As a rule, I hate to generalize, but Iâ€™ll make an exception this time. It seems westerners simply do not get it. Editorials all over Europe have bellowed in unison to defend the right of publishing anti-Islamic cartoons as an embodiment of the untouchable status of freedom of speech, one of the foundations of the democratic, secular ideal that has informed the west since the enlightenment. Even some non-conformant writers, who chose not to join the no-obligations-free-speech chorus, merely highlighted the need for â€œresponsibility,â€ â€œwisdom,â€ and other pragmatic considerations that ought to take into consideration, besides the revered freedom of expression, the just as sacred beliefs of European as well as non-European Muslims, particularly to avoid the current backlash. What both groups do not understand is that what most Muslims and Arabs are accusing the west of is hypocrisy, not indulgence in their cherished freedoms per se.
As a resolutely secular Arab and Muslim, I also share in directing this charge at western elites who either refuse to understand or are intentionally blurring the issues. To put it bluntly, would the west accept or tolerate cartoons which are anti-Semitic, novels which deny the Holocaust, or poetry which favorably evokes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion? This is the fundamental question that ought to be answered, above all others, I believe, in order to grasp where the problem lies. There are laws in most European countries which make it illegal to question the Holocaust, even in academia. What of freedom of speech then, or academic freedom for that matter? Clearly, rationality, sensitivity to the continentâ€™s past victims of genocide, and a prevalent understanding of the need to avoid inciting racial and religious hatred at any price were allowed to trump, or at least delineate the limits of, the deeply held value of free speech in this case.
Must European Muslims fall victims to a similar genocide before their European societies recognize the need to extend to Islam the exceptions that others have enjoyed so far?
Henry Porter argues in the Observer (February 5th, 2006) that this freedom under fire should not be â€œreduced and watered down to pacify a value system that is thought to be less developed than ours, less humane,â€ concluding that, â€œWe detest the relativism that weighs different beliefs as equal, simply on the grounds that they are sincerely held.â€ Relativism, one is led to believe, then, ought to apply only when the target is a value system that is perceived as â€œdeveloped and humaneâ€ as â€œours.â€ This duplicity is precisely what has enraged most Muslims, seculars like me included.
Of course coming during a time when the west is ostracizing Iran and pushing for its referral to the UN Security Council for allegedly intending to produce weapons of mass destruction, while not having the decency to even raise explicit concerns about Israelâ€™s much more real and formidable arsenal of nuclear bombs did not help to defuse the conflict, to borrow a British understatement. No matter how much western democracies — and I, incidentally — adore their deep-rooted freedom, and regardless what constraints they choose to tame it at times, they have a responsibility to avoid double standards.
Can the west summon any sense of fairness and consistency to arrive at rules that can equally govern all instances of decisively racist or hate-inciting speech, irrespective of which ethnic group or whose sacrosanct symbols it may be directed against?
Admittedly, many Muslim journalists and intellectuals must answer the same question. Is it ok to publish cartoons and articles that are clearly anti-Jewish — as opposed to anti-Zionist — but not ok to accept others publishing anti-Islamic drawings? Of course not. Being the downtrodden hardly justifies being two-faced.
Although the international media focused on the anarchic, misguided and often offensive and violent expressions of outrage in several Muslim countries, most ignored the more civil, organized and still huge demonstrations and the myriad rational and balanced opinions expressed by many in the Arab and Muslim worlds. An interesting slogan raised in most protests from Jakarta to Damascus read: â€œWe respect all the prophets.â€ While most Islamic clerics would defend — as an article of faith — Islamâ€™s utmost respect for Christianity and Judaism, most have not been sufficiently, if at all, judicious or vigilant when confronted in the Arab or Islamic press with cases of bigotry which contradicted this code.
Tolerating or unconsciously adopting double-standards anywhere is an insufferable attack on the principle of moral consistency which ought to be upheld by every responsible citizen of the world at all times. If we can all agree that one ought not do unto others what one does not wish to be done to him or her in similar circumstances, we shall be on the right track towards a real dialogue of cultures that respects diversity and difference yet espouses the universal values of equality, human rights and freedoms anchored in the imperative obligation not to infringe othersâ€™ rights. It is our collective responsibility to inclusively and systematically set such obligations, which have always been inseparable from the very concept of right.
* An independent Palestinian researcher and human rights advocate.