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FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION: Sometimes a Weapon in the Hands of a Fool

By Kam Zarrabi, Intellectual Discourse

Remember Salman Rushdie’s best-selling book, “Satanic Verses”, which caused international controversies two decades ago? The book made this Indian/British fiction writer of little renown an overnight celebrity in the West, and a target of criticism in the Islamic World. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a “fatwa”, a religious jurisprudential opinion, that Rushdie’s depiction of the Prophet of Islam and his family in such highly offensive manner was a blasphemy and intolerably insulting to Moslems; and that the writer, Rushdie, was unfit to live. 


Rushdie, now a celebrity and the darling of the writers’ guilds and the champions of the freedom of expression worldwide, feigned shock and dismay at the violent reactions to his “fiction” novel in the Islamic World. How dare the Ayatollah issue such a fatwa, he asked self-righteously? Didn’t this Medieval mullah, he seemed to imply, understand the sanctity of the freedom of expression in the “civilized” World? 


Rushdie, of course, was quite familiar with the pre-Gandhi colonial days of his country of origin, India, where a junior British officer could exercise the power of a maharaja; where Indians, perhaps Rushdie’s own grandparents or kinfolk, were forced to draw little chariots that the sahibs rode playing polo. The agents of the Empire insisted on being addressed as sahib; after all, the word actually means owner, a term slaves use to address their owners or masters.


Well, the diminutive Salman had managed to emigrate to the seat of the Empire. But, even after abandoning his traditional Indian twang and mastering the fine art of proper Oxford English, he was still the little Hindi fellow with a distant Islamic background.


The emergence of defiant Islam and its anti-colonial and anti-Western rhetoric gave the aspiring writer the perfect opportunity to jump on the bandwagon. He hit two targets with one shot: By ridiculing Islam and its holiest symbols, he not only distanced himself from the stigma of his heritage once and for all, he very cunningly made himself the target of attack by people who were also attacking what the Empire had stood for. He and the Empire were now conjoined in values and privileges. Rushdie thus secured a position for himself in an ivory tower in the heart of the Empire, where his rights were defended and protected, he so perceived, by powers greater even than those of the Divine.


Several other writer/opportunists have followed in the same path, by finding comfortable shelters in the seats of various empires, where their right to free expression provides them with the opportunity to join the bandwagon to fame and fortune by playing to the public’s innocently naïve sentiments. Fictitious or, at the very least, highly exaggerated, yet plausible, scenarios are portrayed as autobiographical accounts of oppression, persecution and personal suffering. I just wonder how successful Ms. Azar Nafisi’s book, “Reading Lolita in Tehran”, would have been if the title were instead, “Reading Lolita in Tokyo”. I don’t believe for one second that the popularity of this book had anything, or as much, to do with its literary merits as it had with its shrewd formatting within a politically opportune ambience.


This brings me to one of the hottest current political/cultural controversies, that of the cartoons in a Danish publication, depicting the Prophet Mohammad in highly offensive manner.  As objections and even threats of reprisal are heard around the Islamic World, the non-Islamic West is once again rising in defense of the freedom of expression.


We can address this issue at three separate levels:


First is the very concept of freedom of expression which encompasses the freedoms of speech and of the press. The outrage in the Western media, as well as the official pronouncements by the various governmental officials in the West, have focused on this inalienable, indeed sacred, right for which, according to the prevailing mythologies, wars have been fought and much blood has been shed. What seems to be beyond comprehension to the Western mindset is the inability or the unwillingness of other cultures, especially the world of Islam, to a/ adopt and cherish the same freedoms and, b/ to at least appreciate and respect the sanctity of these freedoms among the Western cultures.


However, as is usually the case with almost all self-redeeming and self-righteous claims to higher standards, this freedom, like all others, comes with many strings attached. The freedom of expression is not, and has never even intended to be, a boundless liberty, unhindered by bonds of responsibility. If you run into an old friend named jack on board an airplane, you’d better make sure you address him as Hello, Jack, rather than the usual Hi, Jack! You are not allowed to cry Fire in a crowded theater or shout Bomb in a subway station just for fun and games. Since the riot or stampede that might ensue could cause tremendous harm to others, such gratuitous exercises of your freedom of speech will land you in jail.


But, harm to others does not always entail physical harm; emotional harm could be more sever and longer lasting. In Germany, a progressive Western country by any modern standard, any expression of denial or even doubt abut the Holocaust is legally prohibited. What happens to the freedom of expression should someone decide to question the accounts of the Holocaust or to portray such horrors in a satirical and humorous cartoon strip?


In the so-called secular Western societies, as elsewhere, divulging information that is deemed to be a security risk by the regime constitutes a breach of a “sacred” code, and is punishable by law, and rightly so. In Israel, Mordechai Vanunu, the whistleblower on Israel’s clandestine nuclear weapons program, spent long years in jail and remains incommunicado even after his release.


We may, therefore, conclude that the highly touted freedom of expression we are defending so valiantly is actually limited not only by the laws of the land, but also by the virtue of common sense.


