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Free Speech: The Other Side of The Story

March 3, 2009

A few weeks ago, I blogged about Mr. Johann Hari’s controversial article in The Independent in which Mr. Hari squarely criticized oppressive religions like Islam and pointed to a non-binding, anti-blasphemy resolution passed by the UN that made it a criminal act to defame religion and prophets [Death Knell of Freedom of Speech] .

This month, however, that same anti-blasphemy resolution which was introduced by a group of fundamentalist Islamic nations and a few Christian nations last year, is being proposed as a binding resolution on all UN member nations. If passed it would mean the end of free speech as we know it (Here’s a recent discussion about the anti-blasphemy law between CNN’s Lou Dobbs and Christopher Hitchens). 

While trying to find the reaction to this anti-blasphemy law in the arab world , I came across this op-ed piece in Egypt’s Al-Ahram weekly[link]. The writer of the op-ed piece definitely did not see eye-to-eye with the secular western world in this matter. Although one newspaper’s opinion does not count as opinion of the people but if the following opinion is held by most intellectuals in the Arab world, freedom of speech there has a long uphill battle ahead.


Free Speech and Fatwas by Aijaz Zaka Syed

……At a time when anything to do with Islam and Muslims looks fair game, the Rushdie saga appears to offer another opportunity to all Islam bashers. Some cleverly cloak their invective in a critique of Iran and all the troubles it appears to be unleashing across the Middle East. Some target the alleged inherent intolerance of Islam and its followers in the name of debating free speech. The rest simply do not need an excuse to open another front in the “war on Islamist terror”. Seems we are the world’s favourite punching bag. Just try using the same freedom against the Jews and see the instant results.

Can we blame the world for pointing out the gross injustices against minorities and the lack of basic human rights in the Islamic world? I have noticed that playing the victim card over and over again (as I noted in another post here) is a very common ploy amongst Muslim writers supporting the cause of Islam . It doesn’t matter whether they need to distort the truth or blatantly lie about something, they always have to be the sad victim.  Notice, how he does not admit the intolerance and bigotry in the Islamic world. It is never Islam’s fault.  It’s always the evil western world trying to bash up poor old Islam. And, don’t forget the Jews. It’s always the Jews!! No matter what it is, Jews are always the problem. 

Btw, Mr. Hari did write an op-ed piece criticizing Israel , but did that lead to Jews taking to the streets? No.


…..As a journalist, I empathise with the Statesman folks because they were penalised for no fault of theirs. But were the people who came out on the streets in protest wrong to do so? I don’t think so. The Independent columnist was certainly out of line when he attacked Islam in his piece titled, “Why should I respect these oppressive religions?” But if you think Hari is equally irreverent to all religions, you’d better think again. The whole piece is devoted to Islam and its “oppressive” practices and teachings.


Just for the record, Mr. Hari did criticize other religions in his post namely Judaism and Hinduism- ” I don’t respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don’t respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice“.

But why was the columnist out of line for attacking Islam? What is so great about any religion that it is beyond criticism? Notice how he never tries to refute what the article claims but tries to justify the behavior of Muslims taking to the streets.


In fact, Hari bewails the fact that with the UN conceding to the Muslim appeal against attacks on religious beliefs and symbols in the name of free speech, writers like Rushdi can no longer have the “freedom” to target Islam and its prophet. He goes on to complain that “today, whenever a religious belief is criticised, its adherents immediately claim they are the victims of ‘prejudice’ — and their outrage is increasingly being backed by laws.”

But that’s how it should be, shouldn’t it? What kind of freedom is it that gives you a right to hurt others and abuse their sacred beliefs and convictions? Arguing that nothing should be sacrosanct in a free society and that he is not attacking Muslims but their faith, Hari says: “All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do!”

That’s some argument and some logic! Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve never lived and worked in the West. So I’ve really got no idea what makes the likes of Johann Hari reach this conclusion. But I’ve heard that line of reasoning before. Like when Sheriff Bush and Deputy Sheriff Blair reassured us that their war was not against Muslims but against a “hateful, evil ideology”.

That is the cleverest thing to say — or perhaps the dumbest! Because history would tell you that those looking to humiliate you will first attack what you believe in. Which is what Hari has been trying to do for some time. Which is what those behind the Danish cartoons sought to do when they abused the man who is loved and revered by a billion believers more than their own lives.


No, that’s not how it should be. No person or idealogy should be above criticism and critical enquiry. Just because someone is revered by billions of people is not  reason enough for others to grovel and fall at his feet.

Again, notice how this editor constantly fails to refute the argument in the article but instead appeals to one’s emotions and points to historical injustices against the ‘poor’ muslims or how they have been mistreated and humiliated.

