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The Free Speech Diary

Cairo, Egypt – September 15, 2012

With few exceptions, such as the Al-Jazeera network, many media outlets in Egypt and much of the Arab world are unprofessional and maintain questionable standards. Today at least four prominent publications and websites in Egypt including Al-Ahram, the largest daily newspaper in the country, reprinted an “interview” with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The headline on some of the Egyptian websites read, “Kissinger calls for the occupation of seven Arab countries.” These reports were based on an interview that was supposedly published on November 27, 2011 in the British website “The Daily Squib.”

Like The Onion or The Daily Show, the Squib – as the name should have foretold- is a satirical website. Indeed, most of its content is composed of material designed to entertain and illustrate political hypocrisy or inconsistency.

In the satirical piece, Kissinger supposedly told the publication, “Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.” He then added, “We told the military that we would have to take over seven Middle Eastern countries for their resources and they have nearly completed their job. We all know what I think of the military, but I have to say they have obeyed orders superfluously this time. It is just that last stepping stone, i.e. Iran, which will really tip the balance.” The interview ended with Kissinger stating, “Israel will have to fight with all its might and weapons to kill as many Arabs as it can. Hopefully if all goes well, half the Middle East will be Israeli.”

Rather than pick up on the irony, the Egyptian publications posted the 10-month old fabricated interview prominently on their front pages reminding their readers of the continuous “Zionist and American conspiracy” against the Arab world. Needless to say, such reports not only feed into the continuous misinformation and mistrust between the Western and Arab worlds but more importantly such propaganda undermines the real continuous atrocities perpetrated by the brutal Israeli policies with the complicity and protection of the American government against the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation and siege.

Incredibly not a single journalist or editor was fired over this gross unprofessional conduct.

Beirut, Lebanon – September 17, 2012 

In a rare public appearance, Hizbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah addressed tens of thousands of angry followers protesting the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims.” The charismatic leader accused the U.S. of facilitating the movie with the intention to insult and humiliate Islam and Muslims. He further stated that the U.S. needed to be held accountable for the film and for creating ‘strife’ between Muslims and Christians. “The film was made and spread from the U.S,” Nasrallah added. “Muslims should say to the U.S.: ‘This happened in your country’.”

Even though peaceful demonstrations represent a civilized way to express strongly-held beliefs, and expressions of anger and protestations, the gulf between Muslim and Western societies is still very wide. While calls for international laws against libel, slander, or incitement that lead to the imminent breach of peace are legitimate, even laudable, unsubstantiated accusations are not. Muslim scholars, leaders, institutions, and governments must understand the cultural, legal, and political limits placed on secular democratic governments. While criticizing the U.S. or French governments of double standards when it comes to free speech against Muslim sensibilities is legitimate, accusing them of producing or promoting the vile movie or the offensive political cartoons is not only wrong, but also counterproductive.

There are two competing interests that prudent legal minds must reconcile in the interest of preserving global peace and harmony, namely free speech and expression that allow legitimate criticism, or unlimited harsh, even hostile, analysis, on the one hand, and the ban of libel, slander, and violent incitement on the other. Indeed all civilized societies have laws that criminalize or impose hefty fines on such transgressions.

Libel and slander are forms of defamation.  Defamation is a common law tort in which an individual makes a publication or representation of a defamatory statement concerning an individual or entity that damages his or its reputation or standing. The elements of such transgressions include: the defamatory statement; the publication of the statement which the instigator knew or should have known was false; and finally that such statement or depiction caused injury to the subject of thecommunication. One could easily argue that all these elements were covered in the current cases. The challenge is how to widen Western slander and libel laws to also protect the reputation and legacy of historical venerated figures and symbols from outrageous insults and despicable fabrications of their lives.

New York – September 18, 2012

MSNBC host Lawrence O’ Donnell interviewed Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses, on his nightly program. During the interview the Indian-born British citizen denied that his novel was intended to provoke Muslims or insult their prophet or his wives. He then mocked the late Imam Khomeini and the bulk of Muslims who rejected his book as being irrational and emotional by publicly protesting and condemning a work of art that they did not even read. Unfortunately, whether it was because he agreed with him or that he simply lacked knowledge about the controversy, the hapless interviewer did not challenge Rushdie’s misrepresentations of his obscene novel. I, for one, have read all 547 pages of his book and therefore can comment with direct knowledge of its contents.

In order to escape rigorous criticism or serious analysis, Rushdie disguised his revolting smears and insults directed at the prophet, his wives, and companions throughout the book as a work of fiction. Leaving aside the preposterous and gross historical inaccuracies he tried to insert in every chapter, such as how the prophet received or handled the revelations, let me just cite one example so that any fair-minded reader can decide whether Rushdie’s motivation was to present a creative work of art or intentionally provoke and incite millions of Muslims throughout the world by slandering their venerated prophet.

In one scene, the author describes a brothel that is run by a madam and has eleven prostitutes. Rushdie then introduces his readers to the names of the madam and her “whores.” Not only does he provide us with the first name of each harlot in the whorehouse, but he is clearly delighted in giving us their full names. It just happened that his whores had the exact names as the wives of the Muslim Prophet. During the early Islamic period, women were identified with their first names followed by “daughter of” (with the name of her father) and sometimes followed by the name of her tribe.

In The Satanic Verses, all eleven prostitutes had somehow assumed the full names of all the prophet’s wives. So, for example, one was named Zainab bint Jahsh (or Zainab the daughter of Jahsh), while another was Umm Salamah the Makhzumite (mother of Salamah from the Makhzumi tribe.) He also tried to help the reader by providing the proper pronunciations of all the names by adding any vowels needed to properly pronounce these unfamiliar Arabic names.

