Freedom to criticize religion is a touchstone of free expression’ #censorship #FOE


 

by Farooq Sulehria

Anyone incensed by symbolic violence, such as the video in the US or cartoons in France, should retaliate with symbolic violence in the same way or with peaceful protest. Not through physical violence

Muslims should ‘simply ignore the crazy provocations,’ Gilbert Achcar says. He thinks that those who engaged in violent protests against the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video did exactly what the video’s production team were hoping for as a result of their provocation.

Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon and teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Among his books are The Clash of Barbarisms, which came out in a second expanded edition in 2006; a book of dialogues with Noam Chomsky on the Middle East, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy (2nd edition in 2008); and most recently The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives (2010). His next book analyzing the Arab upheaval will come out in the spring of 2013.

While Achcar strongly condemns Islamophobic hate material, he rejects any curtailment of free speech in the name of preventing blasphemy. ‘Freedom to criticize religion is a major touchstone of the right to free expression,’ he says in an interview with Farooq Sulehria for Pakistan’s Viewpoint Online.

Q: A decade after your book The Clash of Barbarisms, written in the aftermath of 9/11, it seems that the situation has only worsened. A caricature in an obscure newspaper, an immature video: anything can ignite a ‘clash of barbarisms’ disguised as a ‘clash of civilisations’. How would you analyse the ongoing wave of protests against the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video in parts of the Muslim world?

Gilbert Achcar (GA): The clash of barbarisms that I analysed should not be seen through the lens of such incidents, but rather through much more serious issues such as Guantanamo, the invasion of Iraq, the torture at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, the increasing resort of the USA to extra-judicial killings, etc. Such events do indeed represent setbacks in the civilizing process.

The reactive barbarism found in the Muslim world is mostly incarnated by al-Qaida and other ultra-fundamentalist currents such as the Taliban (whatever goes under this umbrella) and exhibited in much more serious events than the recent demonstrations, such as the dreadful and endless sectarian killings in Iraq, for instance.

These antagonistic barbarisms feed off each other. Of course, the main culprits remain the most powerful: the world powers, the Western powers as well as Russia, which have created this dynamic of adverse barbarisms in the first place.

Q: In Pakistan, at least, the mainstream discourse is to point out Western, especially US, hypocrisy when it comes to freedom of expression. ‘Holocaust denial is a crime,’ is a common refrain. Your comment?

GA: First of all, let us set the record straight. Denying Holocaust is a punishable offence only in some Western countries, not in all of them. It is not liable for punishment in the USA itself. Holocaust deniers freely publish their insanities in the US. This fact is disregarded by all those who use the ban on Holocaust denial as an argument against the USA.

As a matter of fact, there are laws against hate speech in all Western countries, except the US where the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits any restriction to free speech. In upholding this principle, the US Supreme Court went so far, in 1977, as defending the right of the American Nazi Party to march through the village of Skokie a substantial proportion ofwhose inhabitants were Jewish concentration camp survivors. True, there have been violations of this right, particularly for Muslims in the US in the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent surge of Islamophobia. But it remains always possible to fight back legally, and civil rights movements are active on such issues.

In Europe, when you feel you have been a victim of hate speech, you can resort to legal action. The question of Western double standard is usually raised with regard to Jews there, as it is much more difficult in Europe to articulate an anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic speech than an Islamophobic one. But this state of affairs owes to two factors.

The first is Europe’s sense of guilt with regard to the Jewish genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany during the Second World War with much European complicity.

The second is that there are powerful Jewish institutions that react vigilantly against any gesture they deem anti-Semitic, often abusively by equating the critique of Israel with anti-Semitism. They are powerful, but note how they react. Not by holding violent demonstrations that would actually increase anti-Semitism, but by engaging in legal proceedings, publishing articles, and so on. Sometimes they even resort to what may be called intellectual terrorism in trying to intimidate critics of the Israeli state or Zionism with accusations of anti-Semitism.

This said, those who say that freedom of expression in the West is biased against Islam because it is less tolerant of anti-Jewish expression forget that the religion of the overwhelming majority in the West is not Judaism, but Christianity. When it comes to Christianity, Westerners are free to mock the Pope, Jesus Christ, or even God without fear of reprisals. Some of the major artistic and literary works in the West are satirical of Christianity or religion in general in ways that you can’t imagine nowadays when it comes to Islam in the Muslim world.

True, there are some Christian fundamentalist groups that can resort to violence every now and then against anti-religious works. But they are completely marginal. Their violence is punished by law and it never reaches the level of what has been done these last days in the name of religion, which is matched only by the violence of Jewish fundamentalist colonial settlers in Palestine. Moreover, one should not forget that freedom of expression in Europe – in the UK in particular – has been of much greater benefit to Islamic fundamentalists of all brands who sought a refuge there fleeing oppression in Muslim countries than it has to people committing provocations such as those we are discussing.

