Over the past few weeks, the issue of freedom of expression and its limits has pre-occupied the European press and public opinion. There was the issue of the Danish cartoons that defamed Islam that were published first in Denmark, then in European newspapers, and finally in newspapers around the world. There was also the sentencing of the British historian David Irving to three years imprisonment for the denial of the Holocaust. Finally, the pending case against the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, which has seen his suspension until a verdict is issued for comparing a Jewish journalist to concentration camp guard. The journalist filed a lawsuit against the mayor.
Each of the three cases has its particular circumstances; however, what is common between them is that their repercussions led to wide yet decisively settled debate in Europe about what is and is not permitted within expression of opinions and beliefs.
In the cases of Irving and Livingstone, the common factor is the European sensitivity and feeling of guilt concerning the Holocaust, which transforms the slightest praise of Nazism, or doubt about the Holocaust, into a crime punishable by law even if the matter is just one of opinion. The supporters of Israel have made use of this and have formed strong lobbies. These lobbies have successfully managed to portray any criticism of the Hebrew state and its policies towards Palestinians as anti-Semitic. The examples are both varied and abundant.
Yet currently, many voices in Europe have been raised against what some European leftists have called a “repressive climate”. There are now several strong petitions by European writers that condemn this climate and call for absolute respect of free expression. According to the French leftist historian who described Irving’s opinions as “foolish,” there are no laws to try somebody for their foolish opinions.
In contrast to European sensitivity towards the Jews, there are a number of problems with regards to Muslims. The crisis of the Danish Cartoons was only the last in a series of transgressions. French Muslims have still been unable to recover from the novel of Michele Hoellebecq, which strongly criticized Islam. Not to mention the opinion of the female Italian journalist Oriana Fallachi who slammed Muslims after 9/11 in her book.
The Danish cartoons uproar drove Europeans to ask themselves an essential question: is freedom of expression only granted to those with whom we agree? The other pivotal question is could freedom of expression become a shield for those who intentionally or otherwise seek to defame other religions and cultures? The debate is rampant today in Europe, is absolute freedom of expression desirable and should it be entrenched, or should lawsuits continue against those who view their opinions whether these opinions are valid or demonstrate utter foolishness? The Europeans are entering a detrimental debate over what is and what is not permitted. We Arabs on the other hand can do nothing but sit and watch as we are too far behind to ask these kinds of vital questions.