A call to prevent a clash of civilizations

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The world is facing yet another challenge following the world-wide controversy caused by the publication of blasphemous and defamatory caricatures of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) in some European newspapers. The failure of governments to address this situation has allowed it to spread all over the world, with no end in sight. This situation has been unnecessarily allowed to spiral out of control and has threatened the concept of peaceful co-existence. If not addressed, it can lead to a potential clash of not only civilisations but religions and societies as well.

This memorandum aims to put the issue in perspective and to propose realistic and practicable measures to address it.

Much of this debate has focused on the ‘right of freedom of expression’ with its defenders advocating the sacredness of freedom of speech which needs to be upheld no matter what the consequences. However in reality the issue is not one of curtailing the right to freedom of expression since this is a right that is not absolute and no one can claim so. Rights are reciprocal and their enforcement is interdependent on other fundamental rights. To insist that a right is absolute is erroneous since such a right can infringe other basic human rights. Every country that claims to be part of the ‘civilized and democratic’ world has put its own limits on freedom of expression in the interests of society in order to maintain a certain level of human behaviour, be it based on local norms and customs, culture or religion but in essence to protect the dignity of their moral and religious, social, and societal values

So to suddenly create an outcry that the right to freedom of speech is being undermined by Muslim protests is clearly a fallacy. The free propagation of child pornography for instance or the incitements of religious or racial hatred in the media is banned in many countries and quite rightly so. In many European countries it is a crime to deny the holocaust, being a criminal offence in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland, and is punishable by fines and a jail sentence. [1] When the British newspaper, The Independent (27 January 2003) depicted the Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon eating the head of a Palestinian child while saying, ‘ What’s wrong, You’ve never seen a politician kissing babies before’, this caused an uproar in Israel and other parts of the world raising tempers especially in the Jewish and Israeli community around the world. Whatever the matter of that caricature, the uproar was a natural reaction of a people for their leader. More recently when the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi compared himself to Jesus Christ the Vatican including Italian politicians immediately expressed shock and anger at these comments. A senior Catholic Church official added, “I know he will say he was speaking in jest but such things should not be spoken of in jest.” [2] The issue here is not one of curtailing freedom of expression but objecting to the ridicule and insult towards the scared elements of an entire civilisation.

There is also a law of defamation normally under the Law of Tort that can lead to an individual being compensated for offence caused. The absolute right to free expression is curtailed in order to balance the rights of an individual. In the same way an act that causes offence to a whole community can never be justified under the banner of freedom of speech. Moreover in many countries it is illegal or at least discouraged to degrade or abuse the constitution or certain national institutions such as the army, courts of law, or parliament. Contempt of court also exists all over the world which severely limits freedom of speech, violation of which can lead to imprisonment. If the right to freedom of expression is absolute, why are there no objections to laws such as these?

To give respect to an individual’s honour and dignity is a fundamental human right protected by law as is the prohibition on blasphemy and defamation as well as the right to religious freedom. The UN Charter, Constitutions and Laws from many countries provide protection to these rights.

The UN Charter recognises this right in Article 1(iii):

"To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion."

It is also recognised in the European Convention on Human Rights Article 9:

"Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."

The constitution of the USA, Amendment I of Bill of Rights states:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Some US states have blasphemy laws on their statute books. The U.S state of Massachusetts General Laws states (chapter 272 section 36):

“Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail…

Other countries having blasphemy laws are:

  • Austria: (Articles 188, 189 of the criminal code)
  • Finland: (Section 10 of chapter 17 of the penal code)
  • Germany: (Article 166 of the criminal code)
  • The Netherlands: (Article 147 of the criminal code)
  • Spain: (Article 525 of the criminal code)
  • Ireland: Article 40.6.1.i of the constitution of Ireland provides that the publication of blasphemous matter is an offence. Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred act 1989, this includes hatred against a group on account of their religion.
  • Canada: Section 296 of the Canadian Criminal code. Offence against the Christian religion is blasphemy.
  • New Zealand: Section 123 of the New Zealand Crimes Act 1961

Churches for instance hold sanctity in the Christian world and are protected under the constitution in some European countries. An example is the constitution of Denmark, section 4 [State Church] which states:

"The Evangelical Lutheran Church shall be the Established Church of Denmark, and, as such, it shall be supported by the State."

It is evident from the above mentioned laws that freedom of speech is a fundamental right but this right is not absolute. There are hundreds of books and newspaper articles that have been published attempting to criticize Islam and the basic tenets of its faith yet Muslims never object to scholarly debate since they are well aware that this is part of an ongoing debate on Islam and within the tenets of ‘freedom of expression’. There have been countless newspaper articles completely misrepresenting Islam, often publishing clear lies and exaggerated stories about Islam and its law yet Muslims are tolerant and appreciate that this is part and parcel of living within societies who claim this to be part of their ‘liberal democracies’. However when this right of ‘freedom of expression’ is abused and the most sacred elements of Islam are deliberately insulted then this will definitely create great unrest among Muslims around the world. By depicting the Holy Prophet of Islam (PBUH) as wielding a knife and wearing a bomb disguised as a turban on his head is a deliberate attempt to insult and stir up controversy, presenting him and his followers as violent terrorists. Another caricature portrays him as supporting suicide bombers and saying “Stop, Stop we have run out of virgins”. How can such caricatures be justified under the banner of free speech? Moreover these caricatures were not printed within a vacuum but in an environment of an anti-Muslim bias where tensions were already running extremely high within the Danish community and indeed throughout Europe. Only recently the Queen of Denmark had made controversial remarks stating that: “We have to show our opposition to Islam and we have to, at times, run the risk of having unflattering labels placed on us because there are some things for which we should display no tolerance.” [3]

