Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Religion Versus Freedom of Expression | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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We are in the midst of battles taking place on different levels; and there are clashes between followers of different religions, and clashes between followers of the same religion. However looking into the details of such disputes one realizes that clashes are even taking place between followers of the same sect and even members of the same family. Although such conflict this represents defective behavior, there has been no lasting solution to this. Therefore despite the numerous conferences and proposals put forward to resolve this, no decisive laws have been enacted, and it seems that it will be a long time until we can reach a mutual understanding or accept a collective defeat [on this issue].

Thirty years ago the Iranians – at the height of the glory of their Islamic Revolution – objected to Salman Rushdie’s novel [The Satanic Verses] thereby initiating a clash of civilizations. Everybody in Europe at the time, from writers to publishers to readers, were accustomed to freedom of expression in their cultural domain, and this even included freedom of expression against the Christian church. Those who objected to something were only entitled to stage demonstrations outside the theatre or publishing house in question, or to write letters protecting this. Anybody who is dissatisfied can only merely refrain from seeing or purchasing the work of art in question and encouraging the others to do the same.

However in the Islamic world, the experience and history is completely different. Europe experienced more than three centuries of ideological conflict over Galileo’s telescope, Darwin’s apple, and before this Martin Luther’s position against the deification of the Church. It is thanks to Martin Luther’s position that freedom of expression today has become holy [in Europe] and the principle of coexistence between followers of different schools of thought has been implemented. Therefore the most one could do to criticize a particular work of art was to respond in kind, i.e. to publish a book or write an article refuting and objecting to the views of others. Muslims are not part of the European geography and history, and we have yet to reach the same stage as the West in this regard. As a result of this, the Arab behavior is condemned by the Europeans, while the Western behavior seems to be rude and nasty to Muslims. As a result of this, the struggle between the two sides is intensifying via UN committees and open conferences with regards to the limits and boundaries of freedom of expression.

As I mentioned in the introduction, the problems with regards to freedom of expression and criticism does not merely exist between two different cultures; one that has been in use since Martin Luther’s conflict with the Church, and another that is committed to its traditional values, but that this conflict exists on all levels. The Christians consider the Muslim view of Christ to be blasphemous, while the Jews also consider the mockery and aggression directed towards them in Muslim texts to be something that should be stopped, where we Muslims believe that their mockery of our religion is an outrage, however if there were no such differences there would only be one common religion in the world. The same clashes are taking place between followers of the same religion, as can be seen in the exchange of accusations between the Sunnis and Shiites. If the Shiites had accepted the Sunni version of history with regards to the Prophet’s companions, they would not be Shiite but rather Sunnis, and if the Sunnis believed that Ali Bin Abu Taleb should have been the first Caliph following the Prophet’s death and that the Caliphate should follow the Prophet’s line with regards to succession then they would not be Sunnis but rather Shiites. While if the followers of Al Qaeda abandoned their jihadist principles they would not be followers of Al Qaeda or terrorists. This is how a series of differences continue to spiral out of control, even amongst followers of the same religion, and differences and clashes have emerged [in Islam] over issues such as the niqab and the hijab and the limits of preventing vice. As a result of this, people label each other infidels and issue takfirist fatwas that say that it is permissible to shed each other’s blood.

This is a general picture of the conflict between opponents who have failed to impose the necessary limits and boundaries for peaceful coexistence, which does not necessarily mean recognizing or consenting to other people’s beliefs. This is a problem that is far too large for the UN to resolve, or for it to be resolved by putting an end to armed extremist groups or fundamentalists here or there; rather this is a huge ideological problem.