Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Free speech and its consequences: Time for US to reflect

Holiday, Friday, 19 October 2012
M. Serajul Islam 

President Obama has drawn the line. He has said that the 1st amendment of the US Constitution that enshrines the right of free speech is non- negotiable. He chose the UN as the platform to reiterate the commitment of the American nation for free speech including even the right to “blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs.” It was a message to the world leaders gathered at the opening of the 67th session of the UN General Assembly that although the United States regrets the anti-Islam video that has enraged Muslims round the world that led to the death of the US Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi; the US Government cannot do anything because the right to make the video is protected by the 1st amendment! 

In an election year, the stand the President has taken is an expected one. The faith in the United States in the 1st amendment is bipartisan. It is in fact the American way of life. Nevertheless, the abiding faith of Americans in the 1st amendment  would have been understandable if the if the United States was still living in the period when the amendment was incorporated into the US constitution over 2 hundred years ago and in the subsequent period when it took roots in the US society. Those were the times when the United States was insular; not the leader of the world as it is now where it is trying to spread its influence not just in international politics but also in areas of culture and more importantly in ways of lives of peoples everywhere. Such attempts by the US cannot be useful or meaningful unless it is willing to understand and appreciate the cultures of those upon whom it attempts to spread its values. That is only rational and logical. 

It this era of globalization whatever takes place in the United States or other parts of the world travel instantly to the rest of the world. The internet, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter and their positive and negative powers must be brought into the equation. Hence the justification that what happens in the US outside the government fall in the court of its people and hence inalienable and protected by the 1st amendment cannot be tenable when such actions affect adversely peoples outside the US if it wants to co-exist with peoples, and nations peacefully in mutual respect. It is time for the United States to consider restraining its right of free speech when it provokes the emotions, beliefs and religious sentiments of peoples elsewhere. In fact, the necessity for such restraint arises more importantly from the fact that groups and individuals in the United States are taking advantage of the 1st amendment to intentionally attack and humiliate in words and actions the Muslims to provoke them and then blame them for their reactions. 

There is another very strong reason to seek restraint in the US stand on free speech that the President has articulated. In a world integrated as it is today for better or for worse, those on whom the US seeks understanding in the name of upholding free speech have not had the same historical experiences as it has. Nor are many parts of the world as advanced in education and socio-economic development that are necessary pre-conditions for the tolerance that is necessary to deal with the type of onslaught that the actions of 1st amendment can cause. Even education; socio-economic and political development often does not prepare a nation to deal with emotions from allowing unrestricted freedom of speech to individuals. In fact, the US itself is not the type of society that has the tolerance needed for allowing others the same freedom of speech when it is at the receiving end. 

Incensed by 9/11, certain sections of the people in the United States targeted the American Muslims and showed them intolerance extending to hate campaigns and paranoia no worse than what the President condemned in his speech at the UN while speaking on the attacks on Americans worldwide following the anti-Islamic video. The lack of tolerance for American Muslims has been shown at all levels in the United States, in the government and the same public who are such strong adherents of the 1st amendment. In such intolerance for Muslims, they killed Sikhs mistaking them to be Muslims. These men had no knowledge that all Sikh men are bearded while most Muslim men are not! Ignorance about Muslims shown in the height of anti-Muslim wave by many Americans was unbelievable and was not confined to the issue of beard alone. Those days, the US simply threw the 1st amendment to the winds when it came to Muslims in general and American Muslims in particular. 

Muslims of different nationalities and cultures share many common names. Abu happens to be one such common first name. In the height of anti-Muslim sentiments in the USA, many Muslims with this first name went through nightmares in airports and public places simply because some of those accused of 9/11 also had this first name! Muslims were under surveillance everywhere in the US, in their houses and even inside mosques. In fact, many innocent Muslims were routinely interrogated and harassed for what they said or suspected to have said even in private. It is only in recent times that American Muslims  are coming out of their nightmares for something that some individuals have been alleged to have committed; individuals with whom they had no connections even by the most absurd stretch of imagination. Thus in defending free speech, the US has clearly shown a double standard; defending it even when it offends billions of Muslims, the overwhelming majority of whom are as peace loving and perhaps more than the Americans and trashing freedom of speech when its own emotions are offended.   

A strong argument for the need to restrain free speech under the 1st amendment has been made when a society called American Freedom Defense Initiative put up an ad in the New York sub-way recently that read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” The Society was allowed to put up the ad after a Judge permitted allowed it under the First Amendment after the NY Subway authorities had refused it. The Society is seeking a similar ruling from a Judge in the greater Washington area after the Washington Metro refused to allow the advertisement. The ads are provocative; hurts the sentiments of millions of American Muslims and are gross misrepresentation of Islam as practiced by over a billion of Muslims around the world.      

A recent New York Times article on this subject regretted that although the ads are legal under the First Amendment, “they are wrong and repugnant.” The writer Rick Jacobs also wrote in the same article about the sadness of a Muslim woman as she looked up a billboard in a train station in Scarsdale, NY that read: “19,250 deadly Islamic attacks since 9/11” and  beneath it :“It is not Islamophobia; it’s Islamorealism” to pre-empt those who might dispute the claim. Attempts such as these are hate campaigns; deeply provocative and hurtful that is anathema to peace, the President’s defense of these under the 1st amendment notwithstanding. Allowing these in the name of freedom of speech is not even rational. In fact, it is time for the United States to realize that individuals and groups are using freedom of speech as enshrined in the 1st amendment that was created and defended over decades and centuries by individuals whose objective was to create the perfect world, for their ulterior motives. Unless, leaders of the United States are willing to take up the challenge of these individuals and groups with crooked interests, it will be the likes of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and hundreds and thousands of other innocent people who will continue to be victims of collateral damage for establishing the perfect world and get away with murder!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan





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