Dear ‘Absolute’ Freedom Enthusiast…

With the ‘world’ flaring up into a fiery whirlwind of discussion and debate over the complete freedom of expressing oneself openly; with over forty heads of states holding hands in the Paris ‘peace’ march after the Charlie Hebdo attacks; with scores of democratic freedom supporters tweeting and holding up banners of ‘Je Suis Charlie’; with commentators, liberal pundits and even political figures reaffirming that freedom of speech includes freedom to offend; With alarms being sounded throughout the world in regards to freedom of expression, I would like to pose a question;

Is freedom of speech really ‘free’?

In the democratic society, which we all enjoy, have we truly been given an open leash to do and say whatever we want, whenever we want?

I would like to challenge the belief in freedom of expression with no limits. I not only believe but would like to prove that freedom of expression and speech are not so ‘free’. In fact, the freedom of expression that we have is not a right, after all, it is a privilege.

Europe, generally being a democratic continent has had a rollercoaster ride when it comes to freedom and the freedom of expression. The industrial revolution in the 1830s led to economic freedom, this led to individualism and existentialism being born. The leaders of freedom movements like Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Sartre who created great revolutions, were born. As years passed, ‘intellectual freedom’, the brainchild of all such leaders, evolved from a well-tamed pet into a wild – out of control – animal. This, of course, is apparent with the current disturbances and disruption that ‘complete’ freedom of speech has caused (Charlie Hebdo, Danish cartoons and depictions of the sacred).

Let us not forget, the original freedom pioneers regarded freedom to be in a relationship with responsibility, and this relationship was one of interdependency; cohesion and peace of society did matter. Now it seems that cohesion, tolerance and peace are matters which can be overlooked when one is to express themselves. Sadly, these poor habits and ideologies are now trickling down to the next generations.

The truth is our ‘free society’, without a shadow of a doubt, has a series of locks, ties and boundaries which limit us in saying and doing whatever we so wish; after all, that is how tolerance and peace are born. Free speech is a right in Europe and nobody can contest this. However, legislation and civic responsibilities put control over what we say and do.

Take for example the freedom of action. By law, through countless judicial acts, we are not allowed to steal, we are not allowed to pick fights and certainly not allowed to vandalise – without question, by doing so we will be put behind bars. After all, do we walk around insulting people just because we are free to do it? No. It is called civic responsibility.

With all these restrictions on freedom of action; a free democratic society automatically does not become so ‘free’ after all. No one contests this. It is civically accepted.

Let us remind ourselves of the nursery rhyme that taught us the very morals of society:

And don’t teach your children to be cruel,
there’s still gold in the Golden Rule–
they shouldn’t call names and they
shouldn’t throw fists,
they shouldn’t name targets and they
shouldn’t make lists…

Of course, the campaigners of complete freedom of speech will now, I am sure, agree that ‘names’ should be called, children can throw fists and teaching your children to target, segregate and isolate people is acceptable, right? I do hope that these are not the morals being taught to children.

Let us not deny the indisputable fact that in reality none of us believes in ‘an untrammelled right to free speech’ as Mehdi Hassan said in The New Statesman.

Again, our very own public condemns actions that hurt the emotions of individuals, for example, our armed forces. According to a YouGov poll in 2011, 82 per cent supported the prosecution of protestors who set fire to poppies. One man, in particular, being fined £50 for burning poppies on Armistice Day.. Daily telegraph Web 07 March 2011

One can argue that this is freedom of expression, so what is the squabbling about?

What about the NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Who was responsible for WikiLeaks which leaked top-secret classified governmental material; arguably resulting in collateral damage. Why is it that the majority agree that Snowden should be punished, to the extent that some agree to capital punishment as a feasible punishment? Punish Edward Snowden, don’t praise him was the slogan shouted out.

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden

Again, I urge the ‘absolute’ freedom to expression patron to question the standards already set in our own ‘democratic’ countries. In France, wearing religious symbols or the veil is strictly forbidden. Not forgetting the ban on pro-Palestinian protests within the same country. Not wanting to scrutinise France due to any personal grief, I would also like to question the arrest of Brisbane, a man wearing a political t-shirt whilst standing near political campaigners not long after the murderous rampage in Paris.

What happened to freedom of expression without any limits?!

The truth is, freedom of expression also has a cap on it. Let us take what is already under the spotlight; satirical cartoon magazines. Liberals, I am sure will not accept caricaturing racism by reproducing openly racist imagery. They surely would not accept the cartoon of Christine Taubira (Minister of Justice), who is black, being depicted as an animal (which I would prefer not to name in this piece). Or would they? Is this not freedom of expression?

