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Securing the Future of Freedom through Provocations

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Freedom of expression, a basic human right, is the most prized achievement of the human society. It is the central marker of the liberal civilized society—achieved solely in Western democracies at the cost of great sacrifice.

The fight for freedom of expression started in ancient Greece with Socrates’ insistence on speaking his mind—for which, he was put to death in 399 BC. Dead for long, the struggle was revived in Europe during the Renaissance. John Milton—emphasizing that freedom of expression was central to government’s duty of serving the people—urged the British parliament in 1644: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” After another 145 years, a government charter, the French Constitution, adopted freedom of expression as a fundamental human right for the first time in 1789, which gradually became the hallmark of all Western democratic constitutions.

The U.N. also adopted it in Article 19 of its Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

However, the arrival in the West of large number of Muslim immigrants, whose home countries have no concept of freedom of expression and tolerance for dissenting views, have posed a serious threat to the survival of this hard-earned prized achievement of humanity. Muslims are a supersensitive people with unrestrained propensity towards violence and vandalism. Any criticism of their customs, culture, behavior, and particularly their religion, sends them into violent fury—which obviously is a serious threat to freedom of expression.

The first eruption of Muslim intolerance took place in the Salman Rushdie affair (1989), for his novel The Satanic Verses, critical of Islam’s Prophet. Then came Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh’s film, Submission in August 2004—depicting Quranic justification for mistreatment and violence against Muslim women. Van Gogh was shot and stabbed to death by a Muslim zealot in November 2004.

The Rushdie and van Gogh affairs had their terrorizing effect on Western society imposing a de-facto gag on any criticisms of Islam—frustrating the artists, writers, and critics.

To break the spell of unspoken taboo and censorship surrounding criticisms of Islam—cartoonists in Denmark, braving sheer dangers, published caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in September 2005, depicting him in unflattering and violent lights. Predictably, Muslims unleashed widespread violence and vandalism all over the world, causing death of dozens of people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and Nigeria. The cartoonists, and their publisher Fleming Rose, are still being hunted by Al-Qaeda assassins.

Next, Pope Benedict provoked the Muslim sensitivity in a speech in September 2005 by unwittingly referring to a 1391 document based on a conversation between Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus and a Persian Muslim scholar—in which, the Emperor charged that Prophet Muhammad brought only violence and nothing new. Muslims responded with violence and vandalism in early 2006, only to prove the Pope right. It, however, passed off with more protests than violence with only one known death, namely of an Italian nun, in Somalia and attacks on a few churches.

Next, all Danish newspapers recently republished Prophet Muhammad’s cartoons simultaneously as a protest against a plot to kill one of the cartoonists, foiled by Danish authorities. The reaction to this provocation in Europe and the Islamic world has been much more civilized and muted than that of 2006.

The latest in this saga of provoking Muslim sensitivity is Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ much anticipated anti-Quran film, Fitna. After watching this film, one would wonder how copying a few passages from the Quran to show their consistency with the behaviors, actions and speeches of Muslim radicals and imams, make it an anti-Quran and anti-Islam film.

However, against widely anticipated violence, the Muslim reactions both in Europe and the Muslim world have been rather calm. There have been condemnations and protests but no street violence. If it passes without vandalism and loss of life, despite the pre-release hysteria and anticipation of violence—it will be a monumental success for the exercise of one’s right to speak freely without intimidation and violence.

Muslim leaders and the OIC have summarily condemned the film and its maker. This, although unfortunate, is within the limits of civilized exercise. Most unfortunately though, most Western governments, the EU and the UN—the supposed vanguards, not only of defending, but also of spreading liberal-democratic values, such as freedom of expression—have joined in the chorus of condemnations of Wilders’ right to free expression.

One agrees or not, the West’s tolerant, liberal and democratic future will depend on creating tolerance and appreciation of these values among its Muslim populace—who will undeniably become a dominant force in most European countries in a few decades. I argued during the Danish cartoon controversy in 2006 that ‘the inclusion of freedom of expression in the Constitution of Western democracies was meant for negating the sensitivity of any individual or racial and religious groups, not to protect it; and to foster tolerance—which can be achieved only by blunting or desensitizing any kind of sensitivity through its exposure to criticisms.’

