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Free speech

Insults don't kill
We may not like the cartoons or the cartoonist, but his right to speak outweighs our desire to be spared injured feelings

 

 

February 6, 2006
iranian.com

We have all witnessed, over the course of the past few days, the violent reaction, in many parts of the Islamic world to the publication and re-publication of irreverent cartoons depicting the Phophet Mohammad (PBUH) in newspapers across Europe and even in Jordan. The scandalous images are regarded by billions of Muslims worldwide to be both sacrilegious and blasphemous.

While the publication of such provocative and profane images is deeply distressing to Muslims generally, western Muslims and non-western Muslims living in western societies must not get so emotional as to conveniently forget that the principle behind the right to speak freely and to express one's idea's publicly has nothing to do with being polite toward others, or in trying to get along with those who have different political and/or religious ideologies.

Free Speech has never been about getting along with others, or about promoting unity within any society. The right of free speech is predicated on the notion that robust and vigorous debate within any community or society or between communities or societies is the only avenue to harmonize divergent opinions and beliefs or to find the truth about any given subject.

When we asked others, either directly, or indirectly, through our silent support of destructive, reactionary violence, to limit their participation in open and free discourse, we are, in essence, using an impermissible form of social pressure in an attempt to silence them. If Muslims, or any other segment of society which feels aggrieved in some manner, are allowed, through the exercise of social intimidation, to silence those whose ideas are repugnant to them, they must acknowledge and accept the fact that they shall simultaneously be eviscerating their very own cherished right to speak freely. 

For the freedom of speech to be meaningful it must be defended and held inviolate from assault, no matter for what reason, or from what quarter an attack against it is launched. In free and democratic societies, including those in which Muslims make up a part or the whole of the citizenry, the principle of free speech and the right to express one's thoughts and ideas must be held sacrosanct.  If we allow ourselves to give into emotion and jump on the bandwagon of violent reactionaries every time we hear or read something that we find repugnant or offensive to our religious or political sensibilities, then we endanger our very own freedom to speak freely. 

Allowing those with whom we do not agree to be silenced either, through direct acts of physical violence, or through our silent support of, or indifference to such aggressive behavior invites future violence and indifference to be visited upon each of us as individual Muslims whenever we wish to exercise our own freedom to speak. 

How can we expect those who may not share our beliefs, to defend our right to speak if we shrink from our obligation to protect their right to speak? Standing up for another's right to speak freely and believing what he or she has to say are two entirely different things.

Hundreds of thousands of young American men who were still in their teens or early twenties died horribly violent deaths on many faraway battlefields at the hands of Hitler's Nazis during World War II.  They died to preserve certain inalienable rights among which is the right to speak freely and without fear of retribution or reprisal for all subsequent generations of Americans, whether natural born or naturalized. Their blood sacrifice, given so many decades ago, today even protects the rights of those strange and pathetic individuals who are members of the American Nazi Party and who parade around in S.S. uniforms from time to time to publicly protest and demonstrate. 

It is ironic, but true that each time these misguided misfits, publicly spew their hate-filled propaganda against niggers, wops, chinks, spicks, gooks, hymies and camel jockeys through the exercise of the very freedom which their ideological forbearers killed so many young American soldiers in their fascist effort to exterminate all the rights the American Constitution guarantees; they in fact fortify and strengthen the rights of all Americans to speak freely.

Without doubt, the overwhelming majority of Americans do not ascribe to sentiments expressed by these New-Age Nazis or any other homegrown-hate-group, but they do recognize the right of those pathetic people to speak. Likewise, American Muslims while feeling legitimately and genuinely insulted and aggrieved by the publication of the cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), must never forget that there are times when the right of the one outweighs the beliefs of the many. This is such a case. We may not like the cartoons or the cartoonist, but his right to speak outweighs our desire to be spared injured feelings.

The freedoms which we often take for granted, were bought for with the blood of many long departed young men who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we may always count among our treasured rights, that of free speech. This is a right that billions of people in the world, including those in Iran, can only dream of. We dishonor the memory of all those who paid so dearly to give us and future generations the right to speak freely if we fail to protect now that which is worth protecting. The only sincere way that we can ever hope to dignify the sacrifice of those gallant ghosts who bequeathed us so much is to make sure that we protect that for which they died and then to pass on to future generations that which they entrusted us.

Let us never forget what Martin Niemöller wrote about the about the quiescence of German intellectuals to the rise of the Nazis as they systematically targeted groups who disagreed with them;

First they came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up,
because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up,
because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up,
because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left
to speak up for me.

If we as Muslims fail to take a stand today in support of the universal and inalienable right of all humans to speak freely whether we agree with them or not, then tomorrow there may be no one left to stand up for us when we wish to speak.

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