Obama’s take on freedom of speech and respect for religion

Ruba Saqr
Ruba Saqr has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency. (Photo: Jordan News)
In a 2015 event attended by the Dalai Lama, former US President Barack Obama spoke about the philosophical “connection between freedom of speech and freedom of religion”. He got straight to the heart of the matter when he said: “To infringe on one right under the pretext of protecting another is a betrayal of both.”اضافة اعلان

Made at the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual Washington tradition since 1953, Obama’s remarks were quite moving and perceptive – especially when juxtaposed to the one-dimensionality and inarticulacy of his successor who figured a way to twist the event out of its intended message during his time in office.

Most striking about the 2015 event, though, was the Democratic president’s strong condemnation of hatred and bigotry that hide behind notions like freedom of expression.

While Western politicians, mainstream news outlets and social media quarrelers continue to be divided over the definition of free speech, Obama offered the simple yet winning formula for striking a balance between the two freedoms.

“If there is one law that we can all be most certain of that seems to bind people of all faiths, and people who are still finding their way towards faith but have a sense of ethics and morality in them – that one law, that Golden Rule is that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated,” he told the attending crowd.

To drive his message home, he added that “we have to speak up against those who would misuse” religious beliefs “to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred” with the same fierce conviction with which one fights for free expression.

A recent example of hateful and divisive behavior perpetrated under the guise of free speech is the burning of a copy of the Holy Quran by a Danish far-right politician 10 days ago in Sweden.

Over the years, European media have on more than one occasion depicted the Prophet Mohammad in an offensive light, including in a sketch by a Danish cartoonist in 2006 that stirred up riots in different parts of the world. Such hate-filled attacks are heartbreaking to millions of ordinary Muslims, but most dangerously, they offer ample fodder for extremist and terrorist groups looking for any excuse to recruit frustrated and misguided youths injured by such insulting depictions.

Without doubt, disparaging other faiths is not a sign of civility or open-mindedness. Muslims in Jordan, for instance, would find it equally offensive if someone were to disrespect a symbol of Christianity in the name of freedom of speech. The Holy Quran holds both Jesus Christ and Mother Mary in high esteem; to offend their followers is to offend Islam.

Furthermore, such barbaric actions would instantly be condemned by the West as a form of extremism, if not terrorism. Why, then, is there a double standard when Muslims are in the line of fire?

There are several reasons for the spread of hostile attitudes toward Islam and the followers of the Muslim faith.Islamophobia (part of a bigger package that includes anti-immigrant attitudes steeped in vulgarity, demonization and marginalization) got aggravated to new levels during Donald Trump’s presidency. However, prejudice against Islam and Muslims became a world phenomenon at an earlier stage, during another Republican president’s era.

George W. Bush’s time in the White House, which coincided with the tragic 9/11 events, saw the true onset of the era of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric. In those days, Western media offered little distinction between the terrorists who claimed to be the “real” (and only) representatives of Islam and the vast majority of ordinary Muslims who did not share such distorted and extremist views. The latter were completely absent from most media narratives about Islam, reinforcing negative stereotypes about Muslims in general.
Whereas extremists in the East hide behind false notions of piety, the ones in the West have an easier cover in the much-disputed concept of free speech.
Obama’s tenure happened to be sandwiched between the two Republican politicians who showed poor political leadership (at wildly varying degrees). In their own way, both Trump and Bush, the son, have contributed to a widening gap between East and West, resulting in a highly polarized world that is still grappling to find a common ground on thorny issues like religious freedom and immigration.

Trump, who managed to make Bush look good by comparison, has also helped push fringe far-right groups into the limelight, fueling Western-born Christian extremism that is very similar to extremist groups in our part of the world – with their dark discourse and complete rejection of “the other”.

Whereas extremists in the East hide behind false notions of piety, the ones in the West have an easier cover in the much-disputed concept of free speech.

Obviously, self-serving supremacists are not in the least concerned about social justice, diversity of thought and faith, or other aspects that enrich a civil society’s experience. Nurturing an inclusive social code that offers safety and acceptance to people of different creeds and from different walks of life is the last thing on the far-right’s mind.

Freedom of speech is a means to an end to such groups that relish chaos and thrive on predatory hate speech targeting the dignity of people who look different. When given the opportunity, they shoot down anyone with a different opinion, as evidenced from the primitive and intellectually dim arguments that go viral on conservative platforms. Over there, criticizing political opponents is based on character assassination more than a balanced, well-supported argument.

What separates hate speech from freedom of speech is often believed to be a thin line. Nothing could be further from the truth. Words that insult other people’s faith are obviously ill-intentioned and belong in the hate speech camp, especially when they have dangerous ramifications such as extremism and terror.

This week in Jordan, the Lower House of Parliament endorsed amendments to the Penal Code in favor of stiffer penalties for anyone who offends the religious feelings and beliefs of other people. The new imprisonment term for religious offenses under Article 278 is now a minimum of four months and a maximum of two years, as well as a fine of up to JD500, while the previous penalty stood at a maximum of three months in prison and a fine of up to JD20.

In a symbolic gesture, those amendments coincide with Easter, celebrated this week by Orthodox Christians across Jordan and in different parts of the world. This sends a strong message about people’s right to live in communities that respect their faith and protect their right to live safely and peacefully, without the looming threat of religious persecution.

In the words of Obama, “no God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number”. That, in short, is our response to the acts of bigotry in Sweden.

Ruba Saqr has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.

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