Freedom of speech, expression and conscience is a noble value and is vital to spread a message and to restore the dignity of man. Freedom of speech is also a pillar of democracy. Moreover, such freedom is both essential and crucial for a society to register progress.
Thus, such freedom should not be compromised and people should not be deprived of this basic and fundamental human right.
I also believe that one must be very responsible when practising this freedom. And, as the world has become a global village, it is very important for the greater benefit and the common good of the entire world that we all consider the sensitivities of the immense diversity and pluralism in our global village when practising this right for free speech.
According to Wikipedia, “freedom of speech is the political right to communicate one’s opinions and ideas. The term freedom of expression is sometimes used synonymously but includes any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used”.
It is very important that we must differentiate between freedom of speech and vulgarity, indecency and hate speech. And we must not forget that any irrational and insensitive action when practising freedom of speech can be exploited by fundamentalists and terrorists who are always there to destroy the peace of our global society.
So, a huge responsibility lies on our shoulders as a global family when freedom of speech comes into play.
Unfortunately, we find many cases around the world where freedom of speech and expression is grossly misused and abused and there are many who would want to make this an absolute and unquestionable right. Of course, it is not possible to take everything as an absolute and humans enjoy no right that is totally unconditional.
Wikipedia states: “In practice, the right to freedom of speech is not absolute in any country and the right is commonly subject to limitations, as with libel, slander, obscenity, sedition (including, for example, inciting ethnic hatred), copyright violation, revelation and incitement to commit a crime”.
The recent notorious case of an anti-Islam film and caricatures of Prophet Muhammed attracted different reactions from people from all walks of life and were condemned by many, including by US President Barack Obama, who said: “I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity. It is an insult not only to Muslims but America as well.”
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said: “My position is that freedom of expression, while it is a fundamental right and privilege, should not be abused by such people, by such a disgraceful and shameful act”.
The head of the global Ahmadiyya Muslim Community also condemned these insulting actions together with the violent reaction of Muslims around the world. He expressed concern over such inappropriate, divisive and derisive resort to freedom of speech and highlighted how hurtful and abusive the ‘free speech’ of the anti-Islam film is to the sentiments of the 1.5 billion Muslims.
I believe that hurting one’s sentiments, injuring feelings, humiliating, malice and spreading hate do not fall within the ambit of freedom of speech and expression. And when insulting holy personages and sacred people of different faiths, it becomes even harsher and more painful.
The head of our community said that the law on freedom of speech is not heavenly scripture and that there can be flaws in man-made laws; some aspects can be missed while legislating because man does not possess the knowledge of the unseen.
While a law on freedom of speech gives an individual freedom, which is fine, there is no law against injuring the sentiments of others. To treat freedom of speech as paramount at the expense of world peace and harmony was a flawed concept. He said: “Let it not be that, in the name of freedom of speech, the peace of the entire world be destroyed.”
As mentioned above, the law about free speech is commonly subject to limitations. Thus, it would be nice if there are also laws to respect the sentiments of each other and promote respect and honour for the founders of all the religions of the world, without any discrimination.
I firmly believe that nobody should denigrate or encourage disrespect to such noble personages as Buddha, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Likewise, no law can heighten their nobility, honour and dignity. However, laws can prevent hurting each other’s feelings and lay the foundation of reconciliation, harmony and tolerance between all religions. Furthermore, extremists will not have an excuse to destroy the peace of our beautiful global village.
Let me also make it clear that I am not saying that people should be stopped from criticising religions. My point is that everyone has a right to criticise, speak and ask questions about any religion but one should express one’s opinions in a decent and respectful manner. Yet, the film and caricatures mentioned above were clearly intended to mock and insult. Their purpose was neither education nor discussion. They were simply an outburst of prejudice and hatred. They were the extreme example of hate speech.
Both the film and the cartoons were insulting but violence can never be justified. Responsible free speech is good and gives us the opportunity to express ourselves. Thus, freedom of expression should and must be guaranteed and protected when it is used for the common good. But hate is evil and brings out the worst in people.
We must learn that swords can win territories but not hearts; force can bend heads but not minds. We need to remember that, at the end, love conquers and hate divides, so hate needs to go.
The author is president of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Malta.