The question “is freedom of speech an absolute right” is a dangerous one. Of course, nothing is absolute, and of course, almost no one is saying our freedoms have no limits. While people were criticising the peace process between the state and the PKK in Turkey, even though some were only criticising the way it is done and not the process in principle, the only thing the government could come up with have been this question: “do you want our sons to die, mothers to cry?” The motive behind these two questions might differ between each other, or in different contexts; however, the result is always the same. These are cruel assumptions that contribute nothing to the discussion, and create an ironically “absolute” defence mechanism against future solutions that could be achieved. If we are asking the question “is freedom of speech an absolute right”, we are holding the correct assumption that some people might think so. However, this is not a question of what some people think. This question almost always aims to legitimise the restrictions people think authorities should place on speech. This question, when uttered THIS loudly, only holds the “wrong” assumption that “most” people think freedom of speech is an absolute right. In fact, the reality in the world today is that most people are more willing to support restricting speech more than necessary, rather than allowing its existence more than necessary. If we suppose the ultimate question should be “is freedom of speech an absolute right”, we should at least have a problem of “too much freedom.” The fact that now we are talking about a freedom of speech, but not a freedom of restricting speech in legal and social contexts just shows what we need: freedom. In a world where people are jailed, tortured, beaten or killed as a reaction to “speech”, holding the question “is freedom of speech an absolute right” as the primary approach to our predicament here, is the cruellest thing to do.
Channel 4 News debate about the limits of freedom of speech between Will Self and Martin Rowson will blow your mind. Or, not really. After I watched it for 6 minutes or so, I have realised the whole problem. Will Self questions the limits of free speech, and argues that satire should only target people in power. There is nothing wrong with questioning the limits of free speech, or anything. Personally, I am also questioning the limits of free speech when I say some of the almost universally accepted limits are bullshit. We are just going in completely different directions on this one. I am not saying that such a freedom should be absolute, but I go a little bit further than the understanding of this right in the ECHR. The right to freedom of speech in the ECHR is a qualified right, meaning a non-absolute right that is subject to balancing with other rights, and/or restrictions in some pre-determined ways. In the second paragraph of the Article 10, you may see how such limitations are justified. For example, I do not agree with the “morality” part, or the entire “national security” part, as it might and actually does get misinterpreted. Just like the “health” part. This is why I am a little bit torn about hate speech and I can only safely approach it in different ways for different cases.
But… What Self argues is about power, right? He at least thinks so. He thinks, and he thinks right, in the “feelings of Muslims who are not Pharaohs” part. Most of the people feeling insulted or emotionally attacked by cartoons, criticism or the overall satire about Islam are not powerful people. In fact, some of them are the least powerful in places like Europe or the United States. This view would be correct in any sense, but it would not be the one to approach this issue of the “limits” of free speech. Governments come and go (although our government is trying to make sure that they continue “ruling” for centuries), leaders disappear after a point, and the authority always changes hand over time. Authority and power are also not absolute concepts. They are always limited by the life-span of human beings. Even though the next guy (like, Kim Jong Un) is almost the exact replica of the previous guy, they have different names, they have -even slightly- different approaches. So we start talking about things differently, just like we did about the Ba’ath regime in Syria about Bashar al-Assad and his father. So, what is here to stay is not the people, or the institutions, but the systems that are designed to last centuries or even millennia. In this sense, challenging authority might include politicians, institutions, the power elite, but this is not enough. The courageous and wise thing to do, the thing that might actually achieve something, is to challenge systems.
So, regardless of who is emotionally hurt on the way, all offensive satire about Islam actually attacks Islam as a system. Some part of it is discriminatory, some part of it is pure hate speech, but this is not a matter of power in this matter. Hurt feelings do not always imply discrimination or hate. Some people are just easily offended, and I would agree that some people deserve receiving civilised justice about this, only rarely. The solution about the actual harm that can in fact arise from speech is not necessarily a blanket limitation on free speech that might be used in each individual case in the same manner. The solution is to determine who physically gets hurt directly as the result of the speech. In the case of satire, satirists are also not the people with physical power. Most of them are not rich. Most of them are under pressure by the masses like in the case of Islam, or by the authorities. Muslims have a “collective identity” that protects them to some extent. When they are discriminated against, they are at least partly supported by that identity and by people who say “you cannot discriminate against a community”. Sadly enough, satirists are discriminated against more, and in a dangerous way. Even more unfortunately, satirist do not have a collective identity formed of the individual identities of hundreds of millions of people that will protect them. The problem with the world is, that we do not take the actual attacks on freedom of speech as seriously as discrimination. They are both problems, and they are both serious problems, sometimes ending up with death, torture, or at least prosecution. I am sure most would agree that the amount of satirists or in general “dissenters” in the world who are jailed, tortured, physically attacked or discriminated against “just because they are dissenters”, is immensely, incredible more than the tiny, tiny, tiny number of Muslims who experience the same things “just because they are Muslims”, and only in some messed-up, shitty places like the beacon of democracy, and the police of the world. You know which one. In anyway, regarding the “exact same” issues, dissenters in general are numerically and practically (in terms of the amount of violence they are under the threat of), are a much more disadvantaged group of people than Muslims. Please at least get “this one” straight. For example, the total number of death threats a typical, practicing Muslim has got from right-wing Germans in the last 50 years would not even get close to the ones I receive every month. I am not saying they are not discriminated against, or their problems are less important than mine as an individual, but portraying satirists and dissenters as privileged people on their ivory towers who just take pleasure in sending judgement “down” to disadvantaged people is cruel.
