11. Musings on the freedom of expression and religion

A still from the trailer for “The Innocence of Muslims” (left) and from the protests before the American embassy in Cairo (right). The comments are from Nader Bakkar, the official spokesperson of the salafist Nour Party.

“The Innocence of Muslims” is without doubt the most discussed and criticized film without being seen. The so-called film is in fact a ten minute trailer for a movie depicting the prophet Mohammed as a blood-thirsty and untrustworthy villain. When the Muslim world became aware of the existence of this trailer, protests ensued. However, some of these protests in the Middle-East turned violent. Protesters stormed American embassies, killing in Libya the ambassador and members of his staff while being killed by the riot police in Yemen and Tunisia. The United States reacted to the controversy by condemning the movie, while defending the freedom of expression. From the Middle-East on the other hand came calls to further criminalize the defamation of the prophet Mohammed. These reactions highlight the difference in attitude towards freedom of expression and religion between Western and Middle-Eastern societies.

In Western societies the freedom of expression is championed as a fundamental human right and – by more extremist right-wing parties – also as a bulwark against the increasing influence of Islam in Western societies. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that the freedom of expression is the right to hold an opinion and to impart ideas to others. The Declaration does not place any limitations on this freedom, although in practice insulting, discriminating and anti-Semitic opinions are punishable in Western countries. However, the freedom of expression does protect opinions and ideas that may be despicable to others. It may be a thin line between despicable, but allowed opinions and insulting and punishable opinions. It is the purpose of the opinion that is decisive in this context. For example, a Dutch police officer may be called “faggot” if it is meant as a reference to his sexual preference. Using the same word as an insult is, however, punishable.

On the other hand, in the Middle-East is a tighter control on what one may say and what one may not say. This is not limited to religion. Also criticism and opinions on the local rulers and on the territorial integrity of the country are not very well received by local authorities. If you live in the Middle-East, it is thus better to evade the “red lines”. Religion is a sensitive subject, because Islam plays a huge part in the lives and education of the people in the Middle-East. Moreover, the idea that their countries, their culture and their religion is under constant threat from the West, lives strong in the Middle-East as result of the past colonization and their inferior position (economically speaking) in comparison to the West.

The Islamic version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, makes explicitly clear that the freedom of expression should not go against the norms of Islamic law (sharia). Moreover, the freedom of expression does not cover opinions that violate sanctities or undermine morality and faith. The freedom of expression is thus not considered a universal right transcending any law, but a human law subject to the divine principles of Islam, i.e. the beliefs of one particular group. Furthermore, the freedom of expression is further restricted as it may not morality or faith (any faith this time). Little details are given what the norms of sharia or sanctities are as well as on when an opinion undermines morality or faith. It remains thus vague whether a particular opinion or idea is protected by the Islamic version of the freedom of expression or not.

This vagueness seems to be the hallmark of anti-blasphemy laws in the Middle-East. While Egypt makes the insulting of heavily religions punishable, Tunisia has recently introduced an anti-blasphemy law punishing the insulting of “sanctities”. Although these laws are broadly formulated, they are not only meant to persecute insults against Islam, but also against other monotheistic faiths. Not everyone is thrilled about these laws. More secular Tunisians see the new Tunisian anti-blasphemy law as another step in the ongoing Islamization of Tunisian society under the Islamist Ennahdha government. They also fret that the law gives the Tunisian salafists (ultraconservative Muslims) another stick to beat into submission anyone who does not adhere to their strict interpretation of Islam. The Tunisian salafists have already a reputation for doing this with real sticks.

At the same time, the Copts – Egypt’s Christian minority – feel that the Egyptian anti-blasphemy law is mostly used to persecute them. If a Copt is accused of blasphemy, he considered guilty even if proven otherwise. The rumour of a blasphemous act is often enough to start a riot. An angry Muslim mob will often attack the alleged perpetrator and drive him away along with his co-religionists. The recent arrest of an Egyptian Muslim cleric, Ahmed Abdallah, for burning a Bible has not convinced the Coptic community that the anti-blasphemy law will be applied more equally. The cleric, on the other hand, is not very impressed by his arrest. Why shouldn’t he be allowed to burn a Bible, if Terry Jones, the American preacher, can burn a Quran without being punished?

It is often forgotten, but most Western societies have still their own anti-blasphemy laws. These laws were mostly written with a predominantly Christian society in mind and may specifically forbid the insult of God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, priests or Christian religious services. However, in most Western countries these laws are considered anachronistic or dead letters. While Western politicians debated the abolishment of these laws, Muslim countries campaigned for international laws against the insulting of religions. An unsuccessful attempt was made in 2009 to designate the insulting of a religion as racism, which would have limited the freedom of expression greatly.

The combination of the great role of Islam in Middle-Eastern societies and the fear for Western conspiracies has led to the further limitation of the freedom of thought and expression in these societies. For example, breaking fast in public during Ramadan is punishable for Muslims in Morocco, while Egyptians (Muslim or otherwise) may not drink alcohol during the same period. Morocco and Algeria have also laws that forbid the conversion of Muslims to another religion and evangelisation (propagating Christianity). The accusation of evangelisation against a foreigner is often enough for his extradition. However, these prohibitions have more to do with the freedom of religion than the freedom of expression.

The difference in attitude towards the freedom of expression and religion between Western and Middle-Eastern societies is very clear. This difference is in part due to the fact that religion is considered in the West a private affair for a few people, while it plays an important public role in Middle-Eastern societies. Based on my general observations, one would say that West and (Middle-)East will never come to an agreement on this subject. However, general observations give only a broad idea of the situation and do not justice to the more nuanced reality. One may therefore hope that after the protests cooler and more rational heads will prevail. Opinions that are voiced with the intention to insult should not be allowed under the freedom of expression. However, limiting the freedom of expression with vaguely formulated laws in order to protect a religion is not the solution. Such laws may be abused by people for their own gain or to persecute others. The best example of a bad anti-blasphemy law is Pakistan, which has resulted to the persecution of religious minorities and the murder of government officials. Everybody should be free to voice their own opinion, but hopefully it will be done with a little respect and reason.

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