Freedom of speech has been the argument for propagation of blasphemy since the last century. The Middle Ages in Europe were an era of prohibition and restricted freedom. The concepts of freedom of expression, religion and choice were unheard of. This archaic mindset was carried forward to the New World in the form of slavery, racism and inequality. The West still sees world history through this singular perspective of European and American history. It is a widely-known but seldom acknowledged fact that the Dark Ages of the West were the Golden Age of the East. Trade, education, poetry, science and philosophy flourished before and spread after the foundation of Islam. Long-established traditions were questioned, and people became acquainted with accepting new ideas and diversity. The West today is yet to come to terms with diversity and the existence of varying points of view.
Today, we live in a highly sensitive atmosphere, charged with insecurity and doubt. Globalization has brought us in contact with each other, but we are still conflicted about accepting or shunning other cultures. We stand in between abandoning our own establishments and reorienting ourselves toward new ones, and refusing to acknowledge other ways of life and convincing others to follow ours. We must accept that there is no single way of life. There is no one correct answer. Life is a network of multiple choices, intertwining paths and uncertainty. The one correct answer syndrome has instigated the West, for ages, to mock those who are different. It is very difficult to convince those in power to accept or even consider that those who do not hold the same powers could also be right, and also have the right to live as they wish to. Unfortunately for the world, the reins of power, be it economic, political or technological, are in the hands of Western countries. This has thrown off the balance of freedom and propriety between these countries and the rest of the world. Though their populations may not be the majority, the participation of their people in the media is higher. Today, active internet users and holders of opinion are the ones who count as representatives of a people. Certainly, the developed countries are far ahead of the rest of the world in this aspect.
In this context, the events that led to and followed from Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, have created an unnecessary tension, especially on the Internet, which is a world of its own. People have drawn venerated images of deities and revered figures for centuries. As is common knowledge, Islam forbids the depiction of Prophets and of God in image form. This is to discourage idolatry and iconography, which are unneeded diversions in religion. However, there have been instances in the past when Muslims have depicted Prophets in images which were hung in shrines or which tell stories of the Prophets. There is a difference between those images and the ones we see being drawn today. It is an established fact that Muslims do not take part in this practice at all anymore, and consider it disrespectful to do so. The practice of representing the person of the Prophet as an image is sacrilegious. Today’s drawings are being created by non-Muslims, those who do not believe in the teachings of the Prophet. It is understandable why followers of Christianity or Hinduism would create images of Jesus or Lord Krishna, but it is a rarity that a Christian would draw Lord Krishna or vice-versa. The question, then, is why? Why would non-Muslims draw Mohammed?
The images of Prophet Mohammed are being drawn by those who do not believe in him, so it follows that these images are not a reverent depiction of the Prophet, but are made to taunt those who do believe. Basic knowledge of psychology tells us that the big bully who torments physically weaker children by pulling their hair or pushing them in the schoolyard, or by taunting them and name-calling, is an insecure child, who wishes to ‘get’ others before they get him, or who desires to punish others because they are competent in ways he is not. This is how I see the propagators of caricaturing the Prophet. It is an inherent insecurity about their lifestyle and their inability to accept and celebrate differences that lead to this kind of ignorant, unnecessary and childlike behavior.
There is a difference between free speech and slander. Freedom of speech is at stake today, as this fundamental right is itself being abused and slandered. Freedom of speech has been guarded and protected for decades because it allows for the representation of every point of view, whether it echoes the opinions of the powerful or disagrees with them. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and freedom of speech helps relay this opinion for the purpose of allowing people to express their dissatisfaction or dissent for a form of government, or to spread knowledge and new dimensions of thought, or to expose wrong-doing.
Cartoons have been one form of expression that used art along with humor, wit and satire to get the message through. The format of cartoons is concise and impactful, saying more than could be said in words alone, and reaching all kinds of people. Of the caricatures of Prophet Mohammed published in Danish newspapers in 2005, not one embodies any of the abovementioned qualities. They are not funny, nor do they tell us something from a unique perspective. Instead, they are an expository of the misunderstanding of Islam by people in the West and their hatred towards the religion and its followers. The West in all its ignorance, insecurity and obtuseness continues to depict other cultures as different (meaning bad) and exotic (meaning bad). The representation of Africans with giant lips, the Japanese with yellow skin and slits for eyes, or Arabs and Indians with misshapen turbans and large beards has been common practice in the West. For centuries, there have been attempts at mocking religions, cultures and ways of life that are misunderstood, or not understood at all, through literature, pop culture and art. From the countless tantalizing exploits of the Arabian Nights to Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, from the countless movies post-9/11 to South Park, these satirical works lack structure or intellectual content, and their only purpose has been to deride. Due to ignorance of facts, lack of attention to detail and misunderstanding of the reasoning behind certain practices, the results have been less than intellectual.
Freedom of speech is definitely under threat. But today, the threat is not from those who seek to curb it. It is from those who seek to misuse and abuse it. The banning of Facebook and other websites in Pakistan, India and Saudi Arabia did not happen because of people who wish to restrict information or the exchange of ideas. It happened because of people who considered it their right to mock and slander for no reason something others respected, something they had no business touching. If my country has blocked access to the caricatures of Prophet Mohammed, it is because it wished to protect its people from the agony and hatred that would brew in their hearts when they were forced to see these images online. It is because my country has been doing so for centuries, in order to curb the instigation that such acts aim to provoke. It may be commonplace in the Free World to depict God as a cartoon or to show genitalia in movies as an exercise of freedom of expression, but free speech will soon cease to be taken seriously if its only generates lowbrow and purposeless drivel, that contributes nothing to intellectual discourse but aims solely at provocation.