26 February - 4 March 2009
Issue No. 936
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Free speech and fatwas

Understanding and tolerance between the West and Islam can hardly be achieved 
when one side continues abusing the other, writes Aijaz Zaka Syed* 


This appears to be a year of anniversaries. If Iran's revolution was marked 
last week, the media spotlight this week has been on the fatwa the late 
Ayatollah Khomeini issued against Salman Rushdi 20 years ago.

A great deal has been said and written over the past two decades for and 
against The Satanic Verses as well as the fatwa condemning its author for his 
cheap offensive targeting the prophet of Islam. And today as the world revisits 
the storm Rushdi's underhand book and Iran's fatwa unleashed back then, a lot 
of chest thumping and hand wringing is going on in the West.

Rushdi's defenders are back with a vengeance and both the rabid right and 
liberal left have joined forces to take on "extremist Islam" that is apparently 
a clear and present danger to the hallowed ideals and values of "Western 

At a time when anything to do with Islam and Muslims looks fair game, the 
Rushdi saga appears to offer another opportunity to all Islam bashers. Some 
cleverly cloak their invective in a critique of Iran and all the troubles it 
appears to be unleashing across the Middle East. Some target the alleged 
inherent intolerance of Islam and its followers in the name of debating free 
speech. The rest simply do not need an excuse to open another front in the "war 
on Islamist terror". Seems we are the world's favourite punching bag. Just try 
using the same freedom against the Jews and see the instant results.

Last week, British journalist and columnist Johann Hari wrote a rather nasty 
piece dripping with hatred for Islam in The Independent, a fine newspaper I've 
long admired. Of course, he does it in the name of defending free speech and 
human rights. Hari's article that was reproduced in The Statesman published 
from New Delhi and Calcutta generated lot of heat and dust in India, home to a 
large Muslim community. As a result, the Statesman's editor and publisher were 
arrested for "hurting religious sensibilities". 

As a journalist, I empathise with the Statesman folks because they were 
penalised for no fault of theirs. But were the people who came out on the 
streets in protest wrong to do so? I don't think so. The Independent columnist 
was certainly out of line when he attacked Islam in his piece titled, "Why 
should I respect these oppressive religions?" But if you think Hari is equally 
irreverent to all religions, you'd better think again. The whole piece is 
devoted to Islam and its "oppressive" practices and teachings. 

Hari, who was last year awarded Newspaper Journalist of the Year by Amnesty 
International, is all worked up that world bodies like the United Nations are 
curbing the right to criticise religious beliefs. In fact, Hari's harangue 
begins with the lament that the "right to criticise religion is being slowly 
doused in acid".

Specifically, the writer is upset that the UN Human Rights Council has accepted 
an old demand by Muslim states to check the "abuses of free expression 
including defamation of religions and prophets". In fact, Hari bewails the fact 
that with the UN conceding to the Muslim appeal against attacks on religious 
beliefs and symbols in the name of free speech, writers like Rushdi can no 
longer have the "freedom" to target Islam and its prophet. He goes on to 
complain that "today, whenever a religious belief is criticised, its adherents 
immediately claim they are the victims of 'prejudice' -- and their outrage is 
increasingly being backed by laws."

But that's how it should be, shouldn't it? What kind of freedom is it that 
gives you a right to hurt others and abuse their sacred beliefs and 
convictions? Arguing that nothing should be sacrosanct in a free society and 
that he is not attacking Muslims but their faith, Hari says: "All people 
deserve respect, but not all ideas do!"

That's some argument and some logic! Fortunately or unfortunately, I've never 
lived and worked in the West. So I've really got no idea what makes the likes 
of Johann Hari reach this conclusion. But I've heard that line of reasoning 
before. Like when Sheriff Bush and Deputy Sheriff Blair reassured us that their 
war was not against Muslims but against a "hateful, evil ideology".

That is the cleverest thing to say -- or perhaps the dumbest! Because history 
would tell you that those looking to humiliate you will first attack what you 
believe in. Which is what Hari has been trying to do for some time. Which is 
what those behind the Danish cartoons sought to do when they abused the man who 
is loved and revered by a billion believers more than their own lives. 

This is also what the Dutch MP Geert Wilder, who has made a documentary 
entitled Fitna (Strife) comparing the Quran to Hitler's Mein Kampf, has been 
trying to accomplish. Wilder was denied entry into Britain recently, sparking 
angry protests by apologists like Hari.

Finally, this is what Rushdi's supporters have been trying to do in this tired, 
old debate about the freedom of expression. 

But is this really about free speech and civil rights? Is it really that hard 
for our European friends to see why we refuse the balderdash that goes about in 
the name of freedom? We are not against free speech or human rights. They are 
as important to us, if not more so, as they are to champions of freedom like 
Johann Hari. But no freedom is absolute, and every right comes with 
responsibility. Your right is wrong when it violates other people's rights. 

If playing with people's beliefs and trampling on all they hold sacred is 
freedom, then we're better off without it. And when we talk of beliefs and 
sensitivities, we don't just mean one but all faiths. We must and we do respect 
all religions and scriptures. In fact, the religion Hari calls "oppressive" 
warns us that you are not Muslim if you do not believe in all the holy books 
and messengers that came before Islam. Which is why the denigration of Jesus 
and Moses is equally unacceptable to us. This is how it should be. All 
religious beliefs and scriptures are a collective heritage of mankind that 
should be cherished and celebrated. 

Religion should be a source of strength and peace and unity. It can indeed 
unite us, if we learn to respect each other's beliefs and convictions. All this 
recent talk of bridging the gulf between Islam and the West is very noble: I 
greatly admire the well-meaning initiatives by Saudi King Abdullah and others 
in the West to prevent the civilisational conflict that Samuel Huntington 
obsessed over. But it takes two to make peace. You can hardly have a dialogue 
when the other side continues to abuse you. 

* The writer is opinion editor of Khaleej Times

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