On the subject of satire, surely there was a moral background for the reason as to why Fairfax was forced to apologise for publishing an anti-semitic cartoon following the attack of Israel on Gaza in July last year.

I guess the nursery rhyme:

“sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me”

which we all voiced at each other as toddlers, was in the long run – simply false.

When referring to offending the faithful, the populace which screams out that offending is just ‘light banter’ and the religious should lighten up their mood, need to rethink their ideologies. Nejm Benessaiah put it in rational terms when he said:

“to claim that everything should be subject to ridicule is to state that nothing is sacred”.

Without a doubt, attacking something or someone which is sacred to another will stir up disorder, disruption and disturbance in society.

Not lecturing on history, I would like to remind those who do hold religious sentiments, that all this ridicule or ‘wit’ as some say, can be traced back to François-Marie Arouet, also known as Voltaire. He was the philosopher and enlightenment writer who was famous for his attacks on the established Catholic Church. Europe and other nations have taken on ‘Voltairerian’ (as I like to name it) colours to another level.

Voltaire as many advocates who slogan against religions, I am sure, believed that due to religious leaders historically curtailing freedom of speech for their own benefit. Anyone, who now rises against the abuse of freedom of expression is taking a retrospective step back into the dark ages. Which can explain, to a certain extent, the culture of irony, cynicism and blasphemy within Europe.

However, I would like to ask who, and why liberals have thought it a duty to offend, ridicule and mock religious sentiments? I would take the argument further by enquiring about the benefit this duty (to offend) has given to society at large. What peace has it spread?

What tolerance has been established?

What kind of cohesion amongst society has been formed?

Why is it that you forget Article 19 of the ICCPR (although not perfect)?

‘…respect for the rights and reputations of others, and protection of national security, public order, public health or morals’

Regarding religious sentiments and their protection, a revolutionary and valuable statement was given out by the Khalifa of Islam, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad abaabbreviation for "May Allah be his helper" the head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Movement, when the low-budget bigoted video ‘Innocence of Muslims’ was released.

His Holiness said:

“While a law for freedom of speech exists, neither in any country nor in the UN charter do we find a law that states that

Hazrat Khalifatul Masih V abaabbreviation for "May Allah be his helper" prohibits people from hurting the religious sentiments of others or insulting the holy personages of other religions

His Holiness further stated:

“…and it is because of this that the peace of the world is being destroyed.”

It comes back to double standards. The ‘freedom’ to say what you want and how you want exists, but, the ‘protection’ of those vulnerable to hurt and insult is simply non-existent.

Referring to double-standards His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad abaabbreviation for "May Allah be his helper" said:

‘Leadership on the one hand declares this to be wrong but puts a barrier to stopping this in the name of freedom of expression – These double standards cannot continue.’

Obama in a clear declaration stated that the video was “disgusting”. However, he reminded that the reason this video was not banned was “enshrined” in the first amendment of the constitution of America; giving the right to free speech.

President Obama was seen to move to and fro with his statements as on 25th September 2012 in front of 193 countries in the United Nations he said:

“The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.”

He further went on to say:

“Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied. Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims, and Shiite pilgrims.”

Obama gave a perfect example of what I like to call ‘self-denial’. The problem is many liberals, who wave the flag of freedom of speech without limits, in their conscious, like most human beings have something called ‘moral decency’. Deep down we know too well, that offending and playing with the sentiments of others is categorically wrong. Period!

I agree that there are no legal limits on free speech (which there should be), but there are civic limits. It is common sense not to use free speech in such a frenzy way as to provoke sensitivities. We must not forget that we are living in a global village; society today is more dynamic, cultures mix and beliefs are now intertwined across thousands of ideologies. It boils down to civic responsibility and intelligence; only focusing on legal rights is no longer pragmatic.

As a fellow human being, I encourage people to carry out some self-evaluation, a bit of self-governance, I am sure, this will take them to the conclusion that human decency begs one to think twice when abusing. We all know that sentiments should not be trifled with, civilisations have not, by any means, progressed morally when abuse has been accepted as the norm.

A recent article which I came across stated: ‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion’, although this may be true in countries where blasphemy laws result in capital punishment like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, I simply cannot accept this statement. When you insult someone, there is always fear that a reaction will follow. Our physics class taught us regarding Newton’s third law:

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”

Of course, if you mock or ridicule my father I will not, in return, give you a hug. Pope Francis II put it wisely when he illustrated to journalists that his assistant could expect a punch if he cursed his mother.

The Pope, who 1.2 billion Roman Catholics follow, said:

“You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit.”BBC News Online 15 january 2015

So, I would suggest to anyone who is a liberal to freedom of speech without limits that a lesson or two from the offended will not hurt so much. Religions as they were, actually have a lot of thought-provoking, society binding and cohesion promoting teachings when it comes to expressing oneself.