Anyone incensed by symbolic violence, such as the video in the US or cartoons in France, should retaliate with symbolic violence in the same way or with peaceful protest. Not through physical violence. Resorting to physical violence against a symbolic act is a sign of intellectual weakness. You remember how the Taliban destroyed the gigantic Buddhas in Bamyan. These Buddhas were a World Heritage Site. Did Buddhists react violently? In Egypt and Nigeria, Christians and churches have been repeatedly and bloodily attacked in recent months. Did you see violent demonstrations of Christians worldwide retaliating against Muslim countries? People appreciate the difference between the lunatic fringe that carries out attacks on Christians and the general Muslim population. Muslims should also realise that the violent Islamophobic lunatic fringe in Western countries is marginal, actually much more marginal than the violent Islamic fundamentalist lunatic fringe in Muslim countries.

Crazy provocations like the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ film or the burning of Korans by the crackpot Terry Jones are best ignored. They are so stupid that they don’t deserve any reaction at all. The greatest service one can render to these provocateurs is to respond wildly to their provocations. Agitators are successful when they are able to arouse the feelings of the targeted group. This is why some people rightly argue that the ban on Holocaust denial in France, for instance, is counter-productive. Due to that ban, French Holocaust deniers have become very famous in France, whereas hardly anybody knows the name of US Holocaust deniers in the USA. Had nobody reacted to Terry Jones’s damn-fool provocations, they would have remained unknown, as have thousands of such anti-Islamic utterances. Had nobody paid attention to him, he would not have carried on his dreadful farce. These lunatics have an Islamophobic agenda. Muslim political forces that react in the violent way that we have seen actually reinforce the very Islamophobia against which they protest.

Salman Rushdie’s kind of work falls into a different category, of course. It cannot be dismissed as rubbish. He is a major contemporary writer. However, his Satanic Verses are very innocuous indeed compared to satires of Christianity, or even Judaism for that matter, which are freely available in the West.

Q: Since the Salman Rushdie affair there have been the Danish cartoons, Geert Wilders’ film, and now the film produced in the US. Every time we see wild massive reactions. How do you explain that?

GA: The fact is, very obviously, that certain political forces exploit such events to agitate for their cause, as Khomeini did in the case of the Rushdie affair. He never read Salman Rushdie’s book, in the same way as most demonstrators against the anti-Islam film have not seen it. It is always the same story: some political forces exploit such occasions by stirring up the raw feelings of politically illiterate people in order to push their own political agenda. Fundamentalist forces have always seized upon such provocations. This is how they build their influence.

Q: In Pakistan, a common idea peddled by the government, Islamists and mainstream media is to demand worldwide UN legislation banning blasphemy? What do you think of this demand?

GA: I am hundred percent against it. The notion of blasphemy is a medieval notion. Those who make such a demand want to bring us back to the Middle Ages. If you want to prohibit criticism of religion, you will have to prohibit it for all religions. To implement a ban on blasphemy one will have to proscribe a huge number of works of literature, art and philosophy accumulated over many centuries in all languages, including Arabic of course. Such works are presently banned in the Arab world, but this is a testimony to the lack of freedom of expression.

The freedom to criticize religion is a major touchstone of the right to free expression. As long as a society does not tolerate this freedom, it has not achieved freedom of expression. It is a duty of all people committed to democratic freedoms to raise their voices against barbaric reactions to lunatic provocations. Capitulation to religious demagogy will entail a huge cost at all levels. Once set in motion this process of curtailment of free speech will have no limit. Who will decide what is blasphemous and what is not?

Q: The demonstrators in Pakistan targeted symbols of wealth (banks, cars, ATM machines) or Western culture (cinemas, theatres). Some people view these violent actions in the Muslim world as part of a wider political conflict between the West and the Muslim world. What is your opinion?

GA: I disagree. Violence can be understandable under certain circumstances when people are demonstrating against social and economic assaults on their livelihood or in protest against actual slaughter, massacres, invasions, or occupations perpetrated by Western powers, or the Zionist occupation in Palestine. And yet, the fact is that many real massacres committed by Western powers or Zionists did not lead to any comparable reactions. The truth is that the violence on display is above all a political exploitation by fundamentalists of a provocation for utterly reactionary purposes.

Q: The left in most of the Muslim countries is a small force and is often caught in a strange situation during such crises. While the left, in Pakistan for instance, condemns racist provocations, it advocates curtailment of free speech with regard to religion. What do you think of this attitude?

