Somalia and attacks on a few churches.

Next, all Danish newspapers recently republished Prophet Muhammad's cartoons simultaneously as a protest against a plot to kill one of the cartoonists, foiled by Danish authorities. The reaction to this provocation in Europe and the Islamic world has been much more civilized and muted than that of 2006.

The latest in this saga of provoking Muslim sensitivity is Dutch politician Geert Wilders' much anticipated anti-Quran film, Fitna. After watching this film, one would wonder how copying a few passages from the Quran to show their consistency with the behaviors, actions and speeches of Muslim radicals and imams, make it an anti-Quran and anti-Islam film.

However, against widely anticipated violence, the Muslim reactions both in Europe and the Muslim world have been rather calm. There have been condemnations and protests but no street violence. If it passes without vandalism and loss of life, despite the pre-release hysteria and anticipation of violence--it will be a monumental success for the exercise of one's right to speak freely without intimidation and violence.

Muslim leaders and the OIC have summarily condemned the film and its maker. This, although unfortunate, is within the limits of civilized exercise. Most unfortunately though, most Western governments, the EU and the UN--the supposed vanguards, not only of defending, but also of spreading liberal-democratic values, such as freedom of expression--have joined in the chorus of condemnations of Wilders' right to free expression.

One agrees or not, the West's tolerant, liberal and democratic future will depend on creating tolerance and appreciation of these values among its Muslim populace--who will undeniably become a dominant force in most European countries in a few decades. I argued during the Danish cartoon controversy in 2006 that 'the inclusion of freedom of expression in the Constitution of Western democracies was meant for negating the sensitivity of any individual or racial and religious groups, not to protect it; and to foster tolerance--which can be achieved only by blunting or desensitizing any kind of sensitivity through its exposure to criticisms.'

The blunting of the too sensitive Muslim feelings by exposing them to criticisms is obviously working. Provocations to Muslim sensitivity--from Salman Rushdie's novel to Wilders' film--have achieved significant success towards desensitizing them, and making them relatively tolerant. Nonviolent protests, instead of intimidations, death threats and violent eruptions, are becoming more common among Muslims.

Freedom-lovers cannot rest until Muslims show their true sense of tolerance--say, by accepting the display of a Piss Muhammad painting, like that of Christ, in major exhibitions and museums, preferably in Islamic countries. For that to happen, many more provocations have to come over a long period of time. Incidentally, another provocation was brewing in the Netherlands. Eshan Jami, an Iranian born ex-Muslim, was going to release a cartoon film on Prophet Muhammad's life, which was surely going to create another outcry. But the plan to release the film was abandoned fearing violence by Muslims.

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Muhammad Hussain is a researcher and freelance writer.
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