Idries de Vries
The current outrage all over the Muslim world, sparked by the awful vilification of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) in the movie “Innocence of Muslims”, has been carefully framed by the United States government as an issue of freedom speech.
Immediately following the Benghazi incident White House press secretary Jay Carney swiftly brushed aside suggestions that the Muslim anger might also have something to do with the United States’ foreign policy over recent decades – the US support for dictators across the Muslim world, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the constant drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia which are killing hundreds of civilians, et cetera. He said “This is a fairly volatile situation, and it is in response not to United States policy, obviously not to the administration, not to the American people. It is in response to a video, a film”.
President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton then went on to effectively criticize the Muslims for their anger and for not adopting freedom of speech as the West has done. A White House statement said “we cannot and will not squelch freedom of expression in this country”. And on a trip to Morocco Clinton lectured the Muslims saying “our country does have a long tradition of free expression which is enshrined in our constitution and our law and we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views”.
As a consequence, the debate in the West has centered around the state of freedom of speech in the Muslim world, with many of those in politics, intelligentsia and the media arguing that if the Muslims really want to improve their situation, they will have to, at some stage, accept that everything should be allowed to be said including things which some might deem offensive.
This is, however, a bit of a curious position.
For one because all countries in the West have themselves limited freedom of speech in one way or another. In the United States freedom of speech was originally limited through the so-called “Time, Place and Manner”-rule under which the government has the right to determine when, where and how people are allowed to express their opinion. Following the attacks of 11/9 the Patriot Act put further limitation on freedom of speech in the United States. In Great-Britain the Public Order Act disallows, amongst other things, “threatening, abusive or insulting words”. And around the world freedom of speech is limited through anti-defamation laws which ban claims that could give an individual, business, product, group, government, religion, or nation a negative or inferior image.
And this begs the question why, when the West itself has limited freedom of speech, it is pushing the Muslims to accept unlimited freedom of speech?
It is not as if these referenced laws are just written in the western books of law without being actively applied, namely. Using the “Time, Place and Manner”-rule the United States government habitually disallows demonstrations and protests in the vicinity of the Democratic and Republican party conventions. The rule was also used to keep protestors away from the 1999 WTO Conference in Seattle, thereby preventing their voices of complaint from being heard. Furthermore, the Patriot Act is regularly used to limit the communication of thoughts and opinions deemed “unacceptable”, as in the case of Javed Iqbal who in 2009 was sentenced to 9 years in prison for providing customers of his cable-tv business with access to the Hezbollah linked Al Manar news channel. Great-Britain only last week used the Public Order Act to convict a Muslim youth named Azhar Ahmed for posting “all soldiers should die and go to hell” to his Facebook account following the death of six British soldiers in Afghanistan. An unacceptable “derogatory” and “inflammatory” statement said the judge in his case. And The Netherlands has recently convicted a man for sending “offensive” tweets to the Twitter account of Queen Beatrix, with the judge saying it was “irrelevant” whether the Queen had actually read them or not.
Under their own legislative standards “Innocence of Muslims” should clearly be considered a crime, therefore, and this even calls into question the posture of indignation taken on by many in the West in response to the Muslim anger.
Take for example the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Both have published cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) claiming they saw a need to defend freedom of speech in the West against the Muslims. “There is nothing to negotiate with fascists”, said Stéphane Charbonnier, the top editor of Charlie Hebdo. Back in 2003, however, Jyllands-Posten decided not to run cartoons depicting Jesus because “they will provoke an outcry”. While in 2008 mister Charbonnier’s Charlie Hebdo sacked its cartoonist Maurice Sinet because a cartoon of his was deemed anti-semitic by some!
While the western concern for freedom of speech in this case seems a little overstated (if not hypocritical…), the claim that limitless freedom of speech is a prerequisite for progress is simply absurd.
The idea of freedom of speech developed in the western world as a response to the tyranny of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. During that time it was heresy punishable by death to have – let alone express – opinions that differed from Church dogma. It was obvious to the Enlightenment philosophers that this was hindering progress and for this reason they started calling for freedom of speech. In the Areopagitica from 1644, for example, generally considered one of the first cases for the institution of freedom of speech, John Milton argued that the Church’s control over thought and expression should be halted as it discouraged learning and prevented attainment of the truth.
Following calls such as these for freedom of speech, eventually it did became the norm in the western world. But it was a limited form of freedom of speech, because while the philosophers agreed that freedom of speech was required for progress, they also agreed that unlimited freedom of speech would be a disaster – or “most disastrous” in the words of Baruch de Spinoza.
Indeed, the invention of freedom of speech has enabled the West to make major progress in the areas of science and technology. However, this does not necessarily mean that the western idea of freedom of speech is the only way to achieve progress.
It should not be forgotten, namely, that the Muslim world was once at the forefront of innovation in science and technology just as the West has been for the last 200 years. From the 8th to the 13th century CE the Islamic civilization produced scholars such as Al Khwarizmi who laid the groundwork for the science of mathematics, Ibn Khaldoun who founded the social sciences, Jabir bin Hayyan the father of chemistry, and Al Jazari the engineering-pioneer whose works enabled the first steps into automation of industry. In addition to these and other Muslim scientists the Golden Age of Islamic civilization also brought forth great minds in as diverse sciences as Judaic law and philosophy. Maimonides lived and worked during these times and is today commonly accepted as one of the greatest scholar of the Jewish Torah. The philosophers Al Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rush also lived during this time, and not to forget Mohammed bin Zakariya ar Razi who was not only instrumental in the development of the scientific method but who as a rationalist philosopher was also one of the first (if not the first…) to argue against religion and in favor of secularism.
Yet in the books of those times one finds no mentioning of freedom of speech, meaning the Islamic civilization had its own unique path to truth and progress. It placed no limits on thinking, called for discussion and debate and invited all to be engaged, irrespective of race, religion or point of view. But, in line with the Quranic command “Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious” (16:125), it discouraged remarks that might be considered offensive to others and completely banned remarks that were intended to be offensive.
This effectively enabled the Muslims to achieve progress without causing the rudeness and disrespect that leads to conflicts between people and anxiety in society, as can be witnessed in the western world today.
So if only the West had followed this enlightened example of Islamic civilization, then things would never have gotten as out of hand as they have now.
Idries de Vries is an economist who writes on economics and geopolitics for various publications. As a management professional he has lived and worked in Europe, America and Asia.