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Islam, Free Speech, and Democracy

This is an e-mail I wrote on February 22, 2006 while living in Fez, Morocco, in response to the following question from a Czech friend:

    What do you think about the Palestine election result? Have you heard what a caricature in a Danish newsletter has caused? Ambiguous and complex problems, aren’t they?

I agree that both of these things are complex problems. In both cases I want to take a position against the “alarmist” view that seems common in the West, which blames Muslims for being closed-minded and radical. In fact I believe that the opposite is often true, and Europeans and Americans are the ones being closed-minded. Most of the tensions we are experiencing today between the two “sides” are simply unnecessary. I think that is the lesson of both these stories.

I’ve discussed the victory of Hamas with my friends here in Morocco. The first thing to say is that it represents the legitimate desire of the Palestinian people at the current time. It was a democratic victory, and Western governments including Israel should find a way to work with the new government. The second thing to say is that what the Palestinians were mainly doing with this election was rejecting the old Fatah government which was corrupt, living in the past, and unable to deliver basic services. In addition, Palestinians probably felt that nothing they could do would satisfy Israel, so they might as well go with a political movement that takes a harder position. In other words, Israel’s failure to give anything to the Palestinians over the past few years led to this. But the main lesson of these elections is that there will no longer be a one-party state in Palestine, but real competition between Fatah and Hamas. I have to see this as a healthy change, even if in the short term it seems like a step backward on the road to peace. Fatah has been running things for ten years and their vision has grown stagnant. The bosses of Fatah are the old Arab type, proud and corrupt, giving power and access to their friends while lining their own pockets. Those who were shut out of the deal went with Hamas in the recent elections. Now Hamas will have a chance to show they are different. In the local governments they control, they have built a reputation for sincerity and clean government, and this helped them in the national elections. I believe that the radical Islamist side of Hamas was the least important factor in their victory. In any case, Islamic movements have become associated with democratic reform in much of the Arab world because Islam calls for solidarity with the poor, human dignity and social justice. It’s perfectly natural that as democracy spreads in Arab societies, some of the first forces to profit will be Islamic movements. The test for Hamas now is whether they have the maturity to run a nation, and work within a political process that requires them to deal with diverse groups, both within and outside Palestine. If they fail, then Fatah will make a comeback the next time around, hopefully with a younger generation of leaders.

About the cartoon controversy—in the West this is usually presented as a free speech issue, and at first I saw it that way myself, but as the outlines of the story became clear, I began to see it more as a deliberate provocation. The newspaper that originally published the cartoons is known for its anti-immigrant views, and the Danish prime minister who defended them is from a right-wing party. I haven’t seen the cartoons and don’t particularly want to, but from descriptions of them, at least some of them seem calculated to offend. I don’t see anything constructive in presenting the Prophet Mohammed with a turban shaped like a bomb, for example. The fact that it could have been worse, showing him with the face of a pig perhaps, misses the point. Newspapers do have a right to free speech, but they also have a public responsibility. As one Arab columnist pointed out, in Denmark it is illegal to play loud music or to cook meat outdoors because it might offend the neighbors. Freedom is never absolute, it is tied to responsibility. The underlying message of the cartoons seems to be contempt for the Muslim population living in Europe. That they might be offended isn’t taken seriously. They are supposed to keep quiet even when someone shakes a stick at them. In this context, I feel that the Islamic reaction to the cartoons has been restrained. Radical protesters did hijack an otherwise peaceful demonstration in Lebanon to attack the Danish embassy, and a number of people were killed in Lybia when security forces overreacted to protests there. But most of the demonstrations against the cartoons have been peaceful, and that too is a display of free speech. I don’t think that the view of Islam as intolerant is constructive, or even true. Like all religions it contains both tolerant and harsher, less tolerant tendencies. Some famous American preachers hate gays and even blame them for natural disasters. The Islamic ban on images of the Prophet serves a simple purpose—they don’t want their Prophet to be worshipped like a god, since God is God and there is no equal to God. No Muslim would tell Christians not to worship an image of Jesus, but within their religion, the banning of images of God and the prophets, including Moses and Jesus, is a sacred principle. There’s nothing illegal about what the Danish newspaper did, but it is in bad taste—apparently, deliberate bad taste. A boycott on Danish products and a demand for an apology seems to be the consensus in the Islamic world. This seems reasonable to me. Ultimately this is all about politics, not religion.

I’m glad you’re interested in questions like this, or at least think about them because I’m here in Morocco. A larger question is the evolution of the Arab world toward democracy. There are those in the West who want us to believe that democracy in the Arab world would be a bad thing, because Islam is intolerant by nature, and Arabs are unsuited to democracy. What this reveals is a lack of understanding on the part of people who have those views. Islam is just as capable, I feel, of producing progressive movements, as Christianity was of producing Martin Luther or Jan Huss [a Czech religious reformer]. The fact that this hasn’t happened is partly a result of autocratic rulers like the Saudi kings hijacking Islam to support their own power. Another reason is that political Islam channels popular resentment against secular, nationalist governments that rule with a heavy hand, such as the former Shah of Iran, the Algerian military government, or Mubarak’s government in Egypt. All these societies are essentially police states, with a gangster-like quality. When there is no healthy channel for public debate, extremism flourishes. People in Morocco are debating what the Hamas victory might mean here, and there are two views—either it won’t mean much, or it will strengthen Islamic movements in the short term. In the long term, there is no choice but greater openness if society is to move forward. Islamic movements will moderate as they are forced to deal with the realities of a complex society. At the same time, those who have held power until now need to learn to coexist with their competition rather than repressing it. Muslims living in Europe or America also have something to add to the politics back home, because they already have experience dealing with a pluralistic society. It is Islam that saved the philosophy of the Greeks so it could be passed back to Europe in the Renaissance. Islam has positive contributions to make in the West, and will evolve as any thought system does once it comes in contact with others. It is the duty of the West to understand Islam, not as an outside force but as part of the community. It’s time for the old divisions of colonizer and colonized to be transcended. We’re in this together. Let’s share our ideas and move forward.


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