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Freedom of expression: Larger issues

Last updated: Monday, September 24, 2012 12:14 AM



Whether intended or not, the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo’s decision to publish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) will only compound the worldwide fury caused by a California-made anti-Islam film. The privately funded film, “Innocence of Muslims”, sparked worldwide protests last week claiming at least 55 lives. The victims included US Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other American diplomats who were killed in a rocket attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi.

The French magazine seems to have joined the ranks of those who think that the best way to proclaim one’s commitment to free speech is to insult Islam and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) by crossing all boundaries of decency and good taste.

A front-page editorial in the center-left French daily Le Monde states that the “fundamental” principle of freedom of expression outweighs all other concerns, including religious ones. We disagree. No less important is the need to maintain public decorum and social cohesion.

True, free speech is one of the most basic values of any liberal society, but it should serve a larger public good. Does the kind of freedom of expression which the magazine says is its aim serve any public good? No, on the contrary, it promotes disharmony and feelings of enmity, hatred and ill-will between different religious groups and communities.

Even in the West freedom of expression is not absolute. Writing a book that denies the Holocaust or even questions the generally accepted figure of Holocaust victims can land you in jail in many European countries. Those who are oblivious of the dividing line between free speech and loose (or dangerous) talk should realize that in our technological age, individual actions have global repercussions. Those Muslims who feel rightfully indignant should realize that the best way to show their love for their religion is not to behave in ways that conform to the crude images their enemies have projected of Islam. They should heed the advice of OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Imam and Khateeb of the Grand Mosque Sheikh Saleh Bin Mohammed Aal Taleb and Muslim World League Secretary-General Abdullah Al-Turki who have all urged Muslims to be responsible and restrained in their reactions. It is not on the streets that the larger questions raised by the film and cartoons should be discussed and settled. There is a civilized way to do so and appropriate international forums like the UN in which to debate and settle the issue.

Muslim leaders are aware of the urgency of the problem. Al-Turki has urged governments and international organizations to take legal action against blasphemous materials such as films and cartoons denigrating the Prophet (pbuh). Sheikh Saleh Bin Mohammed Aal Taleb has called for laws to be passed to prevent the incitement of religious hatred. It may be difficult for European countries to enact laws that would prevent any legitimate criticism of religious laws or practices. But there are large numbers of people in the West who question the wisdom of insulting Islam under the guise of free speech. Organizations like the OIC and the Arab League should enlist the support of such individuals and governments in the West and work for a law with the widest measure of international acceptability. In the final analysis, this is not a problem concerning only Muslims. It is a global problem.

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