The Movie “Innocence of Muslims” And The Limits Of Freedom Of Expression – OpEd


Is absolute freedom of expression a choice? In other words, can we say “Why not?” for all the non-violent actions of an individual? Can we immunize any kind of behavior, which does not contain violence, from any restraints and prohibitions?

By Ozdem Sanberk

An anti-Islam movie produced by a Christian from Egypt caused intense reactions from Muslim communities of various geographies, leading to bloodshed. There is no doubt that this Islamophobic and libelous movie explicitly intends to provoke in an international environment where Arab nations are still passing through a process of instability and tensions between Muslims and Christians still exist.

One of the most devastating results of the deadly reactions to such familiar acts of instigation is the further identification of Muslims with violence and the consolidation of already widespread prejudices as well as hostilities toward Muslims throughout the Western public. We can add to this list the efforts to expand the popular perceptions defining Muslims as people who commonly attempt to impose Islamic laws on non-Muslim communities. In fact, because the producers of Innocence of Muslims also had the aforementioned objective, the bigger picture demonstrates how the protestors and the organizers of the recent protests fell into a clear trap.

This movie has once again brought concepts such as Islamophobia, hate speech, racism and freedom of expression to the global agenda. Western media, just like in previous instances, repeated its position that the movie should be judged within the context of freedom of speech.

Limits of freedom

Can any restraints be set on the freedom of expression? Debates on this question have continued for years. Perspectives around the issue transform as generations pass. Nevertheless, when this right is exercised under any circumstances without any respect for some principles, the possibility of peaceful coexistence between different ethnic and religious groups may well perish. Exercising the right to express oneself freely under the guise of a movie, a painting, or any literary work framed in order to discriminate and insult a society’s or belief system’s sacred values is nothing other than racism. The fundamental debates come full circle to a question once raised by a French philosopher: Is absolute freedom of expression a choice? In other words, can we say “Why not?” for all the non-violent actions of an individual? Can we immunize any kind of behavior, which does not contain violence, from any restraints and prohibitions? For instance, can we assent to an incest relationship? Is there no bottom line that we can draw for this issue?

In a democratic society, it is clear that a civilized and harmonious coexistence between the various segments within it is only possible, from a moral perspective, if individuals belonging to that society exercise their basic rights with common sense while adhering to the basic responsibilities of a social contract. However the problem is whether this sense of social responsibility is to be associated with some legal sanctions as well. Even though answers to such a question rest on various ethical grounds, the decisively rational factor to be considered in answering the question is clearly the forfeit, which will inevitably be paid as a consequence of social irresponsibility. When we place the individual at the focus of all sorts of contemplation, and if the practical exercise of freedom of expression is senseless to the point of targeting human life and dignity, adjoining the exercise of this freedom with a few but common sense precepts and laws will violate neither democracy nor the law.

Radicalized religious reflexes

Of course, on the other side of the coin, we have mass movements responding with violence. Oliver Roy accurately states that while globalization and secularization in today’s world gradually standardize cultures on the one hand, they also separate religions from their cultural origins and lead religious communities to withdraw into themselves. Radical movements sharpen within religions deprived of their cultural hinterland, while massive reactions gain power. Religions which begin to become deprived of their cultural “envelopes” easily adopt violence. Therefore they become more prone to provocations.

Hence both extremely liberal ideas aimed at freeing people from any social constraints and prohibitions except acts of violence, and radical movements within religions which are deprived of and alienated from their cultural hinterlands through the threat and penetration of globalization, blow up bridges of empathy and tolerance while feeding marginal conflicts.

The archetypical fault line of such conflicts described as East versus West or Islam versus Christianity passes through the Indian subcontinent and Afghanistan. This gigantic geographical area at the core of the Selman Rushdie case around twenty years ago is a place where traditionally massive movements, rage, conflicts and death contributed to common reflections regarding religious friction. A minister from a country in this region may well put a price on someone’s head, even when that someone is a citizen of another country. And all this occurs in the aftermath of the recent demonstrations of violence which led to the deaths of twenty people including an ambassador. Can we condone the management of inter-cultural and civilizational dialogue through the agenda of such a region?

Escalating tensions between the East and the West and between Muslim countries and Christian countries concern international security and peace. They are also an issue that may become too costly for both sides. The evolution of such tensions into an actualization of what Huntington predicted may particularly confine the most underdeveloped Muslim societies in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, some parts of the Middle East and Africa within the barriers of isolation and poverty. However, the vast majority of peoples constituting the Islamic world do not wish for such a scenario to prevail. On the other hand, it is certainly not the moderate majorities that attract international public attention most successfully. It is the pro-violence and marginal groups which cast a slur on Islam’s global image.

What are we supposed to do?

The religious leaders and scholars in these countries must bear the responsibility of thinking elaborately on such issues, sending the right messages to the deprived and downtrodden, and steering such groups toward prudence and moderation. The way to explain to the world that Islam is a religion which promotes peace and higher morals is not to surrender to provocation but to baffle it with moderation.

Something is certain in our country. In Turkey, at least regarding the recent events, we have not witnessed massive and violent demonstrations. It is remarkable, whatever the reasons behind such a bare fact are. At this point, we must strictly avoid lethargy and sluggishness in evaluating the greater picture with particular emphasis on the example offered by our society.

On the contrary, Turkey needs to take advantage of this global public climate and adjust its body of law, regulations and their exercise in accordance with the process of preparing a new constitution. Practices of othering some segments of society, and the discourse of hatred toward people targeting their ethnic, religious, or denominational identities as well as beliefs or disbeliefs should be explicitly addressed as a violation of basic rights in the newly framed constitution. In addition to an alliance of civilizations, other projects should be pioneered by diplomatic leaps forward on the part of Turkey in order to have Islamophobia, within a range of discriminatory attitudes such as anti-Semitism and racism, addressed by international law. Such steps will serve the interests of our people as well as the global community as a whole.

Ozdem Sanberk
Director of USAK


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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