The blunting of the too sensitive Muslim feelings by exposing them to criticisms is obviously working. Provocations to Muslim sensitivity—from Salman Rushdie’s novel to Wilders’ film—have achieved significant success towards desensitizing them, and making them relatively tolerant. Nonviolent protests, instead of intimidations, death threats and violent eruptions, are becoming more common among Muslims.

Freedom-lovers cannot rest until Muslims show their true sense of tolerance—say, by accepting the display of a Piss Muhammad painting, like that of Christ, in major exhibitions and museums, preferably in Islamic countries. For that to happen, many more provocations have to come over a long period of time. Incidentally, another provocation was brewing in the Netherlands. Eshan Jami, an Iranian born ex-Muslim, was going to release a cartoon film on Prophet Muhammad’s life, which was surely going to create another outcry. But the plan to release the film was abandoned fearing violence by Muslims.

As long as brave souls and dissidents like of Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi, Theo van Gogh, the Danish cartoonists, Ibn Warraq, Wafa Sultan, Wilders and Eshan Jami et al. are born, the future of freedom and liberty in Western societies will survive Islamic assaults, likely with some healable scars. The Western governments, the EU and the UN can make the difficult job somewhat easier for these brave provokers by offering support, instead of condemnations.

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About Muhammad Hussain

  • P.Marlowe

    Nice piece but it isn’t Islam that is causing these people to behave so rabidly when they “feel” their religion has been insulted… It is the culture of West Asia… It is the Man-to-Man axiology and the extreme patriarchy that contributes to this. It is in some ways the male ego gone mad… If it wasn’t Islam that you insulted it would be something else…

    If anything Muhammad tried to temper this with the teachings He brought… But as with all religions the followers distort things… The whole issue of jihad being a prime example… Supposed “holy men” preying on the massive ignorance of the populace around them inject the extremely narrow parameters of jihad with all sorts of absurdities – incl., Islam/The Prophet being “insulted”.

    Jihad has three major ramifications: internal Jihad, the “war” with the animalistic/lower traits. Each believer is to over come these in order to be a more spiritual being… The other two Jihad elements are quiet simple.

    Muhammad told His followers that they were to “respect” the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) but that IF they ATTACKED Muslims then Muslims were certainly allowed to defend themselves… The OTHER jihad, which is the one that is terribly abused by these “holy” men is the one everyone misinterprets: jihad against the “unbelievers”.

    These unbelievers are NOT Christians and Jews… They were the ORIGINAL POLYTHEISTS of the Arabian Peninsula – some of whom were very rich and powerful families that were vehemently opposed to Muhammad – esp., since His monotheism posed a HUGE financial threat to their power base… Muhammad’s injunction of jihad – the broadest allowance of it – was to be directed against these people… NOT to the People of the Book…

    Anyway… It is the warping of the teachings of Muhammad, along with a refusal be realize that the teachings He brought were suited for a world that existed 1500 years ago (and in many ways given our rapid advancement even further distant).

    All religions have “social” teachings… These teachings are temporary… They exist to fit the needs of the time. They exist in part to answer the SHORTCOMINGS of the people to whom they’re addressed… Unfortunately people get hung up on these to the exclusion of the universal SPIRITUAL principals…


  • Dan Miller

    Excellent, perceptive article.

    When training horses, something which I do as a hobby, it is often necessary to desensitize them to various things. If they shy at motorcycles, it is necessary to get them familiar with motorcycles so that they won’t be too afraid of them in future. The people who train police horses are experts at that sort of thing, and do a truly marvelous job of it. The desensitization principle applies here.

    I agree that the media have walked on tip toes to avoid offending Muslims. They have tip toed around lots of things to avoid offending the “easily offended.”

    Yesterday, the Director General of BBC opined that the news media have been too sensitive to the problem of offending overly sensitive people. His focus was on Muslims. That’s a good start.

    I also agree that the overly sensitive folks in Arab lands have become, to some extent, desensitized. That is a good thing, and more desensitization is needed.

    Comment #1 argues, with some persuasiveness, that the problem is not the Muslims but ignorance of the teachings of Muhammad. I am too ignorant on this subject to comment, except to say that much in history has been done in the name of Christianity which had very little to do with the teachings of the person after whom the religion is named and whose teachings adherents claim to follow: the crusades, the inquisition, witch burnings, the list goes on and on. Is it proper to blame Christianity for these things. I think it is.

