The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Free speech and responsibility

It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.
- Mark Twain

By now everyone who pays attention to current events (or in some cases has looked outside their window) will know about the twelve cartoons which were originally printed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ... last year (on September 30: the news seems to have been a little slow in spreading); and which have since been picked up by newspapers in Norway, France, and Germany, and also aired on the BBC: some out of genuine journalistic will-to-share/inform, some as an act of EU unity of defiance against a religious and vaguely threatening "them":
No religious dogma can impose its view on a democratic and secular society.
- France Soir [this was followed by an apology to Muslims by the paper's owner and the firing of the person responsible]
... and some, perhaps, even out of deliberate defensive-reactive provocation. Be that as it may, in the past 48 hours Danish flags have been torn and burned, Danish and increasingly other European Union embassies all over the Muslim world and in many parts of the EU have been picketed, spontaneous public (not state-sponsored or sanctioned) boycotts of Danish -- and increasingly now also French -- goods have been established or threatened, and Jyllands-Posten itself has received over 80,000 e-mails (many related to at least one determined hacking) as well as a bomb threat.
Camus once said there could be no press without freedom. But journalists can also abuse their freedom. That is why Le Figaro will not publish these cartoons.
- Yves Thréard, journalist
I write, here, as a person who has never spoken the shahadah aloud. I write, also, as someone who knows at least some of these demonstrations have been specifically organised ... and in the hope of opening a bridge of rationality, in a context of mutual respect, before we drive the existing wedge even deeper. We are human beings together. We can understand and respect each other's concerns, if we so choose.

The Muslim population of Denmark is estimated to be somewhere between 20,000 and 80,000: say roughly 1% of the population. The issues involved here would not change were the Muslims the majority or a single person or completely absent from the population. We are all inter-related. The world is not so big a place. No one of us lives utterly in isolation.
[United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan] believes that the freedom of the press should always be exercised in a way that fully respects the religious beliefs and tenets of all religions.
- Stephane Dujarric, chief UN spokesperson
In publishing these cartoons, the only concern the newspaper seems to have had is to print a message, in the interest of making money and under the banner of free speech. In an ideal world, the government ought never to temper free speech ... but we, as compassionate human beings, would also embrace the parallel responsibility to care enough about others to know when and how to place a bridle upon our own tongues. An ideal of free speech ensures that we can say anything we want ... but I suspect many would object just a little were I to (for example) publish in this blog any of the personal names and telephone numbers and addresses of various Internet authors to which I am privy. There is no law against it. There is only respect: respect for another's privacy; respect for another's beliefs.

Free speech requires a certain maturity to exercise responsibly.

And thus we don't live in an ideal world: and so the government -- every effective government in every country of the world -- places limits on what can and cannot be said. Law attempts to approximate what should, through mutual respect and common sense, be self-evident: but some or many individual human beings do not see some aspects which affect others as being relevant to them personally. Because law tries to approximate through legislation what is obviously not accepted by all (or else it would not be required and injustice would not exist), it cannot but fall short of what is societally desirable, let alone societally responsible.

Art, one of the two major exceptions, does not (cannot!) know respect -- in fact cannot test boundaries without disrespecting those boundaries -- but cartoons published in a newspaper are not so much art (in this sense) as political statement published for the primary purpose of profit and the secondary purpose of editorialising: neither of which is strong enough to override what should always be our baseline of mutual human respect. The other major exception, the fifth estate in its function of uncovering and revealing facts in the common interest (and the related concept of academic freedom, the student willing to question the author-ity), again does not apply here: for these cartoons in no way can be considered investigative reporting. In fact, they were actually solicited by the newspaper specifically with an eye to causing controversy.

So much for the newspaper and its stand on the banner of free speech without societal compassionate responsibility.

From the Islamic perspective, these cartoons have been found unacceptable on the twin bases of idolatry and mockery.

The original behind the rejection of idolatry in Islam are the Qu'ranic verses which reinforce the first part of the shahadah ("There is no God but God") and which are the approximate equivalent of the first and primary commandment of the Christian Old Testament: "Thou shalt have no other god before Me." While graven images or other representations or symbolisations are never explicitly mentioned in the Qu'ran (and the word "idolatry" is mentioned only in the directive to eradicate, eg. Sura 2:193), it is understood that any and all references to God not forgiving worship of any other gods, eg:
God forgives not joining other gods with Him; other sins than this He forgives whom He pleases. One who joins other gods with God has strayed far, far away. The pagans, leaving Him, call but upon female deities: they actually call upon Satan, the persistent rebel!
- Sura 4.116-17
also incorporate any attempt to symbolise. In fact, prayer times were specifically shifted away from exact dawn etc. in order to prevent possible association of worship with the old pre-Islamic deities such as al-Lat.

However: this injunction is only upon those who have accepted Islam. Even inside the Dar al-Salaam, in exchange for paying a special tax, Christians and other ahl al-kitab (People of the Book) are exempt from Quranic restrictions, even to the point of being allowed to purchase alcoholic beverages in Iran. This incident took place in the Dar al-Harb and was not promoted by Muslims. As Islamic law stands currently, it does not fall under Qu'ranic restrictions.

The second issue, that of mockery, cuts much deeper.

Mocking another's faith structure is never a mature thing to do: be it through a few cartoons or Syrian television showing prime-time drama documentaries depicting rabbis as cannibals. Almost invariably it arises out of a perception of looming threat: and leads and is followed, on a very slippery slope, to a hatred which can become genocidal. Given the already-existent and growing association in the west of terrorism with Islam generally (a growing fear which still threatens to undermine, perhaps even negate, the legal and popular election of a Hamas government), given the perception of threat and counter-threat which teeters too closely on the edge of erupting into a war of extermination: it is, shall we say, a particularly politically sensitive time to go trampling on another person's beliefs. The shadow of 9/11 and the subsequent invasions/active wars in Iraq and Afghanistan still hang heavy over all of us. In fact, Denmark's parliament has just decided to send more troops to Afghanistan. A newspaper with a sense of social responsibility even to its own country and soldiers might have chosen, perhaps, not to make their jobs even harder.

This ridicule walks the fine line between mockery and outright insult and hatred -- many might say it was crossed -- but never in all history has a slander been nullified by force of arms. The Islamic ideal -- as indeed has a parallel in the ideal Christian life -- is to emulate the prophet Muhammad in all things. If a non-understanding, non-Islamic slander chooses to depict him as hiding explosives in his clothing: why prove it right?


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