Mahatma Gandhi a Hindu leader, with regards to ‘rights’ wrote the following words:

“Begin with a charter of Duties of Man and I promise the rights will follow as spring follows winter”Keshavan Nair, “civil Rights and Responsibilities – A clue from Gandhi

Too many times it seems that those boggled down with complete freedom of expression are hung up in what their rights are. They forget as I have said before, the moral integrity and general decency which we teach our very own children. Religions ironically do give preference to “duties” which result in rights following like “spring follows winter”.

Mother Teresa a Christian Nobel Peace Prize winner put it beautifully when she said:

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”

Mother Teresa

Just like a family, when we forget that peace lies in humanity treating each other with respect when we forget that peace lies in loving rather than hating and when we forget that mockery of the sentiments of others results in the peace of society coming to a standstill. That is when we should expect our downfall.

The founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad The Promised Messiah asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" put great teaching out to the masses. He reiterated that one should not attack other religions and seek to find fault with them, instead, he said that the beauties of one’s own religion should be spread to others.

Islam is under the most scrutiny, with the Danish Cartoons in 2005 and recently the horrific Charlie Hebdo cartoons which resulted in unjustifiable killings in the name of Islam. I would like to present a few gems for my fellow liberals. However, at this point I would like to make an observation; for some reason, Muslims are thought to have thicker skins.

That’s right, the media due to one reason or another seems to attack the sentiments of Muslims in particular. I do not deny that other religious groups are not attacked, I am however pointing out that playing with the emotions of Muslims is a norm. Not a rarity.

So where is my proof?

Well, it is interesting to know that Charlie Hebdo (which saw no harm in reprinting cartoons of the Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" after the recent attack) in 2008 sacked Maurice Sinet for making an allegedly anti-Semitic statement. And what about Jyllands-Posten the Danish newspaper that published cartoons of the Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" in 2005 allegedly denying cartoons mocking Jesus Christ because they would “provoke an outcry”. The same newspaper also declared that “in no circumstances…………publish Holocaust cartoons”. In fact, with regards to Charlie Hebdo, the former Journalist of the magazine Olivier Cyran tweeted that “Islamophobic neurosis” gradually took over the magazine after 9/11.

Going back to the solution of freedom of speech. Allah Almighty, in the Holy Qur’an, points out the tally within history; all prophets are mocked and jested at:

“Alas for My servants, there comes not a messenger to them but they mock at him”

The Holy Qur’an (36:31)

With this fact in mind, Allah continuously reminds the Muslims to:

“call… with wisdom and goody exhortation, and argue with them in a way that is best”

The Holy Qur’an (16:126)

‘Goodly exhortation’ is key here, those liberals who advocate free speech without limits would tend an ear to this advice!

The man who is constantly, viciously and mercilessly jested at, Muhammad saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" himself upheld the sentiments of others, whether a disbeliever, Jew or Christian. To keep the sentiments of Jews intact he would tell the Muslims;

لا تفضلوني على موسى
“Do not give me higher status than Moses”


When confronted by pagans he (Peace and blessings be upon him) would present the Qur’anic teaching of:

وَلَا تَسُبُّوا الَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ مِنْ دُونِ اللَّهِ فَيَسُبُّوا اللَّهَ عَدْوًا بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ
“Do not revile those they call on beside God, so they, in their hostility, revile God, without knowledge”

The Holy Qur’an (6:109)

The fact is Muhammad saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him", the champion of freedom, would be mocked at, jested at, beaten and even threatened, but would never show any kind of disrespect and hostility. Rather, he would teach tolerance, peace and harmony amongst the believers. He gave freedom and drew the line quite clearly.

To conclude, I would like to quote the Khalifa of Islam, the man who is the only representative of the true Islam today, His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad abaabbreviation for "May Allah be his helper". The message he gave about the ‘freedom’ within the freedom of expression was:

“We tell the world that any kind of vulgar expression about any sacred person of any religion does not constitute freedom in any way at all. You apparently champion democracy and freedom of expression, but play with the sentiments of others; this is neither democracy nor freedom of expression”

He gave the Rosetta stone to world leaders, and that is a reminder to all liberals who seek complete freedom in expression. He reminded us in the sermon following the Innocence of Muslims video, saying:

“The law regarding freedom of speech is not a divine scripture”

For true freedom and its limit, without a doubt, divine guidance is crucial.


This article was originally published in the Annual Printed Edition of Majallatul Jamia

Ataul Fatir Tahir

Ataul Fatir Tahir

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