The Trouble with Free Speech

A couple of weeks ago, I was enjoying dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant in the Lower East Side with a couple of good friends. All writers, we had come together through a listserv for South Asian women in the arts. As the honey wine was poured, no glass refusing its share, it dawned on me. We shared more than gender, color and vocation. Each of us had been brought up in a Muslim household. True, our faiths ranged widely on the liberal end of the belief spectrum, from apostasy to Sufism with some sort of Sunni in between, so much so that I'd never noticed the link. It seemed like a good time as any to bring up the Danish cartoons. After all, weren't we the intersection between free speech and Islam? Weren't we the "progressive" voices of Islam that the Western media has been asking to speak up since 9/11? Since the fatwa on Salman Rushdie? Since, well, Palestine even, right?

It was an interesting conversation. We despaired over the rioting, the burnings and the death threats. We expressed frustration that these acts of violence furthered the prevailing stereotypes of Islam as a religion of terrorists. We rejoiced in our abilities to freely discuss these criticisms amongst ourselves. For writers, you'd think the decision ought to be a no-brainer. Free speech is the air we breathe. Yet, supporting the Danish newspapers under the banner of free speech just did not seem right. We felt conflicted, torn between feeling offended and our commitment to liberal principles. Trawling through the internet several months later, I find that this same conversation has been taking place among moderate Muslims around the world. I will tell you here that I have not identified as a follower of Islam for about ten years but I have been surprised to see where my chips have landed. I've also come to realize the weight that a "progressive" voice has in this discourse. To me, that means I have a special responsibility to figure my shit out.

I was ten years old when a bounty was placed on Salman Rushdie's head. He was a distant relative of ours, and I was instructed to keep quiet about the family connection. I remember opening a copy of the book that an uncle kept hidden and thinking the uproar had something to do with all the references to sex and breasts. Bless my innocent, puritanical heart, I found everything distasteful. Contrary to my parents' wishes, I remember walking around and defending "The Satanic Verses" to whoever would listen. I believed that fiction should be as limitless as the human imagination. I believe free expression should explore every concern in the human heart. At some point in college, I wrote a column expressing my frustrations as a child with the ideas of Allah's powers of predestination. The piece did not go over well with some members of the Muslim Student Association and it created a stir within the larger Buffalo area Muslim community. At first, I thought the Muslim community was angry that I'd spoken out against Islam at all. When one woman from the student organization started showing up at my newspaper office with invitations to prayers, I started to see that my fellow students were largely disappointed that I hadn't connected with the spirituality they embraced. They mistook me for a lost soul. They hoped I might give religion another chance. As for the older generation, my aunties and uncles seemed shocked to hear the sound of any voice in the media. It was unfortunate that the first voice they heard was my agnostic one. But no one said that I'd written anything that misrepresented Islam and there was no protest against me for my public apostasy. That same year, I led our campus newspaper in a campaign against the school administration for trying to shut us out of our offices, an underhanded tactic to exact revenge for stories that didn't cast its policies in the best light. I was nearly arrested on several occasions. It wasn't in my countenance to cause trouble, but I believed that our administration was trying to shut us down and I was ready to fight. The administration ultimately backed down, and I eventually graduated and went on to graduate school for journalism. All this is to say, I believe in free speech, oh yes, I do.

We are all vessels of free speech. Each of us has the potential to bring about reform or cause destruction with our opinions and thoughts. As someone who has made a conscientious decision to depart from the teachings of Islam, I have come to realize that my words can be just as powerful as bombs. I was a journalism student in New York City in September, 2001. When the Towers came down, I hated Islam. My father had worked in one of the buildings when I was a child; the attack felt personal and profoundly unjust. Back then, I still believed that New York City was the international emblem of America's hopes. I had not yet realized that my home, my city of skyscrapers, also stood for America's global exploits. As I walked the streets aimlessly that day trying to make sense of things, my mother finally reached me on my cell phone. I remember demanding, before the culprits had even been determined, Why? Why is it always Islam? A few days after the disaster, I mentioned to a fellow student that I remembered my mother telling me stories of jihad when I was a little girl. Musing out loud, I relayed to her teachings about the glory of dying for Islam, how it guaranteed passage into heaven, and how I'd always felt unsettled by these ideas. Her eager eyes absorbed my words and gleamed with some kind of understanding for something that didn't quite feel right to me. I saw light bulbs going off, mini-explosions in her head, my words being recorded in her mind. How I have regretted those words over the years, knowing that I had spoken irresponsibly, hastily, and out of context. I knew that my half-baked thoughts would be propagated as gospel through the complex web of information networks that most of us are linked to, school, church, work, friends and family. These words would carry the weight of authority, straight from the mouth of "this girl who grew up Muslim and then renounced it." I also knew that anger and ignorance lay at the root of what I was feeling. I knew that I had to figure my shit out before I could speak again. I knew that my speech was no longer free. It now cost something.

