By Mohamad Tabbaa. This article is part of our February 2013 focus on Religion and Human Rights.
“Why do Muslims hate freedom of speech?”
This question is becoming increasingly common in many parts of the world, and has been raised recently in Australia in regards to the anti-Muslim film of 2012. It is now again rearing its head with the presence of far-right and anti-Islam Dutch Politician Geert Wilders, who is in the country for his speaking tour of Australia.
The common discourse surrounding these events has presented a simplistic dichotomy of two sides at war with each other over values or rights. With regards to Wilders arrival, the argument goes that those defending his tour are doing so because they believe in human rights, and particularly the right to free speech. Many have even made a point of mentioning that although they disagree with his opinions – some fiercely – they still see it as a point of duty to defend his right, to not only hold, but also to express his views.
Juxtaposing this argument is what is presented as the Muslim side of the discussion, epitomised by those Muslims who oppose his visit and call for restrictions to free speech. These Muslims, it is posited by those who defend Wilder’s free speech, have a different, out-dated idea of how far the right to free speech ought to extend, and so are ostensibly in favour of seeing this freedom curtailed. This sits quite comfortably with the idea that Muslims are generally against human rights and freedom; quite often the right to free speech particular.
But the debate is not that simple. Suggesting that such conflicts are merely about people arguing over different definitions of words or about one set of values up against another set is to pretend that we live in a social and political vacuum, where each side is standing on the same debating platform with equal fighting power. This is a very idealised, though entirely naïve, view of social relations. As Law Professor Costas Douzinas has stated, when presented in such a way, “a complicated set of relations, histories, traditions and communities is reduced to a simple calculus of right versus right, one of which must be wrong.”
So how else could one view the above discussion? Well, to begin with, it would do us no harm to take into account the power relations at play in the apparent battle between Islam and free speech. Viewed from this angle, the debate looks substantially different: we no longer have two equal sides simply differing over semantics. Instead we have a minority group, facing increasing discrimination and violence, opposing a figurehead of the dominant, more powerful group which not only initiates and perpetuates, but also benefits from such violence.
Wilders, who heads a Dutch political party with around one million members, came to prominence and power as a direct result of his anti-Muslim views and proposed policies. Such policies include recommending the deportation of Dutch Muslims, banning the Quran in Holland, opposing the construction of mosques in western countries, and describing Islam as “violent” and “retarded”. As such, he is a direct beneficiary of the widespread Islamophobia that has come to characterise the political landscape in numerous countries, and Australia is no exception.
This fact flies in the face of claims made by some that Wilders and his ilk courageously take such stances risking all; a fantasy sufficiently put to rest by author Sherene Razack in her book Casting Out. She illustrates instead that the populist Islamophobia espoused by Wilders is a sure path to fame, power, and importantly, plenty of money. The fact that a person espousing such overtly Islamophobic views is rewarded rather than shunned highlights the intensity and increasingly accepted nature of Islamophobia today.
Contrasting this are the Muslims on the receiving end of such vitriolic speech, who are subjected to increasing levels of violence around the world, often directly following the visit and incitement of individuals such as Wilders. It has been widely recognised that in countries where Muslims form a minority, they are subjected to violent intrusions into their lives. Many of these intrusions are politically and legally sanctioned and come in both systemic and individual forms. There are individual beatings or killings, as occurred in the United States recently where a man was pushed into the path of an oncoming train after having been mistaken for a Muslim.
Other examples include potential and actual hijab bans in a number of European countries, the banning of mosques or minarets, and the more banal yet commonplace verbal attacks and negative media portrayals. Such a barrage of violence and repression has forced Muslims onto the back-foot; they are constantly forced to explain themselves and at times they even have to justify their very existence.
In Australia, the news of Wilders’ visit has been welcomed by a group of white supremacists who wasted no time in calling on their followers to “do what should be done to this rag-head camel f-cking Islamic filth who have no place in civilised society.” That such threats of violence should come as a direct result of Wilders’ visit should not surprise anybody considering that mass-murderer Anders Breivik, who massacred 77 innocent lives in Norway in 2011, was directly inspired by Wilders and held him in high regard.
In considering the role of power in this discussion, it would be apt to examine the historical and present relation of human rights to power; a relationship which will help us make some sense of the Muslim opposition to this much-cherished right to freedom of speech.
Human rights have extensively succumbed to the detriments of liberal capitalism, such that they remain (formally) equally accessible to all, while substantively their benefit rarely extends beyond the domain of the privileged.
Universal human rights were formalised in the aftermath of the atrocities committed in World War II, in the form of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations in 1948. One of the key purposes of this modern idea of rights was to provide a universal, irrevocable standard against which individuals could hold governments to account. The modern human rights movement redefined individual-state relations, (theoretically) restricting the sovereignty of states by subjecting them to human rights ideals. To put it differently, human rights were supposed to provide individuals with a concrete tool against the overwhelming power of states; they were a weapon of the weak against the powerful, or as Douzinas succinctly puts it, “human rights are the latest expression of the urge to resist domination and oppression”.
Fast-track to our present arrangements, however, and one can identify a disturbing trend that has transpired since the creation of the UDHR. In what was perhaps inevitable human rights have now been usurped by states and government institutions; or, by the powerful. In what is a paradox of the modern human rights idea, human rights – those standards of behaviour that restrict a state’s power and action – have been almost completely entrusted to the protection of none other than states themselves.
Human rights have extensively succumbed to the detriments of liberal capitalism, such that they remain (formally) equally accessible to all, while substantively their benefit rarely extends beyond the domain of the privileged. As such, much of the resistance-capital of human rights has been lost, or at least its power reduced to the symbolic and rhetorical realm.
The ironic yet disturbing outcome is that today, having changed their relation to power, human rights can be used to defend the powerful against the weak, as if the powerful have an inherent and natural right to oppress those below. Human rights have today replaced the traditional position of religion in the western world in being the moral value-system that governments can call upon to justify exploitation and exclusion. By identifying themselves with human rights, states can claim to be the forces of good against an eternal evil. By doing so, they are able to use the capital of human rights as a dehumanising force, presenting others as uncivilised, backward and ultimately irrelevant, thus making intervention into their lives easily justifiable. By making appeals to human rights, the state is able to mask its actions of violence against others and present themselves instead as noble and even sacrificial.
In short, due to current power relations, human rights can be used to legitimise the violence of powerful states against those with less power. Human rights have become the expansive catchphrase that tolerates Wilders’ Islamophobia under the banner of freedom of speech, while powerful states are also able to sanction military interventions, such as that into Afghanistan, under the rubric of protecting the human rights of helpless women.
Rather than asking why Muslims hate the right to free speech … we should instead be asking, why are Muslims resisting freedom of speech?
Returning to our original point of discussion, it is necessary now to reframe our initial question in light of this new perspective. Rather than asking why Muslims hate the right to free speech, as if it were an inherent and natural trait, we should instead be asking, why are Muslims resisting freedom of speech?
Keeping power relations in mind, it is barely surprising that a minority group would oppose what has now become an oppressive legal weapon in the guise of an emancipatory freedom. The discursive battle we are currently witnessing can be seen as a fight to define the position of human rights in social relations; a fight to determine the role of human rights in perpetuating or resisting cultural domination and symbolic violence. Over whether human rights are – as originally envisaged – a tool against power, or a further apparatus for the powerful to continue to linguistically beat people into submission.
Mohamad Tabbaa is a PhD candidate in Criminology at the University of Melbourne. His dissertation explores human rights epistemology and its relation to power, particularly in regards to Muslim minorities. Other research interests include terrorism, Islamophobia and postcolonial theory.