GA: We are reaping today the result of the left’s failure over many decades to raise the basic secular demand of separation of religion from state. Secularism – including freedom of belief, religion, and irreligion – is an elementary condition of democracy. It should be, therefore, an elementary part of any democratic project, let alone a left project. But most of the left in my part of the world, the Arab region, has capitulated on this issue.

For instance, in Egypt, large sections of the left, including the radical left, have all but dropped the term secularism from their vocabulary. Ironically, when the ‘Islamist’ Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan visited Egypt, he stated publicly that he stood for secularism, to the chagrin of the Muslim Brotherhood.

If the left wants to challenge the hegemony of Islamic forces and develop a counter-hegemonic movement in the political, social and cultural spheres, it must fight resolutely for secularism as well as against gender oppression – another fight from which many on the left also shy away in fear of ‘hurting the feelings’ of the believers. This is a self-defeating strategy.

Farooq Sulehria is currently pursuing his media studies. Previously, he has worked with Stockholm-based Weekly Internationalen. In Pakistan, he has worked with The Nation, The Frontier Post, The News, and the Pakistan. He has MA in Mass Communication from the University of Punjab, Lahore. He also contributes for Znet and various left publications internationally.

 

Syria: Neoliberal Reforms in Health Sect Financing: Embedding Unequal Access?


Coat of arms of Syria -- the "Hawk of Qur...

The recent volatility and uprisings in several countries of the Arab world have been interpreted by the West solely as a popular demand for political voice. However, in all the countries of the region,including those in which there is ongoing violent opposition, the underlying economic dysfunction speaks for itself. The legacy of
joblessness, food riots, and hunger is commonplace and is most often related to structural reforms and austerity measures promoted by the IMF and World Bank. These have played a significant role in reinforcing the rich-poor divide over the past three decades,fostering inequality, suffering, social divisions, and discontent,
which are often overlooked by Western observers. In Syria, the state introduced policies for the liberalization of the economy as early as 2000; these were formalized into the 10th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010). Economic liberalization has been supported by the European Union with technical support from the German Technical Cooperation agency (GTZ). Changes made to the health sector and the labor market include: the piloting of health insurance schemes to replace universal coverage,the charging of fees for health services in public hospitals, and job losses across the board. While the West views discontent in Syria largely as political, its own role in promoting economic reforms and
social hardship has been largely missed. In large part, discontent in Syria and in the region as a whole are a part of a phenomenon that has repeatedly highlighted the failure of policies that aim at rapid commercialization with little consideration for pre-existing disparities in wealth and resources. This paper traces some of the proposed changes to the financing of health care and examines the implications for access and equity.

Read full paper here

Susan Nathan wants to be in ” War Free Zone “


KOCHI: Susan Nathan, the British-born Israeli writer who achieved fame through her book ‘The Other Side of Israel‘, is continuing to stay in India despite her visa expiring as she wants to be in a war-free zone, her counsel submitted to the Kerala high court.

When the writer’s petition challenging the deportation move came up for hearing on Friday before division bench of acting Chief Justice Manjula Chellur and Justice PR Ramachandra Menon, her counsel Manjeri Sunder Raj submitted that she was staying in India as she wanted to be in a “war-free zone” in the last years of her life.

The counsel’s submission was in response to the court’s statement that she could have left the country after completing the medical treatment for which she came to Kozhikode.

Susan, who migrated to Israel from England in 1999 to make aliyah – the Hebrew term for Jewish people migrating to Israel – had later highlighted the oppression faced by Israel’s Arab population through her writings. The district administration of Kozhikode ordered for her deportation after a translation of her book by a local publisherbecame controversial. The deportation order was based on an intelligence report that she was in contact with Muslim extremist outfits., her counsel submitted to the Kerala high court.

When the writer’s petition challenging the deportation move came up for hearing on Friday before division bench of acting Chief Justice Manjula Chellur and Justice PR Ramachandra Menon, her counsel Manjeri Sunder Raj submitted that she was staying in India as she wanted to be in a “war-free zone” in the last years of her life.

The counsel’s submission was in response to the court’s statement that she could have left the country after completing the medical treatment for which she came to Kozhikode.

Susan, who migrated to Israel from England in 1999 to make aliyah – the Hebrew term for Jewish people migrating to Israel – had later highlighted the oppression faced by Israel’s Arab population through her writings. The district administration of Kozhikode ordered for her deportation after a translation of her book by a local publisherbecame controversial. The deportation order was based on an intelligence report that she was in contact with Muslim extremist outfits.

