Freedom of Speech is Not an Absolute (interview)

Freedom of speech is not an absolute – an interview

Yohan Shanmugaratnam: What is your analysis of the controversy surrounding the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad? What do you regard as being at the core of the tensions?

A. Sivanandan: The whole controversy revolves around the question  of freedom of speech or expression. Europe holds that freedom of speech is the very basis of western democracy and cannot therefore   be compromised or watered down. It is an absolute. But that is a fallacy. No freedom is an absolute. Every freedom carries with it its own responsibility. The right to freedom of speech does not, as Oliver Wendell Holmes, the great American judge, said, give you the right to falsely cry ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. This is especially true of a democracy, where my freedom is limited by yours– i.e., I am only free to the extent that I do not interfere with your freedom.

Second, absolute freedom can lead to absolutism. Hitler used freedom of speech to end freedom of speech and the democratic process  to end democracy. The fascist parties of Europe today have the same strategy.

Third, in our time – after Hitler and the Holocaust, in an era of ethnic cleansing and genocide and Islamophobia – the freedom to life comes before the freedom of speech. You cannot use freedom of speech to endanger other people’s lives by incitement to racial, ethnic or religious hatred.

YS: The reactions in many Muslim countries – like the burning of flags and embassies – represent a new situation for Europeans, and especially for Norwegians and Danes who are not used to being targeted in this way. Why were Europeans so mentally unprepared for such a vast reaction in the Muslim world?

AS: The demonstrations and marches and the burning of flags and embassies, as you term it, are not something new for the old colonial powers such as Britain, France and the Netherlands  which  have  faced the anger and rebellion of the people in the countries they physically occupied, economically exploited and racially oppressed. The exploitation and the oppression of ex-colonials continued when they migrated to the ‘Mother Country’ in response to its demands for  labour in the post-war period of reconstruction. Today, the global penetration of western economies into Third World countries uproots and displaces whole populations and throws them up on the shores of Europe – and racism, which was once an instrument of exploitation (you discriminate in order to exploit), is today an instrument of exclusion.

The Scandinavian countries, which were not colonial powers as such, did not have direct experience of non-white  and/or  Third  World peoples (except in the paternal garb of missionaries) till after the second world war and immigration. And it is since then that they have begun to find comfort in the latent racism of their own civilisation. (The Norwegians, one would have expected, might have already come to know this of themselves through their dealings with the Sami people.)

So long as the Blacks were out there in Asia and Africa, they were all God’s children; but once they came to Europe, their hooves and horns began to show – and the ideology of racial superiority began to surface. And why that racism is particularly and violently directed at Muslims today is because of Europe’s complicity in America’s imperial adven- ture in the Muslim Middle East. Countries such as Denmark which have sent troops to assist the Iraqi occupation have more cause to jus- tify and rationalise their actions through anti-Muslim propaganda – such as the scurrilous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

France, of course, pretends that it is a secular state which abhors all religions and religious practices equally – except that it finds Islam the most intrusive. But a secular society, in which civil rights are paramount, should surely allow the wearing of the hijab as a civil right (like wearing a hat?) if not as a religious rite.

As I have said before, racial superiority is back on the agenda – in the guise this time not of a super-race but a super-civilisation on a mission to take the ideals of freedom and democracy, by force if necessary, to the benighted people of the Third World, especially to those who have got oil in their backyards. Conversely, western civilisation and  its values should be jealously guarded against the pagan hordes now circulating in Europe’s midst. All of which finds its theoretical justification in Huntington’s thesis of the clash of civilisations: the West versus Islam. But the war is not between civilisations, but against the enforced hegemony of western civilisation.

And it is that arrogance of power and prejudice which has insulated countries like Norway and Denmark from the anger of the peoples they vilify and demonise.

YS: How are the current events linked to the ‘war on terror’?

AS: The ‘war on terror’ has helped to stereotype Muslims as suicide bombers and terrorists, and Islam as a religion that sanctifies such action. Anti-terror laws have further enhanced this perception of the Muslim community by the public. And Muslim fundamentalists have played into the hands of the racists and Islamophobes with their rhetoric of murder and mayhem. But the people who have been humiliated and harried by the publication of the cartoons are ordinary Muslims who themselves abhor violence and reject the fire and brimstone teachings of extremist mullahs – and it is they who have had to bear the brunt of popular racism and racist violence all over Europe.

YS: Some analysts point to the fact that social factors like poverty and lack of opportunities – especially among many young people in the Arab world – are fundamental sources behind the anger driving the protests. One might say that a lot of unemployed Muslim youth go straight from closed factory doors and into the mosques. How important are the material conditions in the countries involved, for the scale and scope of the riots?

AS: I think we need to make a distinction here between the Arab world and the Muslim world. Much of the Arab world is rich and reactionary and the disaffection of the youth springs not so much from poverty (the workers at the bottom of the society are mostly imported from poorer Asian countries) as from cultural taboos and  restrictions,  which are hardly the stuff of rebellion. However, in the non-Arab Muslim countries of Asia and Africa, the material conditions of poverty and unemployment have indeed fuelled the anger of the  youth. But there is also an awareness among them that their immiseration is the result, on the one hand, of American imperialism and their own rulers’ complicity in it and, on the other, of the insidious ‘conditionalities’ imposed by the IMF and the World Bank in the  name   of development. Add to these the attacks on their religious  beliefs  and the humiliation of their Prophet, and you have a sure-fire recipe for a conflagration.

It is too simplistic to think that unemployed youth go ‘straight from closed factory doors and into the mosques’ and rebellion – although a handful of mullahs may preach jihad.

YS: Reactions among Muslims in Europe have been rather moderate. But given the socio-economic exclusion of minorities in Europe, many of them belonging to Muslim communities, what are the chances of seeing similar confrontations in Europe in the future?

AS: Unemployment and poverty are harder to take in the more prosperous countries of Europe than in your own – especially if you left your country in the hope of work or asylum. Add to that the institutionalised racism that keeps you from getting jobs, that stops you getting citizenship, that stops your benefits, that prevents family reunion – and this particular racism is directed at Muslims since September 11 – and again you have a recipe for conflagration. All that is needed now to light the fuse is the vicious attacks on your religious beliefs, your last bastion of hope.

Today, the blanket laws on terrorism accompanied by the stop-and- search policies of the police, which virtually suspect every Muslim of being a terrorist unless proved otherwise, plus the resurgence of a European nativism which holds that its civilisation and values are non-pareil, are prescriptions for further confrontations. But these can only be combated if one locates them in the context of the much larger problem of the displacements of peoples that globalisation has thrown up.

YS: What should be the political response from the radical Left in Europe to the largely liberal-dominated debates around this controversy?

AS: The answer to your question is contained in my last sentence. The technological revolution that freed capital to roam the world in search of maximum profit, and made globalisation viable, is also that which has disaggregated and dispersed the old industrial working class and  so blunted its political clout.

But the immiseration and exploitation of workers and peasants continues, though this time their principal locus is in the  Third  World, occupied now by multinational corporations who dictate the uses of government, national and international. The struggle, therefore, is against the multinational corporations and their governments, against racism and globalism (the highest stage of imperialism) because one is the instrument of the other. Racism is the first step to fascism and we have to fight it wherever we find it – whether spuriously justified by press freedom, indirectly sanctioned by government edicts against terror or, directly, the propaganda of right-wing parties in search of power. For, after all how different are the cartoons and their message from what your Progress Party published in August 2005?