Two years ago, the world happened to face a controversy caused by the publication of blasphemous and defamatory caricatures of the Holy Prophet (saw), the Holy Qur’an and other sacred rituals of Islam in some European newspapers. Sequel to a strong protest by the world community in general and the Muslim countries in particular, the upheaval temporarily quietened. But it is most unfortunate that the denigrating publications have been restarted. As before, the new wave of nonsense has once again sprouted from Denmark.
Not less than eighteen newspapers of a civilised and peaceful country like Denmark have published the heinous caricatures. Furthermore a Holland MP Geert Wilders has produced a fifteen minute film containing indescribably indecent, shameful and demeaning material against the Qur’an and the Holy Messenger of Islam (saw). This new wave of blasphemy which was calmed down by the intervention of peace-loving leaders of the world two years before points to a conspiracy hatched by the evil forces that are engaged in shaking up and destroying the world peace. They desire that the world must plunge into a clash of civilisations.
Considering it our fundamental responsibility we draw attention of the rulers and leaders of all the 257 countries of the world and the Muslim, Christian, Jew and leaders of all other religions to take serious notice of the mischief mongers and their heinous designs to play with the sentiments of a hundred and fifty billion people on the globe just in the name of the freedom of expression. The failure of governments to address this situation has allowed it to spread all over the world, with no end in sight. This situation has been unnecessarily allowed to spiral out of control and has threatened the concept of peaceful co-existence. If not addressed, it can lead to a potential clash of not only civilisations but religions and societies as well. This article aims to put the issue in this perspective.
Currently the newspapers involved in blasphemy and other media are trying to justify their profanity in the name of freedom of expression. Much of this debate has focused on the “right of freedom of expression” with its defenders advocating the sacredness of freedom of speech which needs to be upheld no matter what the consequences. However in reality the issue is not one of curtailing the right to freedom of expression since this is a right that is not absolute and no one can claim so. Rights are reciprocal and their enforcement is interdependent on other fundamental rights. To insist that a right is absolute is erroneous since such a right can infringe other basic human rights.
Every country that claims to be part of the “civilised and democratic” world has put its own limits on freedom of expression in the interests of society in order to maintain a certain level of human behaviour, be it based on local norms and customs, culture or religion but in essence to protect the dignity of their moral and religious, social, and societal values.
So to suddenly create an outcry that the right to freedom of speech is being undermined by Muslim protests is clearly a fallacy. The free propagation of child pornography for instance or the incitements of religious or racial hatred in the media is banned in many countries and quite rightly so. In many European countries it is a crime to deny the Holocaust, being a criminal offence in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland, and is punishable by fines and a jail sentence.
There is also a law of defamation normally under the Law of Tort that can lead to an individual being compensated for offence caused. The absolute right to free expression is curtailed in order to balance the rights of an individual. In the same way an act that causes offence to a whole community can never be justified under the banner of freedom of speech. Moreover in many countries it is illegal or at least discouraged to degrade or abuse the constitution or certain national institutions such as the army, courts of law, or parliament. Contempt of court also exists all over the world which severely limits freedom of speech, violation of which can lead to imprisonment. If the right to freedom of expression is absolute, why are there no objections to laws such as these?
To give respect to an individual’s honour and dignity is a fundamental human right protected by law as is the prohibition on blasphemy and defamation as well as the right to religious freedom. The UN Charter, constitutions and laws of many countries provide protection to these rights.
The UN Charter recognises this right in Article 1 (ii): “To achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”
It is also recognised in the European Convention on Human Rights Article 9: “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subjected only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
The constitution of the USA, Amendment I of Bill of Rights states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Moreover many countries have passed anti-terrorist legislation, severely restricting the civil liberties of individuals, with the legislation drafted in a manner that is clearly aimed at focusing upon Muslims in the countries concerned. There is a strong feeling that a substantial minority is being continually abused and misrepresented in the mass media through the portrayal of negative images not based upon reality, and then subjected to humiliating checks and procedures when going about their lives on a daily basis, all in the name of freedom of speech and national interest.
It is thus highly surprising that the sacred elements of its faith are ridiculed just in the name of freedom of expression and speech knowing that the reactions will be extremely tense. There is no doubt that re-publication of these caricatures by the newspapers involved was an exercise to demonstrate control and power directed against Muslims, either subscribe to our culture and way of living or suffer the consequences and be ridiculed and debased.
Realising the significance of this right some world dignitaries have condemned the publication of these caricatures and have emphasised the restriction of the right of the freedom of speech too.
Kofi Annan said, “I also respect the right of freedom of speech. But of course freedom of speech is never absolute. It entails responsibility and judgement.”
The US State Department said, “These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims.” Spokesman, Kurtis Cooper said, “We all fully respect freedom of the press and expression but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatred in this manner is not acceptable.”
If internationally recognised principles of tolerance and co-existence are put aside and moral and religious values are dishonoured then the present situation will worsen and the prevailing tensions will intensify. Europe considers itself to be an educated and civilised society but its response to the gross infringement of the basic right to religion of one of its minority communities has become un-understandable. There needs to be some mechanism to put an end to these horrific occurrences which may prove a potential threat to world peace. Those who advocate that the right to freedom of speech is being eroded and any restraints upon it cannot be tolerated. They must look within their own “democratic societies” and the extent to which their civil liberties have been eroded through the recent anti-terrorist legislation.
Source: The nation, 22/4/2008