Background

Susan Nathan, the Israeli writer, mired in controversy, had a deportation notice slapped against her recently for allegedly violating visa rules. The High Court single bench has asked the Police Commissioner, G Sparjankumar, who is also the Foreigner’s Registration Officer to deport the writer to Israel. The 62 year old British born Jewish writer is currently under ‘house arrest’ at Sree Nivas, Kozhikode, Kerala. During her one and half year stay in Kozhikode, her world renowned book- “The Other Side of Israel” was translated into Malayalam by Abdulla Manima and published by ‘Other Books’.

Her book fearlessly exposed the neglect, oppression, entrenched segregation and discrimination faced by the indigenous Arab population in Israel. In a resounding, unwavering voice she revealed to the world the little known intangible wall that existed between the Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs and demanded for equality and justice for all Jewish citizens irrespective of their religious and cultural differences.

She is known to be a rebel and a non conformist who does not fear to speak her mind. She spent a few years of her life in the apartheid era South Africa where her father was born. Even at the age of 16, she questioned the rigid rules of apartheid that existed in South Africa.

After her divorce in 1999 nothing pulled her back when she left her comfort zone and lived as the only Jew amongst the 25,000 odd Muslims in the Muslim dominated and neglected town of Tamara. Critically evaluating the Jewish government’s policies she wrote about the country she loved as a land that “enforces a system of land apartheid between… two populations,” just as South Africa had. Time has taken a toll on her physical self but has failed to touch the indomitable spirit encased within.

For her stand against the Israeli government and her pro Arab and humanitarian views she has been looked upon with suspicion and skepticism and for some time she has been under the intelligence scanner. Though conspicuously, expiry of visa has been sighted as the reason for deportation, after detailed enquiries, the police revealed that her actions, movement and interactions with various individuals and groups have been considered to be ambiguous, debatable and suspicious.

Susan Nathan, who is currently working on her new book, in an exclusive, most recent, detailed interview with Niranjalli Varma, Copy Editor doolnews talks about her case, her predicament and her political views regarding Israel, Iran and the world at large.

Recently a deportation notice was issued against you. What are the charges filed against you and what do you think are the reasons behind this action?

It is because I have overstayed my visa. Perhaps the police wouldn’t have told you that it is not a criminal offense to overstay your visa. I can’t reveal or disclose much right now as I have to protect myself and my case. I am sure you would appreciate that.

More at Doolnews

Lebanon advocate Ghida Anani talks TV media and how men can protect women


 10th Feb, 2012 Elahe Amani – WNN Features (WNN) Beirut, LEBANON: In an amazing coordinated campaign, a Lebanese advocacy group dedicated to protecting women  from violence shook up the media world by working closely with men as they asked them to act decisively and without hesitation to stop violence against women. Elahe Amani, special reporter from Iran for WNN – Women News Network, talks with Ghida Anani the Lebanese founder and director of  ABAAD – Resource Center for Gender Equality. ABAAD, based in Beirut, has been working to bridge the power of Youtube, Twitter and Facebook together with strategies to improve life in Lebanon and the Middle East region. ABAAD has been making a strong mark on youth. WNN recently interviewed Ghida Anani to find out how a campaign to improve the world and the lives for millions of women can work closely through television commercials, male advocates and hundreds of billboard banners throughout Lebanon. . .

_________

Elahe Amani for WNN: What are your thoughts on the impact of religious extremism (all religions) in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa)region? Do you think there has been a militarization of violence against defenders of human rights and gender rights in Lebanon?

Ghida Anani:

ABAAD was born in a time of transition. There is a revolutionary spirit infused to this day [in Lebanon] and it reminds us that our struggles remain highly politicized and multidimensional. And it is only through viewing our work in its myriad dimensions that we stand a chance of success.

So what about the Arab world – a region that has always highly politicized women’s issues, intertwining them with nationalist and religious struggles? What dimensions can we use here to generate the change we seek?

During the ‘so-called’ Arab Spring, women in the region have called for a broader definition of security to include [all forms of] human security, embracing human rights and equal rights. These democratic currents lend themselves not only to changed governments but also to a new socioeconomic and cultural landscape.

Traditional understandings of security only exist inside a militarized environment. Our ‘Arab Spring’ has shown us that individuals [first] should be the barometer through which security is measured. This people-centered paradigm is the only way to achieve national, and ultimately regional, security.

The power of people [today] – women and men – on Arab streets is palpable. We, the rights holders, are now holding our governments, the duty bearers, accountable. In so doing we are holding ourselves accountable as well. We are raising the standard and raising our expectations. If toppling a government is possible, what is not possible?!

This is an incredible time where a door has opened for us showing Arab women and men what is possible. And through this door lies a society that we build together founded on principles of human rights and gender equality.

