(published in The Companion November 2012)
Omair Anas, Freie University, Berlin
Freedom is one of the biggest achievements of the human civilizations over the centuries and huge prices and sacrifices have been paid to secure and sustain it. No strange that the freedom is best valued today by the nations who have colonized many countries. However the freedom has been a contested value and no country or individual wishes to keep a stop on his freedom. For example, Jammu and Kashmir in India cannot be portrayed by cartoon, film, or text as separate entity from Indian Territory. In Europe, challenging certain perceptions on Holocaust is still prohibited and many laws to control anti-Semitic crimes are just used like blasphemy laws in any Muslim country. United States has stopped many Muslim scholars including Tariq Ramadan, Shite Indian scholar Kalbe Sadiq and in recent years the United Kingdom has banned entry of Dr. Zakir Naik, a famous Islamic debater because they were perceived to be hate preachers. This is not much different from Saudi Arabiya’s ban on many websites and Chinese government’s decision to censor Google and YouTube and restrict Facebook. Western governments’ contradictory position defending freedom of expression for current insulting film and their decisions to stop Islamic scholars and to ban certain televisions suggest that they want to be only exporter of “hatemongering”. The common thing among all countries from china to India, Saudi Arabiya to the United States is that they all have their versions of freedom different from each other. Freedom couldn’t be a universally accepted value. Current practice on freedom of expression is based on country specific laws, be it of the United States, the United Kingdom or India. For centuries, western governments have controlled fate of many countries through their colonial designs and have not given freedom without violent or nonviolent resistance. Newly independent countries have been struggling to maintain their independent and sovereign status amid extreme power polarization and western governments have enjoyed greater say in all global affairs without challenge. Western societies and the United States in particular have largely failed to educate their people to respect freedom of other people, cultures and religions in the world. Despite the fact that Asian societies are more diverse and divided on religious, cultural and linguistic lines; there is rarely a cartoon or movie from any sect against other which is unfortunately becoming fashion in the western societies. In the current controversy over the American movie, freedom of expression has once again came up as an important issue and Muslims countries have been accused of restricting this freedom and some analysts on Western televisions have even anticipated of derailing Arab Spring. President Barack Obama has defended freedom of making such movies in the recent UN General Assembly in New York.
But these allegations and counter allegations about freedom are often missing some important factors in the increasingly globalized world. First, constitutions of most of the Muslim countries and constitution of Western states were made in two different political environments. Constitutions of Muslim or Asian countries were made under supervision of their colonial masters after they are freed. In the wake of nationalism, countries often tended to secure their borders from any possible external threat. Most of the constitutions of Western governments were made either before or during their colonial control on the major parts of the world. There was no such pressure and perception of external threat to these countries. Also being predominantly Christian nations, their religious freedom was never as such threatened. Second, freedom of expression in Western societies was discussed largely in the context of religion vs. secular discourses and a big intellectual fight ensued to secure this freedom. But in most of the Asian and Muslim countries, religious authorities and religious symbols are also national symbol and religions have been part of their independence struggle against colonial masters. Any attack on religion is often considered attack on nation and national symbols. Abul Hasan Ali Nadvi, famous Islamic scholar wrote in 1943 that Arab nationalism is incomplete unless Prophet Mohamed is accepted as its leader. From Hindusim also, many religious leaders like Swami Vivekananda, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and others are also faces of Indian nationalism. Indian nationalism is woven around Hindu and Muslim religious faces and symbols. In recently, a Russian court tried to ban Geeta, a Hindu religious book but the Indian government along with many Hindu and Muslim organizations protested together against such ban. India’s official position on turban of Sikh religious groups is to protect and defend their religious identity even it is beyond their jurisdiction. Third factor is common to both of Muslim and Western societies that technology has simply broken national borders through virtual uneven connectivity. Youtube as well Facebook have not only created controversies but also made historical awareness among uprising people of the Arab world. Neither the United States nor the Egyptian governments were able to restrict Youtube and Facebook. But the implication of technology’s omnipresence has different implications for both societies. Western societies are not used to deal with different religions, sects, contesting identities in just one locality which is quite common scene in Indian subcontinent and also in some parts of the Arab world. How to talk to a different culture, a different religion, and a different civilization is an art of successful multicultural living in today’s interconnected world. There is difference between art and insult. Perhaps Asian and Islamic societies are not that much inexperienced of critical art as many of Western leaders try to undermine. Technology has brought all diversities of humankind under one click. India’s Supreme Court had recently summoned Youtube and Facebook for some insulting posts and the plea was filed by both Hindu and Muslim communities.
These three factors are important to define and advocate freedom as a universal value. Western discourse alone cannot be allowed to dictate and hijack discourse of freedom in today’s world. Western societies must have to realize that firstly, colonial era is over, second, they have to deal with other societies in mutual respect and third a common understanding should be evolved to advocate for freedom of expression. Making an insulting movies or cartoons cannot be considered parallel to freedom for a newspaper. There is justified anger against the United States because the United States didn’t play a constructive role. United States should try that its soil should not be used as launching pad for Islamophobia and hate mongering. No other that United States has overwhelming power on technology to monitor, censor, restrict or even distort virtual information world and it has refused to share this power with other countries at all which has led many countries particularly China to make their own virtual world. Western government would have taken any action against such videos had they been violating their laws to prevent anti-Semitic crimes. This means that the Western governments need some laws defining Islamophobia as a crime. The proposal is already discussed by Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC).
With this discussion, it is clear that solution for such controversial and disgusting works of insult is difficult without international coordination and America’s support for an international regime to define, penalize crimes of Islamophobia. The international community must have to recognize that constitutions of individual states alone are not able to prevent many crimes. Freedom of one country must not hijack freedom of another country. Also control and administration of internet services is today matter of every country and its administration should be handed over to a transnational regime so that many crimes can be restricted before they make situation out of control. This has become essential so that the freedom of expression in the West be not hijacked by bunch of extremists and islomophobists as well as the Asian or Islamic countries also cannot use their anti-democratic laws to throttle freedom of their people. This is important to differentiate between art and provocation, creativity and insult.
Omair Anas is visiting fellow at Institute of Media and Communication Studies, Freie University, Berlin. He can be contacted at email@example.com