    Most Christians now seem to realize that these bad things were done in the name of Christianity, and are sorry for them. If these things had been blamed on tribal custom, ignorance of the “true” faith, etc., Christians might not feel so strongly that bad things were done in the name of their religion. I think it is important that they have these feelings, just as it is a good thing that Germany has acknowledged the horrible things done by Germans under the influence of Herr Hitler.

    If the Muslim religion, the Christian religion, or any other religion can properly take credit for doing good things, they have to acknowledge the bad things as well. Otherwise, the tendency to do bad things in the name of religion will continue.


  • Alamgir Hussain


    The Muslim oversensitivity is not limited to West Asia alone; but wherever there are Muslims–be it South Asia, South-East Asia, West Asia, Africa and of course in the West. In the West, probably the West-born Muslims are as sensitive as their counterparts in Islamic countries.

    Problem lies with the creed of Islam and prophet Muhammad himself. The following article, I wrote recently could be of some help to shed light where the blame belongs:

    Strangulating Freedom of Expression: Prophet’s Footprint Reaches the West

  • Marcia L. Neil

    The old ‘let the Sphinx leave the desert’ provocative ploy is an example of poor mental health.

  • Alamgir Hussain

    Sure Marcia,

    For founding freedom of expression as a basic human right (sickly one I guess), since Socrates, many such sick-minded provokers have deservedly suffered torture and even death at the hands of sane supersensitive people.

  • P. Marlowe

    Alamgir… Blaming Islam for the lack of tolerance is like blaming Christianity for Europeans materialism… Those elements were there LONG before the religion arrived. What happened is that those who crave power and the status quo USE the religion to justify their warping of it to promote serious negative cultural elements…

    Islam in Indonesia is not NEARLY as abusive or intolerant as it is in the Mid-East. There IS intolerance but not at the same level – why? Because the culture of that region is for lack of a better phrase – more laid back.

    The increase in Islamic terrorism in Indonesia came from OUTSIDE…


  • Alamgir Hussain

    Marlowe, Pre-Islamic Indonesian (Hindu) culture was tolerant. The continued of effect of that heritage makes Indonesian Muslims more tolerant than Arab Muslims. As Islam gets to the heart of Indonesians, they become more and more intolerant.

  • Dan Miller

    Alamgir Hussain,

    I read the article cited in your comment #3; although I am unfortunately ignorant concerning the subject matter, I found it profoundly scholarly and informative. I also found it more than a tad frightening.

    Even assuming arguendo that half of what you say is inaccurate — and I have no basis whatever for that assumption — the religion of Muhammad is evil,toxic, and should inspire both fear and anger. It should not, however, inspire respect.

    I am very concerned that the freedoms celebrated in the West, of which the adherents of the Prophet take more than fair advantage, are capable of suicide and, indeed, that those freedoms are headed blithely in that direction.

    My ignorance of matters Muslim is no greater than that of most here in the West, and that is a problem: it is very helpful to know one’s enemy, particularly an enemy which wishes to conquer the world for its religion by killing all who do not accept it.

    The process is being accelerated by the doctrine of political correctness, so dear to the heart of so called liberals in Western society.

    Christianity may well, in earlier days, have been as bad, although I do not recall any recorded instance in which Jesus ordered executions of non believers. That came later, when the Church assumed secular power. The same seems to be true of other extant religions.

    Since I have no religion, I am perhaps a more objective observer than some others. Religions, as they age and as society becomes more open, Cf. Ian Bremmer, J Curve, tend to become much less violent and somewhat less intolerant. They tend to relinquish or to forfeit secular power, and to become content with spreading their views through more or less peaceful, if not totally benign, means. The Roman Catholic Church, which conducted the inquisition, burned heretics, conquered South America and made slaves of the indigenous population, all in the name of the sweet Jesus, and did all manner of other evil in His name, now refrains from such activity.

    There may well be hope that the “religion of peace” will follow the same course; if history is a guide, as I generally find it to be, we will not be around to see it, since it will take several hundred years.

    Do you see any realistic hope that the religion of the Prophet will change in this direction over time?

    In the meantime, I can only say, “Thank God I am an Agnostic.”