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Freedom of speech and West’s flawed perception of it

Muhammad Azizul Haque: Freedom of speech or expression predates modern international human rights instruments. Like freedom of association and free media, freedom of speech is considered an indispensable pillar of democracy. Without this marble column, the great edifice of democracy is bound to rapidly collapse.   

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) asserts everyone’s right to freedom of opinion and expression. Freedom of expression is also recognised in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). However, freedom entails responsibility and that ‘responsibility’ signifies ‘limits.’ This view is unambiguously corroborated by Article 19 of the ICCPR. It inter alia states that the exercise of these rights carries with it “special duties and responsibilities” and it may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions.”

I am not aware if the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press were absolute in the initial eras of democratic governance in the Western countries, but these seem to be currently absolute in the developed democracies of the West, like Britain, France and Germany and in the Nordic countries, like Denmark, Sweden, etc. They fail to appreciate that while you have freedom to drive your car on the streets, you have to abide by a set of traffic rules too.

In those Western countries, absolute freedom of speech or expression does not appear to be restrained even by Christianity, which is the religion of the majority of the believers in those countries. Of course, the number of people who profess to have no religious faith is huge, and is rising. So, practically, the mainstream populations of those basically Christian countries appear apathetic to any sacrilege or prophet-bashing. However, Muslims by and large, irrespective of their place or country of residence, have not grown indifferent to their religion and the Prophet (pbuh) or to their religious customs, values and culture.  

It seems those Western countries which played key roles in mobilising world opinion of the post-World War II era to conclude the aforementioned international human rights instruments are now themselves flouting those noble instruments of human rights. 

In the light of the above, let us consider the heinous attack on the office of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in central Paris on January 7 by two jihadists/extremists. No right-minded Muslim with proper knowledge of Islam and its magnanimous spirit could perpetrate the barbaric and despicable crime that resulted in the death of 12 people and injury of many more. Along with the entire world, we too have condemned the attack and offered our sincere condolences to all those who were affected by it.

Islam denounces any violence. However, having said that, one can recall that when (in September 2005) the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published some very contemptible and humiliating cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), it triggered widespread and violent protests in the Muslim world. Denmark had to shut down its embassies in some Muslim countries and its products were boycotted by those. Let alone learning a lesson from it, in February 2006, the Charlie Hebdo magazine reprinted those cartoons of the Danish newspaper; and when it was sued for inciting racism by some Islamic groups, a Paris court absolved it from the charges. Again, in 2011, the satirical magazine printed cartoons ‘inviting the Prophet (pbuh) to be its guest editor.’ Yet again, in 2012, the weekly published more caricatures of the Prophet (pbuh).

Obviously, the magazine was relentless in its provocative acts that repeatedly hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims around the globe. While Muslims in general now seem to have grown more accustomed and resistant to such provocations, the same is not true of the extremists/jihadists. The Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine had long invited controversy with scathing assaults on Islam, on Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as well as on other religions and political leaders. One of the gunmen in the January 7 attack on the magazine’s office was reportedly heard to shout: “We have killed Charlie Hebdo! We have avenged the Prophet!”

The January 7 tragedy at the Charlie Hebdo office and the violent demonstrations of the past years in the Muslim world surrounding the publication of disgraceful cartoons, caricatures and lampoons on Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and Islam in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and French Charlie Hebdo and other newspapers in the West European countries could be possibly averted if those newspapers and the governments of those countries were mindful of and abided by the stipulations of the international human rights instruments that are in force, and particularly the content of Article 19 of the  ICCPR. 

As citizens of today’s knowledge-based and enlightened global society, let’s enjoy the various rights and freedoms at national and international levels. However, we must exercise these rights and freedoms with responsibility so that in doing so we do not encroach on those of others. Unless the freedom of speech and freedom of the press/media are exercised with responsibility or within certain parameters, they will be abused by racially biased, prejudiced or irresponsible writers, cartoonists, artists and others; and jihadists/extremists could again retaliate in as despicable a manner as we saw in the case of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office, despite our condemnation of their horrendous crimes.

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