Sunday, December 2, 2007

Free Speach and Islam (1)

One of the biggest cultural differences I’ve come across in the Middle East is the huge problem of getting across to locals what freedom of speech means in [most of] the West. In many ways the tradition is strongest in the USA and to a certain extent the UK, and their cultural derivatives NZ, Australia, Canada, etc. When combined with the principal of separation of Church and State, it leaves many Muslims baffled (as the Danes discovered recently).

Caution: If you’re reading this, please ensure you’ve first read the bit here on the right hand side of this blog about not being easily offended. You’ve been warned.

Free Speech means, of course, many things and has wonderful complications and subtleties, but to me it means that one is generally free to criticize public officials or Government policies, free to voice opinions about, say, human behaviour, science, religion or politics, and basically being free to offend people.

Now, that doesn’t mean I think you can or should get away with saying [or printing] whatever you want. Shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded cinema, urging a crowd to commit violent acts (who then go and commit such acts), or knowingly and purposely defaming someone (lying) to the extent that they suffer damage and can demonstrate that what was said or printed are untrue and damaged them, are some classic examples of common limitations. Pornography has always been a tough call, as have politically extreme views [we must kill all the XXXX for example].

But simply offending people, even knowingly, is not commonly illegal in the West. After all, it’s so butt-fuckingly god-damn easy to do. [see?] Comedians would be out of business for a start. And artists. And opposition politicians. And anyone whose religion is at odds with the majority, or the ruling class, or even the self appointed leaders of that religion. And usually the people concerned have to actually try to get offended anyway, by going to the comedy club, or watching the programme, or going to that website, etc. Essentially by choosing to seek to be offended.

And it seems someone is always being offended by something, somewhere.
Want to discuss the morals and legalities of homosexual men and gay marriage in a grown-up and dispassionate way? That gets you offending the Muslims, Christian fundamentalists, homophobes and various others right away by even suggesting that one should have such a debate in the first place.
Want to give good advice, especially to young people, on how to avoid getting HIV/AIDS that goes beyond ‘don’t exchange bodily fluids at all ever’ and might mention condoms, or oral sex – there you go, lots of people offended.

Want to name your cat after your best-friend who lives down the street? Probably OK, as long as he isn’t called Mohammed, (although he might be offended personally if it’s an ugly and or female cat).

Anyway, it seems many people just don’t get it – the protections we have as a society (in the West at least) against tyranny, oppression [both political and religious] and invasions of privacy are founded on the fundamental right to offend people. And that includes Muslims, Jews, Christians, Atheists, Evolutionists, Liberals, right wing nutters – everybody.

All these arseholes who I’ve seen recently trying to justify the lashing/deportation/guilt of this teacher in Sudan (who named a teddy bear Mohammed) are good examples. They offend the hell out of me with their stupid, parochial, bigoted, arrogant, dark-ages, nonsensical, finger-pointing, and supernatural attempted justifications. Saying things that will unfortunately have a real impact, not just for these children and their poor teacher, but for people in Sudan who need aid and help and possibly even for totally blameless moderate muslims elsewhere.

But I don’t see that my being offended is a good reason, or even a kinda-valid reason, to stop them saying it. Lots of things offend me. And in some ways I’d rather we all get to know what totally whacked-out fuck-up idiots are out there thaks to their transparent display of the crazy ideas they believe to be logical or justifiable.

Worst thing? They probably have driving licenses too. Evil Bastards. Just to be clear - those of you who think the teacher deserves any punishment for calling a teddy bear Mohammed are in my opinion totally insane.

To Quote Wikipedia:
The most important justification for free speech is a general liberal or libertarian presumption against coercing individuals from living how they please and doing what they want. However, a number of more specific justifications are commonly proposed. For example, Justice McLachlin of the Canadian Supreme Court identified the following in R. v. Keegstra, a 1990 case on hate speech:

Free speech promotes: "The free flow of ideas essential to political democracy and democratic institutions and limits the ability of the state to subvert other rights and freedoms.
It promotes a marketplace of ideas, which includes, but is not limited to, the search for truth.
It is intrinsically valuable as part of the self-actualisation of speakers and listeners.
It is justified by the dangers for good government of allowing its suppression.”
End quote

More research and debate on Free Speech and what it means can be found at the excellent website of the American Civil Liberties Union ACLU_Free Speech


  1. Unfortunately there's a big gap between Islam, Muslims and Arab Muslim states and citizens : in Islam intention comes first, that would be enough to relieve the British teacher from any responsibility .
    The problem is not whether western countries have more freedom of speech than Arabs or Africans, rather the fact that [as Kanoo chairman reminded recently in a recent conference on media] in Arab countries, where Sharia rules, offences like for example those in which a journalist can incur while writing a dangerous report, are punished by penal laws, while in any other non Muslim country, you go to civil court.

  2. I don't necessarily agree on the Teddy Bear incident, but I think that it is important to realise that different nations that have different moral and cultural values. Freedom of speech does not mean the right to offend people. You have said yourself that defamation is a limitation on the freedom of speech, why isn't blasphemy another limitation then?

  3. Balqis, thanks for the comment. I was under the impression that in Oman, Sharia is reserved for Civil and Family matters. Penal and Commercial courts are based on Royal Decrees and an effective rule of law, basic though it is.

    Blue Chi
    You make a good point, what about blasphemy? Rather than address it here, see my latest blog.

  4. Dragon, I fully appreciate your thoughts. However restrictions to "free speach" as you have described it is not limited to our nations. It is also carried out in the core of western civilization.
    How many people have been persecuted for stating that the jewish holocaust was exaggerated, how many US citizens faced problems when expressing their doubts about the NYC towers attack, how many US citizens have had problems when they stood up against their country's terrorist acts in Vietnam etc.

    When faced with extreme situations, even people who promote freedom of speach have reservations.
    We are human and its our nature to be sentimentally attached to something, someone or some idea. Any attempt by others to violate would generate a hostile reaction.

    We have reached a stage in our civilization where 2 extremes have been created...One one side are people who promote a free interpretation of freedom of speach...and on the other side are the ones who think Teddy bears should not be called Mohammed. In my opinion a more balanced rout is needed and here were educated civilzed people from all sides are mostly needed.

  5. Anon.
    [BTW can you at least assume a nickname so we can all know which anon you are?]

    Yes, you're right, there are restrictions placed on Free Speech in all countries, including the USA. If you follow the links to Wiki and ACLU you will see a lot of interesting discussion on the issue and some great examples of the debates within the US Supreme Court on Free Speech. Since Vietnam the US has significantly liberalised its position.

    However, please note that just because Free Speech is legal doesn't mean what someone says is accepted! Free Speech cuts both ways and often means unpopular ideas are met with very very negative comments. This is good.

    I personally don't agree with the Holocaust Denial law, I think its a stupid restriction that encourages people to claim equally stupid restrictions.

    Lastly, I think the comparison should address the usual punishment. I would take a lot in the US or Europe to even be fined a small amount of cash for an act of free speech. It seems a typical response to even a 'minor' perceived offense to Muslim sensibilities is crowds of people in many countries calling for 'death' or something almost as extreme.

    In some cases the mere accusation of blasphemy seems to be sufficient for instant Fatwa, and soon any consideration of the actual case or the facts is immaterial.


If you wish to post anonymously, please pick a nickname by selecting the Name/URL option, or at least sign off your comment with one! I will delete comments I find objectionable or needlessly inflammatory. Sorry for the word verification.... OMG the spam has gotten BAD these past 12 months... trying to avoid making one log in...