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Free Speech Imprisoned in a False Narrative

By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

– John Milton, in ‘Areopagitica’ 

·         “…those who have grievances against your regime may speak to you freely, unreservedly and without fear.”

·         –Caliph Ali, in a letter to the governor of Egypt

Nearly a millennium before John Milton made his impassioned plea to the English Parliament of 1644 to lift curbs on freedom of expression, Hazrat Ali, the fourth Caliph of Islam, was instructing his governors to let people speak their minds, even against their rule, without fear of repression. Nearly four hundred years since Milton’s entreaty was illegally published, free speech is one of the most cherished values of Western society, while Muslims apparently go into prolonged and violent fits at the mere mention of it.

The fierce protests sparked in some Muslim countries by the anti-Islam video ‘Innocence of Muslims ‘have, once again, brought under the scanner Muslims’ ready intolerance of free speech. Conservatives in the West view this as fresh evidence that Muslims¬, and by extension Islam, are simply incompatible with the most basic ideals of modern society – in short, people with whom the West cannot live in peace. Well-meaning liberals, meanwhile, suggest that these ideals need not be considered universal and that, if Muslims are culturally different, they should be accepted for what they are.

Both ends of opinion, however, derive from and parrot a common narrative: both see an essential disconnect between the “Muslim world” and the “West,” differing only in their view of what to do, or not do, about it. This is no different from the narrative voiced by the video itself, which portrays the Prophet of Islam, and by extension Muslims, as debauch and barbaric and, thus, far removed from modern values that the West holds dear. Even Muslims rioting in the streets from Bangkok to Benghazi, a decidedly un-modern enterprise, end up reinforcing the same narrative by their actions.

Despite this apparent consensus, this narrative is a lie.

Dialectical History

As Hazrat Ali’s letter shows, the notion of free speech is not alien to Islam. Even before Ali, Hazrat Umar, the second Caliph, urged judges to “be kind to the weak so that they can express themselves freely and without fear.” Both these caliphs were often criticised for their judgments and even insulted by their enemies; both allowed their critics to speak freely and openly. As Ronald Bontekoe and Marietta Tigranovna Stepaniants note in their book ‘Justice and Democracy,’ Ali was once urged to punish a Kharijite for interrupting and insulting him during a sermon. The caliph declined, saying the “right to freedom of speech must not be imperilled.”

That was the 7th century, the period of the “rightly-guided caliphs.” Freedom of expression remained a core principle of Islamic rule even through the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates. But that is not all. The West itself appears to have been introduced to free speech through its interactions with the Muslim world.

In ‘A History of Christian-Muslim Relations,’ Hugh Goodard writes that “the idea of academic freedom” in Europe was inspired by the practices of Islamic madrasas from the 9th century. Islamic influence, Goodard adds, was “certainly discernible in the foundation of the first deliberately planned university” in Europe, the University of Naples, founded by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1224.

This was part of a much broader and comprehensive impact that Islamic philosophy had on the Christian world during the Middle Ages, eventually leading to Renaissance and Reformation in Europe. Of course, a lot of Islamic philosophy around this time was itself influenced by classic Graeco-Roman thought. As Jane Smith writes in ‘Islam in America’: “Most of the works of Plato and Aristotle were known to Arab Muslims, and it has long been recognised that the medieval Muslim world made a lasting contribution to Christendom by providing Western scholars with access to the great classics of Greece and Rome through Arabic translations, from which they were rendered into European languages.”

Even then, free speech did not immediately become a cornerstone of Western civilisation. Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ was written a year after the English Parliament ruled that only authors licensed by the government could publish their works. Indeed, it was not until the French Revolution of 1789 that free speech was, for the first time, recognised as an inalienable right in any part of Europe.

Meanwhile, just as Islamic philosophy had once inspired Western thinkers, so advances in Western science, arts and technology began percolating into the Muslim world. Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman governor of Egypt, established the first printing press in the Arab world at Cairo in 1821. He also sent Egyptian students to Europe. These moves sowed the seeds of Nahda, or Awakening, a literary and cultural reformation movement that spread around the Muslim world and spawned modernisers such as Rifa al Tahtawi, Jamal al Din Afghani and Muhammad Abduh. These reformers tried to marry classical Islamic theology and thought with modern European philosophy, and free speech was among the core values they espoused.

Clearly, the history of free speech is intricate and dialectical. It gives the lie to the narrative of disconnect between Muslims and the West. Even in the 21st century, when the popular narrative holds the West to be the champion of free speech and Muslims to be its enemy, the reality is a lot more complex.

Back to the Present

Thousands of Muslims came out in tens of cities around the world to protest against the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video. They demonstrated vigorously and violently, and dozens died as a result. Among the dead were four employees at the US embassy in Libya, including ambassador Chris Stevens. All of this was a tragedy, and one that has hurt Muslims the most. It was ready evidence of what the video was trying to tell about them. And yet, the fact remains that the vast majority of Muslims in all these countries, as well as Muslims living in mixed societies such as the United States, did not spill into the streets, did not burn effigies or attack embassies, did not kill anyone.

Following the outbreak of protests, US President Barack Obama made a vigorous defence of free speech in an address to the UN General Assembly. But if we widen the lens a little, the picture seems to make no sense. Just days earlier, Obama’s attorney-general Eric Holder was held in contempt of Congress for withholding crucial information about an illegal gun-running operation in which the Obama administration was involved. The same administration has for two years been hounding WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for publicising diplomatic cables, and has jailed the soldier who purportedly passed on the cables to WikiLeaks. The administration either lies or withholds information about drone strikes that have taken hundreds of innocent lives in Pakistan and Yemen. Meanwhile, the inmates at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, which Obama had promised to shut down four years ago, remain without any freedom of expression – or any other freedom for that matter. All this from the man who is purportedly the most liberal President the United States has had in decades – let’s not even start talking about what happened under his immediate predecessor.

I am not arguing that Muslims today are more committed to free speech than others. They are not. As someone who has lived, studied or worked for years as a journalist in India, the UK, the US and the Middle East, I can speak from personal experience. But framing the anti-video protests as the touchstone for tolerance of dissent, as the yardstick for compatibility with modern values, is also not an accurate representation of reality. Such framing derives from and reinforces a narrative of disconnect that is simply not true – and has never been so.

Instead of flowing through history as a river that divides Islam and the West, free speech has formed a complex network of distributaries that crisscross cultures, binding them together into the rich and fertile delta of human civilisation. And it is only one among many such rivers. A number of notions that are often taken to be the sole preserve of either the “Islamic world” or the “Western world” have, in truth, germinated from a dialectical process in which both “worlds” have played a part. These ranges from social and political ideals and institutions such as human rights, federalism and democracy, to legal practices such as property rights for women, and scientific achievements including moon landings and the latest advances in particle physics.

Muslims do not recognise this today, which is why many of them do not care if they are perceived by the rest of the world as “barbaric.”For them, “civilisation” has itself become a Western virtue, and therefore one that they need not – even must not – pursue. But simultaneously, people in the West, including many liberals, also do not recognise this dialectical history, believing and thereby buttressing the false narrative of civilisational disconnect.

As long as we continue to believe in this warped and ahistorical worldview, we will continue to have Nakoula Basseleys making insulting anti-Islam videos; Terry Joneses threatening to burn the Quran, Osama bin Ladens blowing up Twin Towers, and Muslims ready to riot in the streets.

Saif Shahin is a doctoral research scholar in political communication at the University of Texas, Austin, U. S