Second level of concern has to do with the current highly charged political atmosphere, where the social grievances and challenges by Europe’s mostly North African Moslem immigrant populations are increasingly portrayed as threats against the very foundations of the Western cultures by religious fanatics, i.e., militant Islam. And, considering the recent history of international terrorism and the current so-called war on terror being waged in the Islamic lands of the Middle East, it is no surprise that the uninitiated or the politically motivated blames Islam as the cause, rather than the scapegoat or excuse, for the hostile behavior of certain groups or individuals.


The offensive cartoons that are now circulating among other publications in Europe, and even publicized here in the United States by FOX and some other media, are no more than fear and hate driven Islamophobic sentiments, often softened by referring to the object of criticism not as Islam, but as the more politically correct term, militant Islam.


Third, and the most significant area deserving analysis, is the conflicting worldviews between today’s dominant global powers and the struggling, emerging Islamic societies. Quite naturally, each side firmly believes that its standards are worthier and must prevail globally, and all games should be played under its rules. Again, quite naturally, the rules and standards established by the party that has the longer reach and bigger guns ultimately prevail. This is the way it has always been, and there is no reason to expect any significant change in the foreseeable future.


Western media, television and radio commentators and their call-in public, as well as readers’ letters to editors in various news publications, all voice shock and outrage at the Islamic World’s reaction to the Danish cartoonist’s depiction of the Prophet of Islam.


For the average American, Briton or French citizen, this violent reaction in the Islamic communities to mere cartoons is yet another sign of barbaric intolerance and militant nature that characterize their culture. In response to these violent protests, the average Joe or Jane proclaims incredulously, What right do they have to impose their sensitivities upon us in the West?


In a way, they are absolutely right: Those cartoons that satirized the Prophet of Islam were published in a European country, not in some Islamic domain. And, according to the rules of the game as set by Western standards, the same rules that supported and protected Salman Rushdie’s freedom of expression, the cartoonist had every right to publish what he pleased, and the government of Denmark was under no obligation to stop him or apologize on his behalf.


As reality has it, the rest of the world, the Islamic societies in particular, do not feel obligated to play the game by Western rules. Well; ok, let’s say shame on them for not acknowledging our superiority and the primacy of our values; but the fact still remains that they insist on playing the game by their own standards.


As we saw in Salman Rushdie’s case, the “fatwa” was meant to stretch beyond international boundaries and breach the sanctity of the freedom of expression guaranteed under Western rules of the game. Just as George W. Bush declared that terrorists who intend to harm America can run but cannot hide, the Islamic edict maintains that those who insult Islam and blaspheme against it should be punished. And, just as George W. Bush insists that those who harbor terrorists are as guilty as the terrorists themselves, the Islamic voice declares that those who harbor and protect the enemies of Islam are also subject to reprisals.


Let us not forget that, in some cultures, emotional damage to tens or hundreds of millions caused by insults against their sacred values might be just as great, if not greater, than the tragedy of the deaths of hundreds or thousands in a terrorist attack would cause in other societies: The perpetrators can run, by they cannot hide; remember the phrase?


This is not a debate about who’s right or who’s wrong: For the time being, the side with the mightier economic power and bigger guns dictates what’s right and what’s wrong. There is a question, however, as to the longevity of this global imbalance or the status quo. The balance of power seems to be yielding to new, unconventional factors that might tilt the playing field in the opposite direction.


If hope for the survival of humanity is to have a chance to materialize, sensitivities must be honed by reason and sensibilities; on both sides, not just by the underdog. The underdog is not to remain under forever. The trend of the global dynamics already indicates the emergence of new dragons from the ashes of the old.


The Danish newspaper might have even been able to print cartoons mocking the massacre of the Jews in the Holocaust, not that it ever would; but not in Germany, of course, where this exercise in freedom of expression is forbidden by law, and for obvious reasons. This sensitivity better extend beyond ones familiar cubicle of security and comfort, as the global village is undergoing shrinkage in a rapid rate.


The events of September the Eleventh, President Bush’s pet phrase since that disaster, showed the world how dangerously vulnerable even a mighty superpower could be. However, it is not the fear of reprisals that should serve as the deterrent to arrogant disregard of other people’s cultural values and deep sensitivities. Neither is retaliation in kind the best way to discourage such behavior.


Championing the rights of opportunists like Salman Rushdie and the Danish cartoonist is as hypocritical as it is unwise. It is hypocritical because freedoms that offend are aberrations of the term; and unwise, because this kind of arrogant chauvinism leads to unpleasant escalations of tensions between masses of humanity.


As residents of this planet we should all be concerned; unless, of course, we are prepared to go to any extent, any extent at all, to prove to the world at large that we set the rules of the game for all to play. There are those who actually believe if we hesitate, “they” will ultimately attempt to impose their own rules upon us.


They may very well be right. However, sanity would suggest compromise instead of belligerence and confrontation; but it is the insane that are running the affairs of the planet these days.


May humanity have mercy upon itself.



... Payvand News - 2/13/06 ... --

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