So you're offended? So what?

Toula Foscolos
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Freedom of expression or full-blown censorship?

When the amateurish, and by all accounts, dubious-quality independent film Innocence of Muslims opened in California this past July, no one, with the exception perhaps of the director’s mother and the actors involved, even cared.

Toula Foscolos

However, within days of an Arabic-dubbed version being uploaded to YouTube, followed by Morris Sadek, an Egyptian Christian activist in the U.S., promoting the video on his blog, in conjunction with “International Judge Muhammad Day,” hosted by Florida pastor Terry Jones and scheduled for Sept. 11th, all hell broke loose. It all culminated terribly when four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, were killed when militants attacked the U.S. Consulate in Libya. A few days later, four protesters were killed and more than 30 injured at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen.

A number of opinion pieces have since been written, questioning the need for such a hateful, bigoted and inflammatory film to have been allowed to see the light of day, and debating the ethics of unlimited freedom of speech that permits for the most vile of statements to be broadcast to those who seem unable to hear them without resorting to extreme violence.

This debate, however, isn’t really about testing the limits of freedom of expression, but about full-blown censorship. It’s about religious zealots (Muslim and Christian alike), deciding what is and isn’t acceptable criticism of their faith. Their conclusion: No criticism whatsoever.

We cannot, however, afford to be held hostage to the reactionary and emotional whims of a fanatical fringe that chooses to throw a temper tantrum (albeit, a violent one) each time someone says something mean about their religion.

A complete and utter shutdown of any questioning whatsoever is currently being demanded by a fanatical few. People who claim to follow a religion of peace and in the same breath call for the beheadings of those who dare criticize their faith. People so obscure and hateful like Pastor Terry Jones that the only way to whip people up in a frenzy and have his name written up in papers, is to threaten to burn the Quran.

A number of columnists, who opined about the need to find a balance between freedom of speech and freedom of religion, completely missed the mark. Criticism, disparagement, even downright ridicule of someone’s religion, doesn’t prevent the faithful from practicing their faith. Freedom of religion means nothing more than being free to honour and exercise your religion; not obliging others to do the same!

Our freedom of speech is being held hostage right now by our desire not to hurt the easily-bruised feelings of extremists around the world. Extremists, who, at best, represent a small fraction of the vast majority of peace-loving Muslims and Christians…

We cannot, however, afford to be held hostage to the reactionary and emotional whims of a fanatical fringe that chooses to throw a temper tantrum (albeit, a violent one) each time someone says something mean about their religion.

Why is self-censorship even up for discussion? Will censoring ourselves serve as a tool to increase the possibility (or more likely, the perception) of safety around the world? Will it decrease the likelihood of violence, riots, and fatwas issued? Does anyone really believe that the Sept. 11th violence in Libya was truly instigated by a nasty little film, or was it already in the works, looking for that convenient pretext to explode?

As Sam Harris writes On the Freedom to Offend an Imaginary God, “Religion only works as a pretext for political violence because many millions of people actually believe what they say they believe: that imaginary crimes like blasphemy and apostasy are killing offenses.” And before North America’s “civilized” scoff, let’s not forget that there once was a time when Christianity also considered blasphemy a killing offense.

Are proponents of free speech and democracy supposed to kowtow to the demands of religious extremists who do nothing more than manufacture offences against their faith so as to keep their supporters in a constant stage of rage? Are we supposed to muzzle ourselves while the supposed “honour” of a prophet is more important to this fringe group than the lives of innocent people lost to avenge a perceived insult? What is lost in such an eventual trade-off? What do we run the risk of losing by attempting to buy such elusive peace?

Defending the filmmaker’s right to create this film (no matter how amateur and vile) should, of course, never be misconstrued as approval of his message, but freedom of speech should trump all. “Nothing should be off limits,” as Salman Rushdie, himself no stranger to fatwas, recently said in an interview.  Free expression is being attacked by religious extremism, and it’s essential that the moderate voices around the world drown out the fringe elements and loudly declare, once and for all, that these fanatics do not speak (manifest, riot, and kill) on their behalf, or on behalf of a God in whose name they seek out revenge.

Organizations: U.S. Consulate, U.S. Embassy

Geographic location: U.S., Libya, Florida Yemen North America

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  • kafantaris
    September 25, 2012 - 22:27

    It is becoming increasingly clear that Islam has been intertwined with government for so long that Muslims cannot fathom their countries without it. Though this may be difficult for the rest of us to understand, we should still recognize it as a distinguishing fact of most Muslim countries. But it is their fact not ours. We should not set our clock back centuries to accommodate the Muslim mindset or lack of understanding of basic concepts of individual freedom. It is they who should bring their ideas up to speed and in pace with the modern world. The Muslim leaders should, therefore, continue to educate their citizens on the ways of other countries; that people elsewhere are free from their government to worship the God they want, and free to offend the God that others worship; that this is how it must be if religious freedom is to have meaning -- protection is not needed when others agree with you. Moreover, Muslim leaders should explain that forcing others to honor Prophet Mohamed can be deemed as forcing them to some extent to adopt the Muslim religion itself. As others cannot impose foreign religious etiquette on Muslims, neither should they impose their reverence of Prophet Mohamed. It is imperative that Muslims learn the workings of individual freedoms so that they can harmoniously play their rightful role in the 21st Century. Reading the First Amendment might be a good place to start: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."