Has Freedom Of Speech Gone Too Far?

By Mehreen Omer, Lahore, Pakistan | Find her on Facebook

Freedom of Speech at It's Zenith

According to the Oxford Dictionary, freedom of speech is the ‘liberty to express opinions and ideas without hindrance’. This also resonates in the statement of John Stuart Mills, the founding father of freedom of speech, that there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing ideas and opinions. In contemporary times, the “freedom to insult” and ridicule other people’s convictions have incited furor and rancor amongst religious and ethnic groups.

The recent protests in Egypt, sparked by Facebook, YouTube and Twitter can be taken as a case study. We see how freedom of expression in this context has been overlooked to protect the interests of the government. Tanks are used to repel the angry mobs. What happened to the freedom of speech? Unfortunately, this double-standard is nothing new.

The debate on freedom of speech has gained a lot of impetus after, the events of the Danish cartoons, Salman Rushdie’s book ‘Satanic Verses’ by, and the screening of the movie ‘Fitnah’ by Geert Wilders. The big question is: has the freedom of speech gone too far?

Those who challenge the imposition of any restriction on speech hold the viewpoint that a lot of arguments which say that religious blasphemy should be illegal are based on the premise that actually ‘offending’ people should be illegal. They say that the law in Britain is based on victimization i.e. being able to injure or harm others, and not just being able to offend them. So in order to prove defamation, three things have to be proved:
          (1) prove that accusation as a lie,
          (2) and that lie should harm someone’s reputation and
          (3) that allegation must be said publicly.
Therefore, critics of restrictions on speech argue that a deceased person cannot be victimized and therefore the attacks on the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) of Islam are not statutory offenses.

They also try to rebut the argument that by insulting religion, you are inciting violence by arguing that generalizations are not to be made i.e. just because one Muslim is accused of a certain misdeed, not all Muslims are accused of the same, and therefore Muslims in general, do not need to be offended. And then again they stress that offending people is not against the law. They vilify those who behave like animals simply because they are offended. They also try their best to counter the arguments of those who say that religion is so important to society and so it should be given special treatment, by proposing that we are living in different times. We don’t see a total breakdown in society if religion is criticized. In ancient times, it may have been the case, but not today.

They also argue that freedom of speech has not gone far enough at all. They say that if you make it a criminal offense to offend someone, then you can make almost anything a criminal offense, since people could get offended by almost anything. So this argument, according to “them” is in effect, a two-edged sword. They further argue that religious beliefs do not require special protection since it will instead cause harm and deter us from being able to communicate your deeply held conviction to others.

So the underlying question surrounding the debate of freedom of speech is should blasphemy and religious insult be made illegal? This question has led to many emotional outbursts over the past century. The speaker’s corner, around the world, where people could come up and publicly debate about controversial issues, is a manifestation that it has all gone wrong. Jay Smith, famous for his debates in the speaker’s corner, openly attacks Islam there, which many Muslims consider as verbal abuse. The speaker’s corner undoubtedly then encourages disputes rather than sincere debates and dialogues.

But when the Western society talks about freedom of speech, they assume it to be already true; hence they create a discourse surrounding that presumption. The current debate of whether freedom of speech should be limited is a manifestation of the flaws in the freedom of speech in Western society - that we have to argue and insult, an accepted degradation etc. John Stuart Mill, the apostle of freedom of speech said that freedom of speech should be there because people want ‘truth, accountability, and facilitating of progress’. But there are several problems with this current model of ‘freedom of speech’. It exists only in the imaginary world; it is just an academic idea. There are several restrictions to freedom of speech such as slander, product defamation, threats, lying in court, speaking publicly without a permit, speaking about a trial outside the court after the judge forbids it, copyright infringement speech, hate-speech, profanity, noise-pollution, sedition, treason, speech exposing political secrets and campaign strategies!. There are pages and pages of legislation that define permissible and illegal “speech”. So this is not logically coherent, teaching us that “you are free to speak however, yet not free”. It doesn’t make sense. When the essence of something is removed from it, it doesn’t qualify to be recognized as itself. For example, if a human being is living because he is breathing, if he stops breathing, he is not alive. So freedom of speech does not exist. The rhetoric of freedom of speech can’t stand its own ground.

So a logically coherent definition of freedom of expression in society should be ‘expression within the context of the law and society’s values’. Freedom is in actuality, limited. The ‘freedom of speech’ principle in the Western societies is also based upon fluctuating secular liberal values. The two core liberal values of secular liberalism are that of individualism which is the belief in the primary importance of the individual and narcissism - a right to engage in self-profiting action without interference. But these are not cohesive values. If we throw garbage into a processor, we’ll get garbage from the output as well. William Burg, a famous social constructionist, says that 'a society affects the individual and the individual affects society'.

Liberals propose that freedom to speech goes hand in hand with freedom to insult and degrade. But they fail to realize that freedom to insult goes against the very reason freedom of speech is propagated in the first place. It must be reiterated that freedom of speech stands for facilitating truth, accountability and progress. Truth and progress develops by sincere debate and dialogue. Insults and degrading language do not facilitate debate and dialogue therefore insults should not be referred to because they go against the very reason of freedom of speech. Moreover, accountability requires good argumentation for example, you can’t prove that Tony Blair is an evil man by insulting and swearing and without proof, and so insults do not allow good argumentation as they go against the very reason of why freedom of speech is called for in the first place: Reason.