In his twisted attempt to imagine the details of the historical characters’ sexual deviancy and depraved desires, the scene was presented as a dream within a dream. The significance of these names and detailed aspects of their descriptions could easily escape Western readers, but make no mistake, Rushdie’s depictions were designed to be highly offensive and deeply provocative to his Muslim audience.

Many Westerners could easily sense the offensive and outrageous nature of these portrayals but simultaneously they might have difficulty in comprehending the depth of the emotional insult, injury, sadness, and anger most Muslims feel upon reading such representations. The reason for this is that in the West, people are more used to associating themselves with individual identity over group identity, which Islamic culture encourages and nurtures. For most Muslims, their love of the prophet is more than their love for themselves or their families. They consider the prophet’s wives as being their own mothers, and indeed, they are referred to as the ‘mothers of the believers.’

Therefore, for Rushdie to argue that his choice to give his characters (both the prostitutes and the depraved individuals who use their services) the exact names of Muslim historical figures was not intentional is clearly disingenuous and not credible. Even in Hollywood movies, producers regularly include a statement at the end of the film credits that says that any similar depictions or characters to people in real life were purely coincidental and not intentional in order to protect themselves from any accusation of intentional libel or slander. Rushdie certainly could have chosen any names for his prostitutes. But he chose full names, descriptions and ages that were not just similar but identical to the wives of the prophet. As a former Muslim, he knew that his portrayals would be highly insulting and injurious to the overwhelming majority of Muslims.

Western governments and societies certainly do not have to associate themselves with people like Rushdie who carry a political or cultural agenda. They certainly have a choice to make and thus bear the consequences of their choices. They can continue to sanction and promote such vile and slanderous speech by considering it a part of their tradition of free speech and expression despite its devastating implications on Muslims worldwide including their own Muslim citizens, in which case a world of constant tension and mistrust would continue. Or they can extend their libel and slander laws to cover these types of hate speech that result in injurious consequences in the same fashion any ordinary citizen or entity could charge or sue another person for the attempt to falsify his history or to slander and destroy his reputation.

Washington D.C. and on the campaign trail in Florida – October 16, 2012

In an historic election year to elect (or re-elect) a president, and with a continuous rise of anti-Islamic incidents around the world, the United States Congress rushed back to Capitol Hill from its October recess in order to pass “the Global Anti-Islam Review Act.”

The legislation to monitor and stop anti-Muslim acts or hate speech was passed unanimously in the House and Senate without a single dissenting vote. President Barack Obama immediately signed it in the White House with over 100 American Muslim leaders smiling behind him.

According to the Associated Press, President Obama said he signed into law a bill requiring the State Department to monitor global anti-Islamic conduct or speech and annually rate countries accordingly. “This nation will keep watch; we will make sure that the impulse of Islamophobia never finds a home in the modern world,” Obama said as he campaigned in the key battleground state of Florida.

“Extending freedom also means disrupting the evil of anti-Muslim haters,” Obama told thousands of cheering supporters packed in a sports arena usually used by the Florida Panthers professional ice hockey team. “Today, I signed the Global Anti-Islam Review Act of 2012. This law commits the government to keep a record of anti-Muslim acts throughout the world, and also a record of responses to those acts,” he said. American Muslim groups have hailed the bill’s passage, saying it provided a new avenue to fight Islamophobia.

Under the legislation, the State Department will have to produce an annual report on Islamophobia around the world and form a specific office headed by a special envoy to document such abuses and design strategies to combat them.

In the preamble to the bill Congress made the following findings:

(1) Acts of anti-Muslim hatred in countries throughout the world, including some of the world’s strongest democracies, have increased significantly in frequency and scope over the last several years.

(2) Islamophobia in old and new forms is also increasingly emanating in Western societies in a sustained  basis, including through books and movies.

(3) In 2012, anti-Islamic film was produced in the U.S. called “Innocence of Muslim,” which is based upon a fabricated history of the life of the prophet Muhammad to justify violence against Muslims.

(4) The sharp rise in anti-Muslim violence has caused international organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to elevate, and bring          renewed focus to, the issue, including the convening by the OSCE of a conference in Vienna dedicated solely to the issue of Islamophobia.

(5) Anti-Muslim hate has at times taken the form of  vilification of Islam, the religion of over 1.5 Billion people, and incitement against Muslims.

In the sense of Congress section, the bill stated: It is the sense of Congress that:

(1) the United States Government should continue to strongly support efforts to combat anti-Muslim hatred worldwide through bilateral relationships and interaction with international organizations such as the OSCE, the European Union, and the United Nations; and (2) the Department of State should thoroughly document acts of Islamophobia that occur around the world.

In case you wondered if this was a daydream or fantasy, the answer is that every quote above from either the president or the bill did actually take place. The U.S. Congress indeed passed such a law with its related findings as outlined above

Just replace “2012” with “2004”, President Barack Obama with President George W. Bush, “Innocence of Muslims” film with “Horseman without a Horse,” an Arab TV Series, American Muslim leaders with American Jewish leaders, Muslims with Jews, vilification of “Islam” with vilification of “Zionism and Israel”, and every “anti-Islam”, “Islamophobia”, or “anti-Muslim hatred” word above with “Anti-Semitism” and you would get Public Law 108-332, The Global Anti-Semitism Review Act.

Esam Al-Amin can be contacted at alamin1919@gmail.com


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