I am constantly amazed at the hypocrisy of muslim intellectuals. When muslims openly criticize and indulge in hate speech against Jews, Christians and other religions it is hardly condemned by these intellectuals. Yet, the moment someone points out something negative about Islam, they instantly cry foul and become defensive.  


But is this really about free speech and civil rights? Is it really that hard for our European friends to see why we refuse the balderdash that goes about in the name of freedom? We are not against free speech or human rights. They are as important to us, if not more so, as they are to champions of freedom like Johann Hari. But no freedom is absolute, and every right comes with responsibility. Your right is wrong when it violates other people’s rights.

Freedom to believe in an ideology may be a right, not the idealogy  itself. And like any other ideology, Islam is not beyond criticism or critical enquiry.

And what humans rights are we talking about here Mr. Syed? If by “we” Mr. Syed means Muslim countries, one only needs to look at countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Syria (to name a few) to understand the egregious human rights record of these countries .  I wonder why doesn’t Mr. Syed focus his invective against the dismal human rights record of these countries or the effects of Islam on the rights of women and gays in these countries ?  


If playing with people’s beliefs and trampling on all they hold sacred is freedom, then we’re better off without it. And when we talk of beliefs and sensitivities, we don’t just mean one but all faiths. We must and we do respect all religions and scriptures.In fact, the religion Hari calls “oppressive” warns us that you are not Muslim if you do not believe in all the holy books and messengers that came before Islam. Which is why the denigration of Jesus and Moses is equally unacceptable to us. This is how it should be. All religious beliefs and scriptures are a collective heritage of mankind that should be cherished and celebrated.


Oh, really !! One needs only to read the Quran and the hadiths to know how that is a blatant lie. Yes, yes I know. As always, I am misinterpreting the Quran isn’t it? After all what does a kafir know about the Quran.

Nice try Mr. Syed !! I guess you have never heard about Saudi Arabia and Iran. And why don’t you talk about the conditions of the Coptic Christians in your own country – Egypt, Mr. Syed?


Religion should be a source of strength and peace and unity. It can indeed unite us, if we learn to respect each other’s beliefs and convictions.All this recent talk of bridging the gulf between Islam and the West is very noble: I greatly admire the well-meaning initiatives by Saudi King Abdullah and others in the West to prevent the civilisational conflict that Samuel Huntington obsessed over. But it takes two to make peace. You can hardly have a dialogue when the other side continues to abuse you.

As has been proven since the dawn of civilization, religion has only been a  source of strength to the weak and had never been a source of peace and unity. It will never be an unifying force of humanity because of the dogmatic differences each side tends to espouse. And, as long as Muslims continue to look for external factors to blame, as long as they keep playing the victim card instead of being proactive in introspecting and changing the harmful aspects of Islam, there is hardly any chance, if any, of preventing such a catastrophic civilizational conflict.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 3, 2009 8:30 pm

    A very long post 🙂
    But what is the moral of the story??
    I couldn’t figure out…..

    • nitwitnastik permalink*
      March 3, 2009 9:01 pm

      It is a follow up to another post of mine..I just wanted to show what the arab world thinks about free speech..and how that logic is flawed..

      …the moral is for you to find out:-)

  2. March 3, 2009 9:40 pm

    That way there will be so many morals 🙂
    As many people, as many morals 🙂
    What is the point you are pointing towards??

    • nitwitnastik permalink*
      March 3, 2009 11:59 pm

      freedom of speech and the fact that no religion is above criticism

  3. March 4, 2009 2:03 am

    Good. Criticism will always be there.
    What are the solutions??

  4. March 6, 2009 1:40 am

    @tarun: Are you saying every exercise in reason must be an applied one? Knowledge is achieved through objective analysis of things as they are. There is theory and there is practice. Both are essential. NN has done some good theoretical analysis here. Perhaps you can come up with a solution?

    @NN: “Freedom to believe in an ideology may be a right, not the idealogy itself.”

    That, I think, is the key. The critics of freedom of speech assume that not only do they have a right to believe in nonsense, but that their nonsensical beliefs have the right to go unchallenged, as well. Its clear from the guy’s statement that he really does not understand freedom of speech, regardless of his claim.

  5. Anirban permalink
    March 7, 2009 10:06 pm

    there is nowhere the right not to be offended . If you believe in something , get ready to defend it anytime anywhere . Can’t shut people down for their speech.

  6. March 8, 2009 9:33 pm

    @Ajita-If I were having the solutions, I would have sloved the problem as of now 😀
    Sorry to say, but I don’t have any solutions because I really don’t know what is the problem exactly 😦 and I guess nobody knows…..:(


  1. UN Blasphemy Resolution Fails « Nitwit Nastik

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