Freedom of speech is an inherent right of everyone and in most societies, legally protected, but that doesn't make every expression of it right. The inflammatory content of the Danish cartoons - comparing Prophet Muhammad to a terrorist -- belies the claim that it was an exercise in "freedom of the press." Muslims worldwide see it as anti-Semitism reborn as "Islamophobia" in a Europe that gave the world the Inquisition, two World Wars, the Holocaust and the recent Bosnian genocide.
From the Islamic perspective, freedom of speech and expression (hurriyyat al-qawl wa bayan) is "vindication of truth" and "protection of human dignity," with embedded maxims of morality and legality. Slander and libel is not protected under free speech.
The outcry over the Danish cartoons didn't emerge overnight. Since their first publication in September 2005, Muslim and Arab envoys unsuccessfully tried to convince the publishers to recognize that the cartoons were at best insensitive and at worst inciting hatred toward an entire community. The Danish courts refused to even admit the case on the grounds of freedom of expression; and the Danish Prime Minister cried off, citing freedom of press in his country.
After such efforts failed, the envoys turned to the EU and the UN and finding no response even as more European papers printed the insulting cartoons, only then were diplomatic withdrawals and economic boycotts started and demonstrations seen from London to Jakarta. Regrettably some elements have used this issue to stage violent protests.
Why have Muslims pursued the matter? It is because Islamophobia is a clear and growing trend in the West and Muslim(s) bear the brunt of this animosity and atmosphere of hatred and mistrust. In this context, the motive of a small right-wing Danish paper in printing such drawings is highly questionable. Would the same champions of press freedom (in Europe) approve reprinting of anti-Semitic cartoons from 1930s Germany?
Muslims are also aware of the double standards of freedom of expression in the West. Al Jazeera's offices are bombed and shut down for showing the "collateral damage" of U.S. invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As recently as President Bush's 2006 State of the Union address, a U.S. citizen (Cindy Sheehan) was ejected from the halls of people's Congress for merely wearing a T-Shirt stating "2,245 Dead. How Many More?"
The Twenty-first century has clearly divided the world in "two camps": secular and religious, living together without knowing one another. What is sacred in one camp is deranged in the other. These are the two civilizations clashing, not the East and the West.
Fostering an environment where nothing is sacred in the name of freedom of speech will not help understand the values of a civilization in which sacred is all that counts. Many Christian and Jewish leaders recognize this, and have decried the Danish cartoons.
It is not just about cartoons or calls for censure. It is also about the frail and fragile world we have made for ourselves. Just as a sketch in Europe can arouse the populace in the Middle East, a word from the East, if properly understood, can bring a lasting peace to the agitated West.
Failing to see beyond oneself will result in a life that sees all within the closed circle as good, and all outside as evil. In an ever-growing interconnected and interdependent world, this is a sure recipe for disaster of biblical proportions.
All strands of artists and academics, journalists and politicians must engage in a thoughtful discourse to advance the understanding of Isaac and Ishmael. The world belongs to both and so do they, to one another.
Shakeel Syed is Executive Director of the Islamic Shura Council, a federation of over seventy Mosques in Southern California and can be reached at [email protected]
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