Growing up in a traditional Muslim household in the West is not without its frustrations. It's a conflict common to anyone raised inside any religion or tradition that demands some measure of adherence to its principles, politics and values. I often felt resentment for my upbringing, especially when I disagreed with some of my parents' practices. I have heard similar anger and self-hatred echoed in "progressive voices" such as those of Irshad Manji, the author of "The Trouble with Islam." Manji has built her career on it. During this whole Danish cartoons debacle, Manji was given several opportunities to shed light on the matter for the media, as an expert of, well, I don't know what, the dissent against Islam, I guess. In an interview with CNN, she first discredited the Muslim community's outrage over the depictions of the prophet Muhammad by referring to some centuries-old portraits that were archived in a dusty library in Ireland, though she admitted that the "norm" was to believe that such images are prohibited by Islam. Then Manji lashed out at Muslim followers: "And let's also remember that, you know, viciously anti-Semitic programming comes out of the Arab world routinely. When have we Muslims poured into the streets to protest that kind of mockery of Judaism? So we really need to kind of confront our own double standards here, and not just blame the West for its double standards." I agree that anti-Semitism is an unfortunate problem in the Muslim world, but was she going to let the West off the hook so easily? How did two wrongs make a right? I kept looking in the transcript of the interview for some statement that might acknowledge the racism propagated by the twelve cartoons. Manji had CNN's rapt attention and she held the microphone. Her words had power, but she chose to give CNN the message the reporter wanted: there go those Muslims, overreacting again.

It is dangerous to disregard the racism steeped inside the twelve Danish cartoons and let the offense slide. The newspaper which first printed the cartoons tried to hide behind the cause of promoting a dialogue about the prophet Muhammad. However, not one of the depictions was flattering. All the cartoons promote is the stereotype that Islam is a religion of terrorists, thieves, and oppressors of women. It would have been easy to disregard the cartoons had the issue just ended with the ignorance of a handful of Danish cartoonists. More troubling was the force of the movement in the European media to rally behind Jyllands-Posten's racist propaganda in the name of free speech. It says a lot about the prevalence of these stereotypes. I believe that the newspapers had the right to publish the cartoons, but they were wrong to do it. There is an underlying intolerance in Europe for non-secular expression that has too often been generously credited as tolerance. Take for example, France's ban on headscarves and other religious adornments in schools. The French government decided that the country's semblance of secularism was worth trampling all over the freedom to practice religion. By the time the issue of the cartoons had reached our shores, the debate had already been couched as "for free speech" or "against Islam." I applaud the mainstream American press for not caving into pressure and declining to reprint the cartoons in solidarity with Jyllands-Posten. It would have been easy for the newspapers to rally behind the banner of free speech, unconsciously promote the hateful ideas of Jyllands-Posten, and thereby become part of the news themselves. It would have been all too easy for someone like me to unwittingly stumble into the same trap under the noble banner of the First Amendment.

I am not ready to side with the West and take a stand against Islam. Not after I saw how Muslims and all those perceived as Muslims were forced to understand their de facto limitations on free speech after 9/11. We saw our people get interrogated, deported, threatened, beaten and shot in this country. I can't take jabs at Islam while my people are still being detained, tortured and humiliated in unidentified holding cells. Who really ever believed that bombing Afghanistan was about freeing the women from the Taliban? How do we believe in religious tolerance when our officials continue to try to tack the Ten Commandments in our courthouses? How do we believe that this country values equal protection under the law when there is racial profiling? Who will believe in free speech when they see it stand for the freedom to propagate bigotry and racism? So many of our democratic ideals have become candy wrappers for other interests in the West. The idea that the war against Iraq was a war for democracy is now laughable. And Iran? I fear for Iran. I had such hopes for the power of "progressive" Muslims in Iran.

As for America, I fear another rug is about to be pulled from under our feet, more wool is about to be pulled over our eyes. There are so many special interest groups that would like to see Islam fall and their reasons range from private interests in oil, the timeless struggle for religious supremacy, revenge for the events of 9/11, and then just the same old racism that's been around forever. These malicious special interests that feed into the media would love for Islam to be brought to its knees the way that Communism was knocked to the ground. The anti-Islam viewpoint is submerged, but it runs rampant underground. You have to read in between the lines and you have to be on guard. You can catch wisps of it in conversations conducted when people assume that no Muslims are present or think that because you've left Islam you're against Islam. You have to realize that they will take your words and use them against you. You have to make sure each and every thought is consciously uttered. I have hope that Muslim Americans will help America maintain its idealism in the Constitution and cherish its tenets of religious tolerance.

I hope the media will realize its place in the propaganda war against Islam. I am watching as journalists in Yemen, Jordan, and Malaysia are jailed for reprinting these cartoons and I can't help wondering: Haven't there been times when the freedom of speech was even more at stake, meant something more than this? I honor the intentions to free the Muslim press, but I just don't see these cartoons as the right tools for this reform. It's like trying to convince women to be liberated from headscarves by waving pictures from Playboy in their faces. I admit I don't know much about the messages these newspapers intended to send with their suicidal decisions to reprint the cartoons, was it for free speech, for showing support for the West, to piss someone off, or something else? However, I still don't believe free speech is an invention of the Western world or that the Muslim world is necessarily at odds with it. It's a stirring that comes as naturally to us as it comes to an infant opening its mouth and unleashing its first cry of discontent. Pakistan's leading English newspaper, Dawn, carries a far livelier and critical political debate than you might expect from a Muslim country ruled by a military dictator. Sometimes, I wonder if our media, choked by powerful corporate affiliations, is capable of as much criticism. Free speech could be freer everywhere. We should exercise it freely and we should defend its principles when others abuse its liberties.


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