Local Vocal: Freedom of expression or cultural racism?

by Badi Ali

The despicable mockery of the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) guarantees debate between the Muslim world and Europe. Three features must be distinguished in this context.

The first is the image of Islam and the honored Prophet culled from the Western imagination and perception, which was formed during the Crusades. Thus, the image illustrated an intended insult and misrepresentation of the Prophet. The early works of the Western schools during the times of colonialism and wide-scale missionary work revived this image.

We should not generalize or jump to the conclusion that all Western writers and intellectuals are hostile towards the Prophet and Islam. Rather, we should strive to entrench, strengthen and revive the positive image. The Western philosophers of the enlightenment saw aspects of tolerance, freedom and reason in Islam and saw liberation, mercy and justice in the Prophet Mohamed.

The second feature is related to the reaction of Muslim communities towards the cartoons. The angry response and protests have represented a natural reaction to the defamation of a nation’s most sacred symbol. Thus, the Muslim people should have not been expected to remain silent about their anger. However, the wave of anger was not void of dangerous transgressions that clashed with the essence of the Prophet’s message himself concerning the ways to defend belief with wisdom. To defend the Prophet by blazing churches and attacking tourists and diplomats is completely detached from the Prophet’s guidance.

We should carefully restrain ourselves in the face of the array of articles that appear nowadays in the Western press, which emphasize the ‘terrorist’ nature of Islam. They perceive the response of Arabs as a radical rejection of modernism. In addition, they seek to explain it as evidence of the inability of Arabs and Muslims to understand modernity and its values, the most important of which are freedom of expression and consciousness.

Some may become quickly pulled into this war and consider it a war between two equal opponents in the cultural realm which is wrong and harmful to our case. In reality, the issue is not about the clash of two antagonistic models of civilizations but rather related to a certain pattern of racial thought that is based on an exclusivist background. This racism uses religion as a tool of mobilization and conflict, albeit through defaming it rather than invoking it.

It is noteworthy that the so-called moderates among us, who defended the rights of the European newspapers to publish the cartoons, based their argument on the assumption that what should be rejected is the singling out of a specific race or nationality to defame. However, when it comes to a universal religion then defamation is not considered as such but rather ‘“freedom of expression.’” Everyone knows that Islam represents the axial element of the Muslim identity. This renders their defense of the European newspapers’ right as weak. In addition, some of the cartoons depicted certain Muslims in specific countries that belong to specific ethnicities, during a sensitive and troublesome stage in history between the West and Islam. Therefore, these cartoons could not be regarded as freedom of expression. They rather seek to provoke hatred and conflict in a reality ready for ignition at any moment.

The third feature is related to freedom of the media in Western countries. There is undoubtedly freedom of media. However, it suffers from severe imbalances that have been highlighted by many researchers of media studies. The paradox is that along with the progress and multiplication of both means of expression and occupation, what was once described as ‘“the despotism of communication’”. This term denotes the media’s manipulation and control of the news, and the exchange of information. In the US for example, America Online, which bought Netscape, also owns Time magazine and Warner Bros. movie studios.

In France, the arms trader Serge Dassault, who is close to the extreme right, has created a wide media empire that includes the Hersant group that issues Le Figaro newspaper, and the Vivendi group that prints over 15 publications. This phenomenon is common in a number of Western countries. Media has turned into a power that dominates and one in which the task of broadcasting impartial information has become the least important role.

The prominent French sociologist Pierre Bordeaux has illustrated in his recent works the dangers of the media domination and the reshaping of public consciousness and imagination. He considered that humanity might reach a point in which it will be forced to re-wage the 18th century revolutions to get rid of the dangerous control of the media. Ironically, while there are laws that prohibit the doubting of a historical account that has become sacred, there are no laws protecting sacred religious symbols. This takes place under the pretense of defending freedom of expression, which at times is employed for the sake of the dissemination of hatred and racism.

The writer Badi Ali, is a longtime leader in the local Muslim community, current president of Muslims for a Better North Carolina and former president of the Islamic Center of the Triad.