Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Limit of Freedom of Expression is the Rights of Others

    Wednesday, May 02, 2007   No comments

Saturday, February 11th, 2006


With Muslims’ protest spreading and turning violent in some places of the Muslim world, news outlets wanted to explain to their readers the reasons behind this reaction. I was one of those called upon to provide some insight, which I did. I noted that contrary to some media’s reports; the anger is more about the fact that the cartoons are offensive and less about visual depiction of prophets since not all Muslims consider images as a taboo. Muslims were offended by the content of the caricatures which suggested that Islam and all Muslims are inherently violent.

Some readers did not appreciate what I said and might have written to the editors to express their displeasure. When their letters were denied space in the newspapers, some emailed me directly to tell me that Muslims are “a cult of murderous fools” and that “the world could have been (better) without (their) lunatic prophet.” Some told me that there is no place for “sand-niggers like me in the civilized world.” Although I did not use a language or image that offends any one, some readers still took it upon themselves to offend me; yet, some find it hard to understand why Muslims feel offended by a cartoon depicting their prophet wearing a bomb for a turban.

In order to put things in perspective, I would like to pose the following questions: Why didn’t the newspaper publish these angry letters? Are the editors engaged in blatant censorship? And why did the U.S. media refrain from re-publishing the cartoons that offended Muslims?

The recent events are an opportunity for Western media to clarify its function and responsibility as it is a chance for Muslims to work toward building civil institutions like a press free of government intrusions. The U.S. media needs to tell the public that it did not cower under the pressure of widespread protest; rather, it upheld its own standard of integrity and professionalism. In a free and civil society, not only individuals and the press express themselves freely and independently, but also responsibly and ethically by upholding the laws and respecting the dignity of others.

Muslims must understand that to ask governments to police the press will necessarily set a dangerous and momentous precedent that will irreparably compromise the independence of the press, an institution that is integral to building and maintaining a civil society. Muslims ought to be reminded that in every profession, as in every domain of life, there are those who abuse their powers; but the acts of the few should never be the basis for circumventing or punishing the institution of independent press, which is an indispensable force for public good.

The Arab rulers are using this opportunity to redirect citizens’ anger away from their record of abuse, torture, and corruption. Proof of this is the fact that the first officially sanctioned boycotts and protests took place in countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Libya; states known for repression, tyranny and authoritarianism. In essence, these regimes are trying to marginalize those who are demanding freedom of the press and freedom of expression by manipulating the rest of the population into believing that freedom of expression is equal to freedom of denigrating religious symbols. It is as if they are telling the people that if you wish to revere your religious values, then you must reject the idea of freedom of expression as an alien and immoral concept.

The attempt by some Western press to teach Muslims about freedom of press by offending them and depicting their prophet as a violent man is working in favor of these tyrants and extremists. If the Western media wants to teach Muslims a lesson in civility and freedom of the press, it ought to do that by showing itself working for positive change not for spreading hate and ignorance. It also needs to show that it can govern itself without government intrusions.

A. E. Souaiaia is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Iowa.

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