Moreover many countries have passed anti-terrorist legislation, severely restricting the civil liberties of individuals, with the legislation drafted in a manner that is clearly aimed at focusing upon Muslims in the countries concerned. There is a strong feeling that a substantial minority is being continually abused and misrepresented in the mass media through the portrayal of negative images not based upon reality, and then subjected to humiliating checks and procedures when going about their lives on a daily basis, all in the name of freedom of speech and national interest. It is thus highly surprising that the sacred elements of its faith are ridiculed just in the name of freedom of expression and speech knowing that the reactions will be extremely tense. There is no doubt that the publishing of these caricatures by the newspapers involved was an exercise to demonstrate control and power directed against Muslims, either subscribe to our culture and way of living or suffer the consequences and be ridiculed and debased.

Realising the significance of this right some world dignitaries have condemned the publication of these caricatures and have emphasised the restriction of the right of the freedom of speech too.

Kofi Annan: "I also respect the right of freedom of speech. But of course freedom of speech is never absolute. It entails responsibility and judgment." [4]

Jack Straw, British Foreign Secretary: “There is freedom of speech, we all respect that. But there is not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory."

I believe that the re-publication of these cartoons has been insulting; it has been insensitive; it has been disrespectful and it has been wrong.

“There are taboos in every religion. It is not the case that there is open season in respect of all aspects of Christian rites and rituals in the name of free speech. Nor is it the case that there is open season in respect of rights and rituals of the Jewish religion, the Hindu religion, the Sikh religion. It should not be the case in respect of the Islamic religion either. We have to be very careful about showing the proper respect in this situation.” [5]

The US State Department: “These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims.” Spokesman, Kurtis Cooper, said: “We all fully respect freedom of the press and expression but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatred in this manner is not acceptable.” [6]

Philippe Douste-Blazy, French Foreign Minister: “The principle of freedom should be exercised in a spirit of tolerance, respect of beliefs, respect of religions, which is the very basis of secularism of our country.” [7]

Vatican cardinal Achille Silvestrini condemned the cartoons, saying Western culture had to know its limits.

It is thus clearly apparent that using freedom of speech to imply that there are no limits to what one can say or do is a myth. An act that offends the religious and moral values of a community such as solidarity, integrity and sanctity, resulting in endangering the peace, cannot be regarded as a right to express ones freedom of speech. Islam too teaches the principle of tolerance and co-existence, to live and let live. It discourages the defamation of other Gods and religious symbols teaching respect to mankind. (Al-Quran: Al-An’am: 6:108). Islamic Law lays great emphasis on the security, dignity and respect of all other religions together with their beliefs without any discrimination.

If internationally recognised principles of tolerance and co-existence are put aside and moral and religious values are dishonoured then the present situation will worsen and the prevailing tensions will intensify. Europe considers itself to be an educated and civilized society but its response to the gross infringement of the basic right to religion of one of its minority communities has become un-understandable. There needs to be some mechanism to put an end to these horrific occurrences which may prove a potential threat to world peace. Those who advocate that the right to freedom of speech is being eroded and any restraints upon it cannot be tolerated must look within their own ‘democratic societies’ and the extent to which their civil liberties have been eroded through the recent anti-terrorist legislation. These are the measures that have curtailed the rights and liberties of individuals and have much more serious implications which need to be addressed. Muslims are feeling alienated and targeted thus when newspapers begin to ridicule the most sacred elements of their faith, reactions will inevitably be high.

If the publication of the caricatures is not taken seriously and steps are not taken to resolve the situation, then it can generate socio-political and economic crises which may lead to a conflict between civilizations and between nations.

These are the reasons behind the anger against the publication of these condemnable caricatures and the anger at the disregard shown by the governments towards the rightful protests of the Muslim world against the offence. 1.2 billion Muslims all over the world have been deeply insulted and instead of creating moves to resolve the matter, the act is being continuously justified prolonging world-wide unrest.

In order to solve this international issue and dissolve the serious tension it has caused, I propose the following solutions be implemented:

  • 1. All newspapers that have published the caricatures must unreservedly apologise and withdraw their publications.
  • 2. Clear legislation needs to be passed by all Governments which balance the right to freedom of speech with the rights of individuals and communities that their sacred beliefs should not be insulted and ridiculed.
  • 3. All Governments should then ensure that any such legislation is enforced through the due process of the law and this type of incitement and ridicule never happens again.

I expect that common sense will prevail and responsible leaders will rise to the occasion and repair the damage that has been done to inter-civilization relations. I also expect that the concerned leaders of the countries will display leadership and bravely extend cordiality to the Muslims of the world.

Notes:

[1]. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocaust_denial

[2]. Daily Telegraph, 13.02.06, www.telegraph.co.uk; BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/4707368.stm

[3]. Daily Telegraph, 11.04.2005, www.telegraph.co.uk

[4]. BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/4680208.stm

[5]. BBC News and website: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4676524.stm

[6]. Daily Telegraph, 04.02.06: www.telegraph.co.uk

[7]. BBC News: http://news.bbc.aco.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4674570.stm

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