Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On the right to speak wrong


By boycotting the Geneva racism conference, the West suggests they agree that hate speech is not free speech

Nazry Bahrawi

090423-NewsComment WE HAIL it among the loftiest of human ideals. So much so that it was cast in stone as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations in 1948.

That we can speak freely without fear of repercussion, is as sacred as life itself. Its sacrosanct virtue is perhaps best captured in the aphorism credited to Voltaire’s biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

Yet when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad opened the UN racism conference in Geneva on Monday by calling Israel “a cruel and repressive racist regime”, representatives of Western nations who attended staged a walkout. This snub came after several Western states such as the United States and the Netherlands decided they would boycott the conference by not showing up.

Some would justify their act on the belief that the Iranian President was making a farce of the UN summit. British Ambassador to the UN Peter Gooderham explained that Mr Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric against Israel was “the opposite of what this conference seeks to achieve”.

Given that anti-Semitism was one of the primary themes of the summit, Mr Gooderham’s observation has some credence. But Islamophobia was also a theme at the summit.

Western nations did not react with the same fervour to the Prophet Mohammed cartoon controversy four years back that began in Europe and swept through the Muslim world. Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published 12 satirical caricatures of Prophet Mohammed, at that time defended its move as an exercise in the freedom of expression. As Muslims worldwide took to the streets to protest, European newspapers reacted by republishing these cartoons on the pretext of defending the sanctity of the freedom of expression.

Both controversies had each undermined a segment of humanity — Muslims with the Mohammed cartoons and Jews with Mr Ahmadinejad’s lambast of Israel. So, why the double standard on the part of Western nations?

Even though their diplomats do not agree with Mr Ahmadinejad, the boycott and dramatic walkout does not gel with the idealistic notion of defending to the death the right to speak wrong. If there is any wisdom that could be garnered from this UN debacle, it is that the likes of Ms Hall may be peddling a Utopian vision. The universality of free speech is fast becoming a myth, if not already. There is always a backlash. Speech is nuanced more than it is free.

Far from oppressing us, this realization must surely free humanity from the naïve stance that we have held on to so tightly since 1948. Perhaps it is time for world leaders to rethink Article 19 to better reflect ground realities. There is already precedence to justify the move. A clause that decries hate speech could be a good start.

Before die-hard propagators of free speech resort to decrying this suggestion as a heresy to the sanctity of civil liberties, a qualification needs to be outlined with regards to the thorny issue of religion. Hate speech is not the same as criticism of religion. The former could lead to disastrous ends, while the latter has the potential of unveiling the evils of authoritarianism.

As portrayed in the Oscar-nominated movie Hotel Rwanda, hate speech instigating the majority Hutus to attack the minority Tutsi “cockroaches” was broadcast over the radio just days before the genocide. Surely this must not count as an exercise of free speech.

But in the endeavour to rethink free speech, criticism of religious ideas must not be derided. This is a practice that exists even within the Muslim tradition, where the faithfuls used to freely express their doubt and disagreement about different facets of Islam during sermons delivered by persons of religious authority, including Prophet Mohammed.

On the political front, some diplomacy should perhaps be exercised if criticism of religion is to make any headway. The consideration of power here is highly important. When economically stronger European nations lead the charge against Islamic ideas as in the case of the Danish caricatures, they are effectively signaling to the Muslim world — most of which comprise developing nations — that the powerful could stomp on the weak.

This is painfully reminiscent of colonising tendencies and it is regressive. In this light, the boycott and walkout of the Geneva summit only serve to add further grievous harm to an already sore injury. A more becoming reaction of powerful Western nations would have been for their diplomats to stay and engage with the ideas of the delegates that they disapprove.

Above all, it is clear that both the Western nations and the Muslim world, despite their seeming disagreements about free speech, are fighting the same enemy — hate speech. So why not reconfigure Article 19 of the UDHR to reflect this ideal?

The writer is pursuing a postgraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh under the British Chevening scholarship.

From TODAY, World – Friday, 24-April-2009


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