Thursday, 22 July 2010

Reflections on Free Speech

I’ve been meaning to write this article for some time. At first, I had hoped to condense down several books and articles I had read on Freedom of Expression in Islam, but the more I read about the topic, the more I realised how little needed to be said.

Karl Barth once wrote ‘the best theology needs no advocates’, and often this is the case with Islam. Its teachings on free speech are simple, concise and imbued with spiritual meaning.

I also came to realise that when Freedom of Speech was discussed through the angle of fiqh, or legal jurisprudence, it became a very difficult place. The affirmative evidence for free speech is present in the Islamic sources, but shariah is a dynamic entity that fluxes according to circumstances. So scholars would find themselves specifying endless circumstances so as to articulate the nature of freedom of expression in that situation. It seemed unnecessary to go into such depth.

I found however, the best articulation was the articulation of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and God himself, with little commentary. Primarily because it was imbued with purpose and meaning. As humankind moves towards secularism and atheism, things lose their meaning and purpose all too quickly. So, into this cacophony of debate about freedom of speech, I would like to add the voice of Islam, in a hope that it will create a polyphony out of discord.

The starting place is perhaps a brief overview of modern conceptions of freedom of speech. You'll often hear the phrase “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it” during discussions on free speech. It is quoting Voltaire. It's all too often said with a condescending and patronising tone. For Voltaire, it is the liberty of free speech that is worth dying for, and not the speech itself. If this is the case, then what purpose does free speech serve so as to require such sacrifice?

Modern debate however loses sight of this question, and instead seeks to establish practicalities. It becomes a question of relationships and compromise between the two bodies who influence restriction of free speech. The first being the state who may (and often do) limit speech through legislation and measures of compulsion. The second is the arguably more powerful force of society. Society itself employs various methods of self-regulation to censor and censure certain speech it deems unacceptable.

We have lost sight of what is important when it comes to free speech, and instead preoccupy ourselves with the mundane. Is this person’s speech acceptable? If not, then how should it be dealt with? Ignored perhaps? Or through legislation? Or through public condemnation? The debate goes to and fro, and has failed to provide shed any light on the way forward.

I feel, perhaps, one reason that discussion has failed to provide any solutions is that the wrong question has been asked. Rather than, 'what are the appropriate limits of freedom of speech and how should these limits be exerted?' I feel it is more prudent to ask, 'what is the purpose of freedom of speech and why must it be defended?'.

Surely, a clearer understanding of the purpose of a freedom will allow us to understand why such a freedom may be revoked (if ever).

I turn to a Prophetic teaching, a teaching that is deeply profound.

“The best jihad is to speak a word of truth in front of a tyrant

Leaving aside for the moment the consequences of this teaching in understanding the ‘jihad’ of Islam, this hadith gives us a clear sense of what freedom of speech is about.

This freedom is no longer the decision of the state, but in fact a God-given right, one that in its truest and purest form is in search of truth and justice.

We find the Quranic expression of this right in the verse which commands mankind to ‘enjoin the good and forbid the evil' (see Surah 3, verse 104 of the Quran). Human society is mandated by God to ensure that it has individuals, who work towards enjoining, promoting and defending all that is good, and forbidding, working against and preventing all that is bad. As many scholars within Islam have noted, rights within Islam are often expressed through duties - and this duty no doubt requires the right of free speech, to critique, debate, discuss and so on. A right therefore is not simply an inconsequential aspect of a nation’s constitution, but given to serve a purpose. In this case, the purpose of speech is to promote good and prevent evil.

A third indication on the purpose of freedom of speech can be taken from a hadith oft quoted.

Whosoever of you sees a wrong action, let him change it with his hand; and if he
is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then
with his heart; and that is the weakest of faith.

The prevention of evil, injustice and wrong is thus one further purpose of freedom of speech. The hadith expresses a moral injunction to speak out against wrong action, preempting Edmund Burke's statement that "all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to remain silent".

Freedom of speech is thus established in search of truth and justice, in the promotion of good, and the prevention of evil, injustice and wrongdoing.

No doubt this is not a carte blanche within the Islamic context. This right of speech is filtered through the noble character of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Even when speaking to a tyrant ruler with a word of truth, compassion is a must. (We see this in the story of Moses and Pharoah, when Moses is commanded to 'speak gently to' Pharoah, in Surah 20, verse 44 of the Quran, regardless of his status as false god and tyrant on earth).

I think it’s about time that this purpose is brought into modern debates.

Only with a clear sense of the purpose of free speech, of why it is important and why it must be defended, can we move forward as a society.

1 comment:

  1. Jazakallahu khair. This is coherent and helpful for the Muslim in developing positions on this whole free speech business.

    When it comes to injecting this insight into the broader debate however, I imagine one runs into the problem of not having a well-defined goal. As Muslims we know which way to orient ourselves (toward Allah, and therefore toward justice, truth, equity, etc.). But when you don't agree on that, all directions seem equally sacred, and therefore in principle all speech is equal and must be free. The very criteria of deciding whether speech is beneficial or useless, justice-promoting or oppression-promoting, etc. is undefined and not agreed upon (and in fact can't be unless one commits to a specific religion or worldview).