Sunday, February 12, 2006

On Freedom of Expression and Religion

Muslim protests over the cartoon depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in European newspapers may have lessons for us all, especially on the limits of freedom of expression, the press and religious practice and tolerance. These liberties have limits but if these offend sensibilities not of the majority but of a minority, where is the limit?

We may have to really define limits of religious expression and press freedom with respect to religion. But in order to understand the Muslim sense of outrage over the cartoons, we have to first understand why Islam frowns upon depicting people as images. It is too simplistic to say that the Prophet may not be depicted in art. People and animals may not be depicted at all since Islamic tradition says this is an “invitation to idolatry”. The birth of Islam is in this context, the Prophet at first being rejected and persecuted by Meccans for preaching about the One unseen God and against the idolatry of the Meccans.  

The West prides itself on secular values but it had to pass through centuries of religious intolerance and bigotry.  Secularism was a guarantee to prevent one religion from abusing another religion since the State itself does not favour a religion. But this is premised on a mutual respect for beliefs of all citizens and this includes the non-belief of a tiny minority. Citizens may disagree about religious dogmas and practice but in a secular society all agree that these disagreements should not be cause for violence. What has happened in Denmark and other countries in the European Union is that secularism has now began to be abusive to people who profess belief, Christians and Muslims included. Muslims in Europe are a minority. These European newspaper publishers would not dare caricature gays, atheists, revolutionaries and other minorities in the name of freedom of expression. But why focus on Islam? Or even minority Christian sects?

And this is the real root of the problem. Even with secular values that should promote openess,  the West still has a stereotypical view of Islam and Islam of the West. Westerners need to have a large degree of cultural sensitivity in understanding Islam and this would start by meeting Muslims and inviting them to their homes. Muslims will need to sift through the lamentable results of 1000 years of Western intolerance to their faith and make a brave step to appreciate Western values as not a threat to their faith. Islamic and Western civilization have contributed much to humanity and we will be poorer if we have a clash between the two.

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