By Sahar El-Nadi, Freelance Writer – Egypt
Lately, I often wonder: when will the idiots of the world stop igniting fires just to test how fast the fire truck can come and extinguish them?
If there is one good thing that has come out of the recent disturbing events, it would be the dialogue opportunity among different cultures to redefine the term “freedom of expression” using input and contributions from all cultures involved.
One side of the divide defends the right of everyone to freely express their thoughts and feelings publicly without any limits, while the other side asks incredulously: “what has freedom of expression got to do with offending others’ religious beliefs?”
If there are public decency laws in many liberal European countries to protect children from explicit material; laws against insulting the Queen in England; and laws against insulting Jews, gays, blacks, women and indigenous people, then it’s obvious that freedom of expression has limits, even in the “free” world, and that God and religions should not be any less respected than the Queen of England!In reality, there is no absolute freedom anywhere in our world today.
Freedom of Expression?
In the recent uproar against the cheap film attacking the Prophet of Islam, I blame a local Egyptian TV channel for an equal part of the responsibility of spreading that film. The film had already been online for two months with only 500 views, then in a few days after its public showing on that local channel, it got 30 million views!
As a Muslim, I don’t consider this showing of the film a manifestation of freedom of expression; I actually believe that those responsible for showing the film to enrage Muslim viewers are just as accountable as those who have produced it exactly for the same reason. Both are guilty of a hate crime and should be held accountable for it. Egypt has already detained the local presenter responsible; I’m waiting to see the same happen to the original producer in the US who was found to be guilty of financial and legal fraud, whose sponsor is training armed religious militias to prepare for a war with Muslims, and who has gone into hiding like the criminal he is.
I just read in a British newspaper that an ice cream company was banned from using an advert displaying a pregnant nun because it is offensive to followers of the Catholic faith. In reaction, the company has vowed to position similar posters right by Westminster Abbey in London in time for the Pope’s visit. As a Muslim, I don’t think this is an act of defiance against censorship; I see this as tasteless act of hate and support the banning of this advert and any other material that is meant to sell more products by offending someone from a different religion or ethnic background.
Starting a religious controversy to draw attention to a commercial product is too cheap and should also be a breach of business ethics not just freedom of expression. No one can get away using the same stunt on Jews, blacks, children or women, so why single out religion as the only target of attack? I would actually boycott their product for those reasons.Bridge Building for Peace
In Islam, we’re instructed to be fair to everyone equally based only on principles not biases. We’re also instructed that hate breeds hate, and that wise and gentle words can open hearts and solve problems a lot more effectively than violent confrontation. But most of all, we’re told in the Quran that the people of the world were created different deliberately so that they may know one another and exchange cultures and knowledge. In other words, diversity is a law of the universe in Islamic culture, and should be respected as such.
I can testify to that because I practice those principles everyday with great rewards. 7 years ago like now, in September 2005, when a local Danish newspaper published some cartoons depicting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in an disrespectful way, I launched my volunteer initiative “Don’t Hate, Educate” to bridge the cultural gap and work on conflict resolution and respect for diversity at a time when I was almost standing alone against the tide. As someone who understood both worlds, I felt it’s my responsibility to try to explain the cause of that dangerous cross-cultural misunderstanding to try to prevent it from happening again.
I started by writing an article to explain the problem to both sides and to offer an example from my cultural heritage to find a solution. It was picked up by many prominent sites worldwide and discussed in Danish parliament.Then I succeeded in convincing the Danish TV to show this film on the life of Prophet Muhammad followed by a public discussion.
I also started researching the local circumstances of publishing those cartoons and discovered many facts that the media never associated with the crisis. Things like the local political scene shifting towards anti-immigrant right-wing politics and the role the local Imams played in turning a local problem that could have easily been contained within Denmark, into an international crisis described by the Danish Prime Minister at the time as the worst for Denmark since World War 2!
In Muslim media, Denmark was the “enemy of Islam” and in world media Muslims were the “enemies of freedom of expression”, but neither assumption was true!
No one remembers now that 2006 was supposed to have been the year for supporting Palestine and the Middle Eastern art and culture in Denmark, an initiative that was destroyed by the explosion of hate on both sides due to the cartoons crisis. Most Muslims don’t know that the Scandinavian countries are among the top supporters of the Palestinian cause, and the most countries accepting refugees and asylum seekers from all troubled parts of the world, including Muslim countries.
Similarly, no one now is seeing what’s happening in the Arab Spring capitals in relation to the US elections in a few weeks.
I have learnt so much from my experience in combating hate: thinking positive and being proactive at a time full of negative thoughts and feelings, and being objective and nonjudgmental has made me a better person and has helped me learn, grow and discover new talents and skills.
I learnt about a foreign culture that didn’t interest me previously and now I’m learning from it to rebuild Egypt; I made many new friends around the world who, like me, wanted to combat hate and promote respect and understanding regardless of difference in religion or ethnicity; and I got much better opportunities to introduce my faith and my culture to the people of the world in a friendly and civilized way, which is probably a lot better for Islam and for Prophet Muhammad than promoting hate, burning embassies, and blocking communication; actions that are totally opposite to the humane and civilized teachings of Islam and the manners of its noble Prophet.
In a spiral of hate, everyone is guilty unless they try to reverse the process, and combating hate (even if it is disguised as freedom of expression) is something all educated and peaceful people of the world should do regularly and consciously, because in the end, it’s hate, war, and greed that will ultimately destroy all of us without discrimination!