By M. Burhanuddin Qasmi*
Freedom of speech or freedom of expression is the phrase popular in the Western part of our planet in the recent weeks. People are dancing, singing and shouting; on streets, market places and at newsrooms, social media for a single thing – they call freedom of speech or freedom of art. They say it is their 'democratic value', some even claim it is their 'lifeline'. It is good for all and it is absolute, they say.
On the contrary, there are some others who are dying because of the same phrase. We see wars, bloodsheds, burnings, lootings and all that is classified as crime or uncivilized linked with this very phrase freedom of speech. If it is good for all then how can it cause violence and disorder among us? Or is it essentially an evil that some sick people are dragging us to hell in guise of freedom? What exactly this freedom of speech is!
Ironically some in the East too started suffering from a kind of untreatable intellectual disorder. They say freedom of speech is absolute. You can speak anything against anybody at anytime, anywhere and in anyway; wow - can you?
Does it mean one can abuse others, can insult, can lie, be it an individual, a society or an entity; be it a government, a god-man or God- and what not, one is 'absolutely' free to speak! Does it mean one can propagate against his own country, his faith and even disrespect his parents who have nourished him with care and abuse his Lord who has created him from a drop of water! May be yes for some, because their freedom of speech is 'absolute' – means unlimited, unchecked, thus, 'divine', isn't it?
They lecture for freedom of speech but forget about freedom of life, freedom of individual choice- what to eat, what to wear and how to dress! They may lynch an innocent human just for eating a particular form of meat, kill a poor passenger onboard for merely not singing their religious slogan and even tore apart women bodies for simply wearing headscarf which they don't like. If you object when they burn the Qur'an, your divine scripture, if you pain when they abuse you and your Prophet (saws) who is dearer to you than your own soul, then they term you nothing less than a terrorist. Amazing ideals of their freedom, tolerance and democratic values, aren't they!
However, our freedom of speech is restricted and all we can speak or do is within certain limits. We are just humans, not God who can do anything and everything, nor animals which do not enjoy the faculty of wisdom. We do not find a place in the civilized world to do and say anything or everything being 'absolutely free' other than in a jungle.
What we understand from freedom of speech is a political right to communicate one's opinions and ideas using one's physical means to anyone who is willing to receive them. Every government and every society in the world restricts freedom of speech to a certain degree. You cannot force into one's house and begin doing filth for your amusement. It is not freedom, instead plain madness and a crime.
Common limitations on speech relate to libel, slander, obscenity, pornography, sedition, hate speech, incitement, abuse, fighting words, classified information, copyright violation, trade secrets, non-disclosure agreements, right to privacy, right to be forgotten, public security, public order, and public nuisance and so on. All these are restricted in all sane societies in some or the others ways.
The term "offense principle" was specially added to expand the range of free speech limitations to prohibit forms of expression where they are considered offensive to society, special interest groups or individuals. For example, freedom of speech is limited in many jurisdictions to widely differing degrees by religious legal systems, religious offense or incitement to ethnic or racial hatred laws.
However, freedom itself is not absolute anywhere in the world, let alone freedom of speech, not even in the USA where laws against anti-Semitism are enforced. Not in Islamophobic France where a burqa-clad Muslim woman is considered to be a 'real' threat to its 'secular democratic' pyramid. It is not in Switzerland either where an RCC structure – a minaret of a masjid is considered to be cruise-missile against its 'democratic values'. And more so it is not in the 'symbol of freedom of speech' (sick) Charlie Hebdo magazine - the Wester media, too which fired its own cartoonist- Sine in 2009 just because he had mocked former President Sarkozy's son converting to Judaism for money through his caricature. It was an "art" - a caricature only against the son of a politician which brought heaven down, yet such cynical minds proclaim to be "free"!
We also know that the right to freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized in international human rights law under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19 of the ICCPR states, "Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference" and "everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression..."
Article 19 goes on to say that the exercise of these rights carries "special duties and responsibilities" and may "therefore be subject to certain restrictions" when necessary "for respect of the rights or reputation of others" or "for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals".
This is our freedom of speech and is not absolute. It carries certain responsibilities and is not evil or vice.
Killing even a criminal without standard legal proceeding, let alone a common human, is an unjustifiable crime. Each wise and sane person would and should condemn such an act but to ncite 1.9 billion Muslims and insult Prophet Muhammad (saws) is also insanity and criminal provocation; if a state fails to stop it, is a failed or biased state, to say the least.
[*M. Burhanuddin Qasmi is Editor of Eastern Crescent and Director of Markazul Ma'arif Education and Research Centre, Mumbai, India]