Freedom of expression: Dialogue of the deaf

Speak (and listen)

Last week in Europe we waited with bated breath for reactions to the controversial public showing of a film attacking the Qur’an produced by the Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders. This comes on top of trouble already brewing over the re-publication in several Danish newspapers of the notorious Muhammad cartoons. Over two years after the original publication, it seems we are back where we started, with protests simmering and sometimes descending into violence in various parts of the Muslim world.

Underlying the myriad reasons for these events appears to be a fundamental inability of people holding varied positions to understand how the other side thinks and feels. We have here a dialogue of the deaf, although paradoxically both sides share the same motivation – fear.

European culture and public discourse has become so secularised in recent generations that there is little comprehension of people whose religion holds a central place in their lives and identity. European nation states were constructed through centuries of struggle and conflict in which religious differences and oppression were often explosive. People today fear that they are in danger of losing what was won with so much suffering: their freedoms and their collective sense of identity.

Behind these fears lie the rapid changes of globalisation, increased powers of the European Union and the uncertainties of geopolitics and climate change. But in Europe the fears focus on immigrants and ethnic minorities, which in many places means Muslims.

Muslim demands to be taken seriously are interpreted as a threat to the hard-won rights of freedom of expression. Those feeling threatened fear not just the small minorities of Muslims in Europe – in most countries less than three percent of the population – but also the hundreds of millions of Muslims beyond their borders in the broader Muslim world, where the so-called “new enemy” is to be found.

Many parts of the Muslim world also fear uncertainties such as globalisation, international instability, and closer to home, unemployment and arbitrary governments – not to mention random violence. But there the fear is focused on the heirs of the old imperial powers: the West, which is again seen as wishing to dominate, and consequently, undermine Islam. In response, respect for the religion and its symbols becomes a central focus.

One side is talking the language of freedoms and rights. The other side is talking the language of respect for the sacred.

At the end of last month, in response to the re-publication of the cartoons and the promised Dutch film, the ambassadors to the United Nations of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) issued a statement against Islamophobia. In it they affirm their support for freedom of expression, balanced by respect for religious feelings. The question left unanswered is how that balance is to be achieved.

For its part, the Danish government responded to the initial controversy with major investments in cultural and political dialogue, as well as by expanding its efforts in support of development, especially among Palestinians in Jordan and the Occupied Territories. The Dutch government is reportedly considering a ban of the film, prompting the producer to say he will broadcast it on the internet. In Pakistan, YouTube was shut down in late February apparently for showing clips of the film, but it re-opened within a few hours.

The OIC emphasised the need for dialogue and education at its summit in December 2005. In light of the repeated incidents, the organisation has now hardened its line and is demanding legislation, though minimally in the form of additions or amendments to international human rights statutes.

There is no way that European governments will accept any wording that crosses the line into legal commitments. Not only would it compromise those valued freedoms, it would also too closely resemble laws such as Turkey’s notorious paragraph 301, which criminalises “public denigration of Turkishness, the Republic, the parliament, the courts, the military or the security forces,” or Pakistan’s laws against insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Both of these have been widely and mischievously used to harass rivals and pursue personal vendettas.

But European governments could certainly do more to encourage dialogue and education, which would make the gratuitous issuing of insults against people’s core beliefs unacceptable public behaviour. And governments in the Muslim world could do more to show that their expressed respect for freedom of expression is more than empty rhetoric. Until then, the dialogue of the deaf is, sadly, set to continue.

Jørgen S. Nielsen is professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. This article was written for Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can also be accessed at

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