Even John Stuart Mill said that any speech violating good must be rightfully prohibited. It is not about tolerance; it is about preventing harm to the society. One should never underestimate the power of words. If some negative statements become predominant in a society, then it becomes a social norm. It happened with the Black people in the United States and it became a taboo to associate oneself with a black person. So conclusively, freedom to insult negates the reason for freedom of speech; hence “freedom to insult” should be restricted.

All the while the neo-liberals are going the complete wrong way round. They say that freedom of speech comes first and then truth, progress and accountability are accidental byproducts, or rather ‘intellectual excrements’. But the neo-liberals are relativists; they don’t believe anything has an intrinsic good value. They are relying on a blind assumption. They say that freedom of speech is a must for truth, accountability and progress, even though there are flaws in the system. But this is a result of their own historical baggage. The Catholic Church used to oppress the masses, and this led to the birth of the liberal tradition. So the West superimposes its historical narrative on everyone else, including the Muslims.

If one peels away the façade, it will become quite explicit that the West has used ‘freedom of speech’ as a smokescreen to attack Islam. Did you know the Danish criminal law actually prevents people from ridiculing other people’s beliefs? Geert Wilders said that the Quran should be banned to allow for freedom of speech. But then he caught himself in a paradox. Then again, it has been the intellectual dishonesty of the West with regards to ‘freedom of speech’ that they label anyone who criticizes Israel as anti-semitic, even though there are many Jews who criticize Israel.

It is imperative that we turn to an alternative model of expression; an Islamic paradigm, one that is based on intellectual and moral foundations to acquire truth. It must be indubitably realistic and must be couched in the socially cohesive values of respect, honor and dignity. The expression must be within the context of law and society’s values. In Islam, it is narrated that the greatest ‘Jihad’ (struggle) is a word of truth against a tyrant ruler. In a hypothetical scenario, if all bans are removed from free speech in a typical American classroom, foul words would be propagated like gas leaking from a hot air balloon. That is not to suggest that the American are any more inclined to bad language than are the British or the rest but that is the reality of the matter. How much will one censor? Even if we allow unrestricted use of obscene language, would we want our own children to be brought up with that? One has to look for the long-term impact.

The real problem is that people look at the symptoms, but they forget the cause. No one questions the underlying values of a contradictory limited-freedom to do as you like. The laws may or may not be the problem; it’s the secular liberal values that are deeply embedded in a society that need to be changed. As the values of individualism and freedom are not socially cohesive values they cause harm to a society. Allah says in the Qur’an, Surah Ibrahim,
“Have you not considered how Allah presents an example, (making) a good word like a good tree, whose root is firmly fixed and its branches (high) in the sky? It produces its fruit all the time, by permission of its Lord. And Allah presents examples for the people that perhaps they will be reminded. And the example of a bad word is like a bad tree, uprooted from the surface of the earth, not having any stability.” (Qur’an, 14:24-26)

So the very paradigm of the modern society needs to be shifted; and the Islamic model of expression should be applied, one that is based on social cohesion. It is unfortunate, however, that many still are bent upon treating the symptoms, without curing the cancer.
The assassination of the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, in Pakistan over allegations of blasphemy, calls for an urgent re-assessment of the definition of blasphemy. The fact that the law has been misapplied in Pakistan is causing a large number of people to rebel against the law itself. Some have even begun to doubt the existence of such a law in Islam. However, a verse in the Qur'an clarifies the issue;
''The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter. (Surah Al-Mai'dah, 5:33)

There is no doubt that blasphemy is a criminal offense, but what needs to be realized is what lies within its periphery and what lies outside it. To discuss what really is blasphemy is beyond the scope of this article; however, it must be understood that punishment is only for those who wage war against Allah and His Prophet ﷺ. We need to look back at the time of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ to understand the issue:

Indeed, Allah says in the Quran:
"He has already revealed to you in the Scripture, that when you hear the signs of Allah held in defiance and ridicule, you are not to sit with them unless they turn to a different theme. If you did, you would be like them..." (Qur'an 4:140)
Now, the issue is not whether Salman Taseer should’ve been murdered or not. The issue is whether Mumtaz Qadri, the assassinator, should’ve killed him or not. Again, such matters have always been understood by the Islamic scholars to be included in the jurisprudence of the state. An individual can never take such an action. So no! Mumtaz Qadri was not a hero. What he did was deeply abhorrent. Many people in Pakistan believe that he was motivated more by poverty than by religion. Again we have to carefully analyze which party has benefited the most from such an action. Who else? The Zionists just got another hot issue to defame Islam. Was it all by coincidence You decide!

Another important issue is if non-Muslims can openly preach their religion in a Muslim country. Is religion here a stumbling block to freedom of expression? Muslims are accused of double-standards. In this age of media warfare, every other ethnic group wants to use the likes of television and internet to promote their ideology. But why should falsehood be propagated? Shouldn’t it be the right of an ‘Islamic’ state, which is based on Islam, that it should protect the ideology on which it is founded? However, Islam does allow inter-faith dialogue done with the best intentions.
{watch Dr. Zakir Naik’s debate on YouTube}

Islam is also accused for allowing the killing of apostates if they leave Islam. Again, a reductionist approach is taken here where the actual circumstance is decontextualized from the ruling. We need to look back at the time of the first Caliph of Islam, Hazrat Abu Bakr (ra). The famous apostasy wars in which many refused to pay the Zakat (Wealth Tax), show that people are only to be killed when there is a rebellion against the state. An article on {Islamic Response} will further clarify the issue.

Special Thanks to {Hamza Andreas Tzortzis’s debate with Nikolai Segura, available on YouTube}.


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