This is not unique. Societies everywhere fight for the same principles. But in the Arab world we need the international political space to foment these peaceful revolutions in our own ways. The ‘Arab Spring’ not only renewed our own faith in what is possible, it also demonstrated to an often-skeptical world that we can ask for what we need; fight for what we deserve; and succeed. The principles of human rights and gender equality might be the same but the method and the means to achieve them must be indigenous. They will only work if they come from us and for us.

WNN: What are some of your major areas of concern for violence against women in Lebanon?  In what ways do women in Lebanon experience violence? 

Anani:

To better understand the regional dimensions of this global struggle we must broaden our understandings of human security. The security of women is an accurate measurement that acts a barometer for the security of a country as a whole. If women don’t feel safe – then no one is safe.

In the Arab world this means renewing our commitment to engaging with men in creative and meaningful ways. We are moving beyond stereotypes and clichés that bind us. We no longer accept the image of men as perpetrators, tyrants, oppressors. This is erroneous and irresponsible. It creates a rift between men and women; a void where real work could have been done.

An image of all men as perpetrators reduces all women to victims. Even women lose in this scenario. This simplistic dichotomy doesn’t resonate with the Arab world where women are protesting arm in arm with their brothers.

We need to liberate ourselves out of outdated stereotypes if we are to understand the dimensions that animate our struggle. We fought to level the playing field – and we are still fighting – but we have also come to realize that we cannot do it without the support of men as partners, advocates and champions.

ABAAD embraces the belief that human security involves engaging with men. In the Arab world this is a wellspring of untapped energy that can bring about positive sustainable change. Women in Lebanon continue to suffer from family, spousal and legal violence in all its forms.

WNN: What are the statistics?  How do you collect information on violence against women (VAW) and how do you remedy its consequences in the public and private sphere?

Anani:

Unfortunately there are no [official] national statistics on the size of this problem. A majority of the studies are done by NGOs through their centers. Most of the support of victims is done by civil society organizations that offer: forensic medical reports or social, legal & psychological counseling, psychotherapy services, court representation [and] socioeconomic empowerment.

WNN: Has ABAAD or other Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Lebanon initiated any reforms in the law? Like the Campaign for One Million Signatures did in Iran and Morocco?

Anani:

Since 2007 a local Organization called KAFA, in partnership with a national coalition of NGOs, has been leading a campaign calling for the endorsement of a law that criminalizes family violence against women.

ABAAD is currently advocating for the application of  a law for the Personal Status Codes [for] Iraqi women [who are] residing in the country [and are] victims of domestic violence.

WNN: Could you outline ABAAD’s involvement with the U.S. based global 16 Days Campaign?

Anani:

I believe that a very well structured and managed coalition always brings more strength to activism for women rights issues, especially in light of the similarities of [many] women’s situations in the region.

[We have worked] in line with a general climate in Lebanon and the [Lebanese] public debate around the proposed Family Violence Bill. We believe that there is a great need to organize a public opinion campaign with a message that is not only peaceful and inspiring, but also comes from youth as ‘real agents’ of societal transformation [who are] focusing on the root causes of violence in a culture [that has been too] tolerant of violence against women.

ABAAD also provides group support to victims [of violence] through ongoing support groups with referrals to [lawyers who can help with] existing cases through different ‘Listening & Counseling’ centers operating in the country.

We are also in partnership with UK based International Medical Corps (IMC) that operates a mens center that provides rehabilitation services to men engaged in violent behaviors with anger management workshops.

WNN: We learned about you with your incredible advocacy work that has been using social media to get out your message. How has the use of social media been working for ABAAD?

Anani:

Media has become a major tool for activism and advocacy for social causes. It has reached every house with a widening and diverse population. Youth, as the number one users of social media, can be easily influenced by using [social media], rather than [going to] lectures or [reading] in-print publications.

Using different media tools reaches a broader and wider audience: the general public, stakeholders, NGOs & youth.

It is to be noted that the flow of our campaign (daily actions through different media tools) created a wide impact on [our] targeted audience, a matter that can be measured though the increase in the numbers of subscribers to the ABAAD Facebook page (from 2,618 to 4,257 to date). [We have also been showing close to an] equal gender balance [on Facebook] with 57 percent female to 43 percent male subscribers.

The numbers of signatures on [our] campaign’s petition: more than 1,454 to date with the number of views of our different TV Spots on our YouTube Channel (varies between 470-1400 views per video).

Contributions from a famous artist was also [provided] a great added value to the campaign as it conveyed a [one-line] message: A very well-known reputable artist stands against violence against women representing a great role model for youth.

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