Muslims as individuals might not seem powerful, but Islam is a religion of great power with its approximately 1.5 billion followers. So, if criticising, making fun of or talking about Islam gets people in danger, the authority challenged here is the authority of Islam. The power that has to be challenged is the power that can mobilise -even a tiny minority of- people to commit crimes. A power that actively and violently prevents people from merely “saying” or “drawing” things is a power that needs to be challenged, and the people who help such a power are not people without power, but they are the face we rightfully attach on power. Half a billion Muslims supporting the idea that “Muhammad should not be drawn as a part of satire” would not be the oppressed or the powerless. They would constitute the scariest power that we should be afraid of, and definitely challenge to protect our valuable, humane ideas, and of course, our lives. Half a billion Muslims would also be an understatement in this matter, which could be understood by looking at any opinion poll.
There is this great majority of Muslims that take every insult against Islam as an insult or a threat against Muslims. This point of view has no place in our legitimate understanding of the world, and we are not going anywhere in this. Even most hate speech stems from the intolerance brought upon by Islam. Yes, some people hate Muslims, and yes, this is wrong, but terrorist attacks, human rights abuses, extreme reactions on almost any kind of criticism do not help Muslims in this matter. If we are to assume that satire currently attacks powerless people, we must ignore all the (verbal, financial or physical) support for terrorist attacks by the majority of Muslims. According to a World Public Opinion study, 61% of Egyptians approve of attacks on Americans, while the numbers are like these for other nations: 32% of Indonesians, 41% of Pakistanis, 38% of Moroccans, 83% of Palestinians, 62% of Jordanians, 42% of Turks. These are not numbers we should not be concerned about, nor do they point to a “tiny minority”. The real tiny minority who actually go bomb, burn, attack places actually serve to cloud our judgement in seeing the real problem. The majority who support violence, is not equally, but even more dangerous than the tiny minority who actually go out of their way to commit crimes. A system this large, should not be actively promoting violence, because when the violence occurs, they have the numbers to back it up, and act as the primary victims. Just remember the comments of Turkish authorities right after the Charlie Hebdo attack: “Muslims are the victims of such attacks, as they are discriminated against by racists and right-wing people because of these.” No. If anything, Muslims ARE victims, but not the primary, maybe not even the secondary victims here, as they were not horribly murdered just because they drew something. Again, Muslims are victims, but not the victims of the “Western Civilisation”. This is the picture what demagogues all over the world have been trying to establish so far. If Muslims are “somehow” victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack, they were not victimised by the French government, imperialists, or supporters of free speech. They were victimised by the people who shouted “Allahu Aqbar” and BRUTALLY KILLED PEOPLE in broad day light.
The real problem with Islam, or terrorism in general is not a problem that is caused by this really, actually tiny minority who resort to violence in the name of Islam. Our real problem is the majority of Muslims who verbally or financially support those who resort to violence. Our problem is the mainstream Islamic-country media outlets that openly cry in joy when there is a suicide bombing killing civilians. Our problem is the 89% of Palestinians who think it is absolutely right to attack Israeli civilians, including their children. Additionally, we have the “undecided” ones. We also have the “sometimes civilians can die” sort of things. In addition, we have opinions like “civilians should not be killed, but…”. How does this relate to our “tiny minority” argument?
As long as we keep this argument, we are less likely to see the main problem behind it. Yes, there is only a tiny minority of Muslims who go out and kill people in the name of Islam, but why are they killing people? If we present secondary reasons like discrimination, cultural oppression, or hate (none of which deserve death in exchange), we cannot point out the real issue. Saying Islam is peaceful or the majority of its followers are against violence would be statistically wrong. Or, as you may like me saying: it brings more problems upon Muslims. Saying Islam is misunderstood and should not be generalised stems from the assumption that the problem is not with the system, but the people. Likewise, saying people who resort to violence are not real Muslims, or cannot be real Muslims is basically assuming two things:
1) Muslims are never likely to be violent.
This is a wrong assumption. By logic and history, it is a “given” that everyone is likely to be violent at some point or to some extent. I AM likely to be violent at some point, in some way or context. This is human nature. We are evolutionarily programmed to protect ourselves or in some cases, resort to aggression, and sometimes violence to get what we want. This does not make violence right, and this does not imply that some people “statistically” have not been more violent so far. This just shows violence can come from a person with any kind of background.
