To Speak or not to Speak

I’m never sure wether it’s productive to join a current social debate. Usually they’re about the symptoms of issues, rather than the problems we face themselves (though often we don’t realise it). We can for instance discuss at length wether women should be permitted to wear a veil, but often the greatest opponents of veils don’t have friends who wear the veil. The deeper problem is a  fragmented society in which those discussing the issue don’t have contact or influence in each other’s lives. The Mezrab way to tackle it is not to have a stance for or against the veil, but to create a space in which both camps feel comfortable, have tea together and get to know each other.

However, I was recently discussing with a friend the shitstorm caused by the Innocence of Muslims and the French cartoons. The friend held the position that we should limit freedom of speech to include films and cartoons such as these, and that such limitations shouldn’t be a taboo since we already limit freedom of speech when it comes to denying the holocaust. I posted quite a passionate response on his Facebook, but I’d like to share it here with you as well.

That such limitations of speech already exist does not mean that I agree with it, and it certainly is not an argument for further limitations. While I think it’s pretty fucking vile to question the holocaust, I’m not sure if I want it to be forbidden to question it. Even if we would agree on limiting free speech, and for the sake of argument we would agree that questioning the holocaust should remain illegal, then that is still a big jump to forbidding blasphemy. And here’s why:

The reasoning behind denying the holocaust is not (just) to stop people from being hurt. It is very rational to see how the denial of the existence of genocide plays a role in creating the conditions for further inhumane acts. When Hitler came up with his plans for the final solution for the Jewish “problem” he pointed to the Turks who got away with killing hundreds of thousands of Armenians. One of the reasons the Islamic Republic is so firmly in power is that many of the young generation don’t know about the extent of killing that took place in the decade after the revolution. Denial of facts and keeping people ignorant is a very strong factor in creating the conditions in which such massacres can take place. Besides, you further dehumanise a group. How many people do you know that think Jewish people are a whiny bunch that can’t get over something that might not even have happened 60 years ago? I, sadly, know far too many. To keep it short, you forbid to protect the victims. (again, I’m not a defender of the limitation of speech here, but explaining why it exists)

When you forbid blasphemy, you are not protecting the ones who are being “hurt”. No Muslim got killed from a cartoon. You say, we will not hurt their feelings, so that we won’t get killed (ie. western diplomats, travelers, traders, non-muslim minorities in muslim countries, etc.).

For many people Muslims are a different class of people. I am sure the abuse that exists from western powers in Muslim countries would be different and less if it was a different culture. There would be no Guantanamo for non-Muslims. I can’t imagine we would have a Fallujah tragedy in a non-Muslim country. We tolerate more abuse of Muslims (by Westerners and Muslims) because we (the west) see them as second rate people. It’s not a co-incidence the interest in the Iranian post election protests was so much in the west when they saw pictures of young secular fashionable protesters. Look, they’re just like us! Look at the contrast with Syria, or Bahrain. The abuse is worse, but they abuse people who appear on TV in chadors and niqabs. Their men have long wooly beards. It’s a shame they’re getting killed, but in their culture it’s business as usual. We’ve dehumanised them and can be less sensitive to their suffering. Now, FORBIDDING THE CARTOONS IS ANOTHER STEP IN DEHUMANISING MUSLIMS. You basically say that a Muslim is less a person than he is his religion. We don’t take you seriously as human beings because we don’t think you can tolerate what is perfectly normal in our society. We will not even give you the chance to have calmer more tolerant aspects of your society rise up and say “these cartoons are bullshit, but we can ignore them, because we are above that” or “why do people make these cartoons, are there elements in our culture/religion that we need to confront?”

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2 thoughts on “To Speak or not to Speak

    1. Your friend’s suggestion is a terrible idea ignoring the fact that many Muslims do not want such an anti-blasphemy law. Much of Tunisia for example is in a state of polarization and controversy between those who want such policies and those who find them totally artificial and alien to Tunisian culture. In the Arab world many writers have said much more dramatic anti-religious statements in their books and poems, flirting with heresies and challenging the hypocrisy of religion, better ones than Salman Rushdy but there is more acceptance of literary debate and expression in the Arab world as first it is not a visual culture, it is verbal and second a very ignorant reactionary Salafi will not likely read authors like Yasmina Chaadra or Ali Becheur. Artistic depictions of Mohammed have existed in Islamic art and let’s not forget that Protestant Christianity and Judaism are also iconoclastic in their doctrines. The first victims of terrorism are the actual neighbors of the terrorists, and not the ambassadors, for example the Tunisian artists like Mohammed Ben Slama who are being confronted with threats and a trial for having depicted Mohammed in a painting, he made a beautiful work of art and he would be the first to be affected by an inferior law by condescending Western ruling elites. And what is holocaust denial? Any intelligent discussion of the holocaust has been ruled out, the site of Auschwitz is a kind of dinseyland and only very superficial and cheap sentimental depictions like Schindler’s List or Roberto Benini’s film are tolerable when we discuss the massive and catastrophic suffering of Jewish people, these taboos should not exist because if a neonazi presents his idiotic opinion he should be able to do so in public where he can be challenged and defeated.

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