For those of us working in the field of intercultural dialogue and understanding, it has been a frustrating few weeks. Just as you think progress is being made between communities, global events peg you back displaying once again the vulnerability of human endeavours in trying to achieve peaceful coexistence and showing the very challenges that need to be overcome in order to ensure that the wheels are kept on the track.
For me this past two weeks has shown two different perspectives on the issue of the Freedom of Speech and how difficult it is to draw acceptable boundaries of such freedoms that people can readily and wholeheartedly agree on.
The first perspective of course has been the production of a so called film that insults the Prophet Muhammed (Peace Be Upon Him - PBUH) which has evoked much heated debate on all sides of the spectrum. The riots across the globe, aimed seemingly at this miniscule inflammatory film, have shown an outrage over the insult of the Prophet and a slight on the entire religion of Islam. For those on the outside, it is not easy to understand the reverence that Muslims have for the Prophet (PBUH) in particular. It is hard to explain in words but suffice to say that any insult on the person or character of the Prophet (or indeed any of the other Prophets before) goes to very heart of denigrating the very nature and identity of Islam and Muslims.
Whilst the overall response was largely civil, groups here and there went on rampages and caused damage to public buildings, burnt flags, and in the case of Bengazi in Libya, killed the US Ambassador and three other embassy staff. As is to be expected, and can always be expected, those small groups ultimately monopolized the media coverage, and it has been portrayed that the entire Arab/Muslim populations went on the rampage and engaged in a violent reaction to the film, when actually the truth was different. This has been pounced upon by apologists for the film, who use the Freedom of Speech as an excuse, to show that Muslims are either anti-Freedom of Speech, or only supportive of such freedoms unless it affects them.
The second perspective which perhaps has been missed globally but has certainly occupied headlines here in the UK has been the incidents related to the production of photos of the Duchess of Cambridge sunbathing topless. Here again there have been small incidents of protest and in fact a quick reaction from the Royal Family who have been quick to portray this as an invasion of privacy and brought about legal proceedings to end it.
In the wake of the current debate in the UK on privacy and the role of the media these two seemingly different incidents throw interesting issues to discuss and debate.
The first is the issue of the freedom of speech which has been used in both the cases. The argument goes is that we are free to say and do whatever (as long as it is not incitement to hatred or violence) and this includes things that we would find distasteful. However, how true is that statement? In the UK over the last two weeks, there have been two cases of things being posted on Facebook which have been deemed offensive and insulting resulting in the questioning and the imprisonment of those responsible.
The case with the royal family is about the right to privacy. So there emerges from this a sense of some moral and ethical boundaries which are put in place by society and cannot be crossed without there being some legal or judicial implications. So whilst it is deemed "proper" to insult a religion or one of its holiest people/practices in the name of free speech, regardless of whether it offends and insults the very private beliefs of its adherents, it is not "acceptable" to publish photos of a topless Duchess or talk in a derogatory manner about the deaths of policewomen or soldiers killed in combat.
For me, one of the real issues that arises from this whole series of sad incidents is the fact that we need to collectively redraw the moral and ethical boundaries of free speech that takes into account the growing role of religion in the public sphere. Where does religious thought lie?
By insulting the very fabric of faith, do you somehow invade the privacy of people? Is that acceptable? How can we have a conversation that can criticise without offending people? How do we address the concept of freedom of speech, when something is done deliberately to insult and provoke? The film--which was a pathetic, poorly produced, cheap, and highly insulting piece of work--has been unanimously described as being an extremely poor production with no relation to art and no artistic or cultural message. It has been agreed by many that the film aimed to insult, offend, and maybe even stir problems and bring about violence and riots in the manner that we unfortunately saw. Whilst the objective of inciting hatred and insulting was undeniable, can it still be defended under the freedom of speech? What if something that denied the Holocaust was produced along the same lines?
The second issue is perhaps a little bit more subtle and deserves some deeper reflection. Whilst at the very base level, the protests have reflected real anger at an insult to the Prophet (PBUH) and by extension an insult to Islam, it would also be naive to analyse what happened last week with the same lens and to not consider the concept of context.
In the case of almost all the countries were the riots took place and where it became violent, one cannot ignore the aspect of power dynamics and issues of governance. Underlying all of these protests and riots is a deep sense of frustration and tiredness of an oppressed people who have been subjugated to trials and tribulations where their only identity and escape has been their faith and belief. As Myriam Francois wrote, “Broken by poverty, threatened by drones, caught in the war between al Qaida and the US, to many Arab Muslims, the film represents an attack on the last shelter of dignity --sacred beliefs --when all else has been desecrated”.
The protests mirror similar protests held in the early twentieth century in India against British colonial powers when it was felt that the occupying colonial power was denigrating the beliefs and identity of its subjects (as situation that led to the infamous Indian Mutiny). Hence, in order to understand the reason for the protests, one must not forget the context that has contributed to a mass dehumanisation of a group of people who feel that an insult to their religion is just another step in their colonial and neo colonial subjugation.
The issue thus becomes that these debates of the freedom of speech has to be considered within the wider and more complex and evolving social and cultural context where class, race, and faith are central. Lacking access to a public forum, often these protestors are seeking alternative means to make their voices heard and have their cultural and religious sensibilities recognised in the public sphere as a means of also protesting against the very nature of their current plights.
So the question becomes: what to do about this?
(Part 2 will follow soon.)
Photo via visual.dichotomy, via Flickr Creative Commons.