2) If someone is violent, they must be a non-Muslim.
This holds the same assumption as the idea that all Muslims are the same. This idea is supported by almost all Muslims, including the ones that openly support violence. This comes not from experience or logic, but from the definition of violence. Even a person who say “violence is bad” can support things like the Charlie Hebdo attack. They just do not see that as an example of violence. In their minds, the jihadis were protecting the honour of Islam and the prophet. To be clear, I will state this assumption in different words:
If someone is violent, dangerous, or “bad” in general, they must be a member of the system X.
The system X here consists of the other part of the world with the population of about 5.5 billion people. Muslims are devastated and shocked when they see some people generalising and assuming fixed things about “the whole 1.5 billion” people. So… How ‘bout “them” apples?
Moreover, attacking Islam have benefits for Muslims, too. I am not saying this as “that white guy” who knows the best for the world. Firstly, attacking Islam, and Muslims being cool about it (even though they do not respect or condone to such a thing) brings Muslims to the level of the civilisation we are trying to protect today. Muslims being cool in the face of criticism or attack on “ideas” shows the world that they understand this: attacking ideas is the only way to solve problems with those ideas in a civilised way, and it does not necessarily constitute an attack on people, or a generalisation of a broader group. I am supporting free speech to an almost absolute (never “exactly” absolute) extent, and I AM disturbed, shocked or really offended when some certain ideas of mine are challenged. I either challenge the attack in the same verbal manner like a civilised person, or suck it up and remain offended for some time. Feeling offended only shows that you are a human being and you can feel things. It does not automatically provide you with additional rights upon your existing right to come up with a civilised reaction like peacefully protesting, having a debate, or a simple conversation.
Additionally, attacking Islam verbally means people are challenging Islam, not Muslims. Because, the alternative is attacking Muslims and not Islam. Another alternative is “not attacking at all”, but, how are we going to solve problems with a system if we do not question it “verbally”? If there MUST be an attack, this must be verbal, and it must be on things that cannot bleed, on things that have no rights, children, or an absolutely deserved future: ideas. This implies some non-Muslim, or so-called moderate-Muslim people are willing to hold a conversation and solve things. They are not necessarily the absolute authority on things, but if we are to consider the rights and living standards of 1 billion people, we must at least not ignore the remaining 6 billion.
As a Middle-Eastern (at the same time, West-Asian, East-European, I just do not care, but I am just giving this information about my location and culture) person, the biggest problem I have seen is that “we” are intolerant and definitely not open to discussion. We do not have a culture of self-criticism. We take every verbal attack as an attack on our honour, on our culture. At least most of us… I do not think I personally satisfy all the criteria. The problem with challenging Islam proved to be problematic itself, not because there may be some “Westerners” who want to dictate their opinions, forcing it upon people whom they look down on. There ARE “Westerners” who approach this discussion this way. However, the real problem is that most Muslims are not willing to “discuss” anything at all. 40% of Indonesians approve of violence in defence of Islam (Pew Global, 2006). This is a 100 million people only in Indonesia with whom we cannot “discuss” anything even if we wanted to, and Indonesia is mostly seen as a “good example of a Muslim-majority country with ‘cute’ approaches to secularism”. What about Saudi Arabia? What about Pakistan?
On the question of “what are we going to do now”, one can only support mutual understanding, but this is not happening. One cannot solve a problem without accepting the existence of it. Verbally attacking Islam, not Muslims, within the limits of free speech, is a way of solving things in a civilised way. How are we going to solve the problem of oppression of women, if women support the attacks or extreme reactions against satire that serve to criticise their oppression? How are we going to solve the problem of extreme intolerance while even the people who are not tolerated in their communities for the silliest things are continuing to support such a culture of intolerance? Islam needs a reform, and most Muslims are not willing to make it, or at least take it. As we have seen in recent history, sending violence back does not work. We only have our words and opinions against this danger and violence. We should at least be able to protect our words and opinions.
As a reply to Mr. Self’s opinion, I would say: what kind of power are we talking about? For me, the thing that scares to death hundreds of millions of people who would like to say or draw things, is a power that needs to be challenged. An idea, no matter how many supporters it might have, that makes the world a dangerous place, urges people to look over their shoulder every time they have just shared a simple, not necessarily harmful opinion about a certain group of people, is powerful enough to deserve criticism and a fight over satire, peaceful discussion, and public debate. Islam is not immune from criticism as it has about 1.5 billion followers. Islam is dangerous BECAUSE it has about 1.5 billion followers. Islam SHOULD be challenged BECAUSE it has about 1.5 billion followers. The huge numbers of people following an idea does not imply the legitimacy of that idea. If it is a bad idea, the huge numbers only prove that we should be more concerned about it, and we are in more danger.