Standing up for freedom of expression

  • Date / 18 September 2010

On Thursday September 17 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, International PEN, with support from three other organisations and the Norwegian Mission to the UN Geneva, hosted a public meeting called “Faith and Free Speech, Defamation of Religions and Freedom of Expression.” The consensus that emerged from the meeting was that criminalising defamation of religion is not the way forward.

Canadian John Ralston Saul was chair of the panel. He said that pluralism and freedom of speech require the freedom to criticize and be criticized. He explained that human rights are not attached to ideologies, philosophies or faith, they are attached to individuals; there are many religions but only one humanity.

Agnes Callamard, Executive Director of Article 19 spoke about the critical question of how do we deal with defamation of faith and religious intolerance without getting the state involved. One solution suggested was more interfaith dialogue to diffuse hate speech while others suggested that interfaith was not enough, we have to involve all of civil society, believers and non-believers alike.

Tariq Ramadan spoke at length about “the West”, “Western values”, “us” and “them” and the fact that every few days Muslim minorities were dealing with issues. He mentioned the Florida Quran burning proposal, the ban on minarets in Switzerland and the ban on the burqa in France. He claimed that double standards mean some criticism is acceptable and some, such as anti-Semitism, is not, and argued that no freedom is absolute. He seemed unaware that freedom of religion or belief is absolute in international law and in the West, even though it is not in many Islamic countries.

I was amazed at how inevitably most of the Muslim speakers brought the larger debate down to lowest common denominator: the victimhood of Muslims in the West. Adding fuel to this fire was the Pakistani Ambassador who is also spokesman for the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference) in Geneva. He said that this panel was useless, Muslims are being persecuted all over the West and Islamophobia and double standards are rampant. The chair had offered him two minutes but he ranted on for five about how Muslims are victimized and harassed in the West, and he too brought up the Quran burning issue. When he finally stopped I put my hand up and was given the floor as the Ambassador got up and started to leave the room. This is what I said: 

“Thank you.  I am a Canadian of Pakistani origin and I’d like to totally rebut what the Honourable Ambassador has said. I have lived in the West for 25 years and I don’t know where he has been living, but I think Muslims have more freedom in the West than they have ever had in many Muslim lands.

“When you talk about interfaith dialogue, there in absolutely no dialogue going on between the Muslim communities. Dialogue is a two way street…  Mr Ambassador, Sir, I am responding to what you said, so it is rather rude of you to get up and leave! However, I will say that for the rest of the audience here that this is absolutely unacceptable.  And freedom of speech is the most important human right we have. And I totally support freedom of expression, even if it is against my faith. When he speaks about Geert Wilders, Geert Wilders has the absolute freedom to say exactly what he wants. It does not affect me personally and neither does it harm my faith.

“The Western world was the first country … the Canadian Prime Minister and Americans were the first to condemn the burning of the Koran by the Pastor Terry Jones.

“I would never have the absolute freedom to say what I want, the way I do here, in my own country of birth, so, certainly we are talking of equal treatment of Muslims here in the West!

“I would also like to comment about… Professor  Ramadan spoke at length about Western values, the Western World. This is not a debate between Muslims and the West. Unfortunately that’s what it comes down to, which is being divisive. We’re speaking here of human rights that extend to all faiths so, let’s get over this victim ideology that we, Muslims, are being persecuted.

“And let’s talk about the freedom of speech of everyone in the room here today, and let’s get to the point of freedom of speech, and freedom of religious expression.

“Thank you.”

My rebuttal can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-e69vAW0wBg

Tariq Ramadan then looked pointedly at me and spent the rest of the discussion explaining that he was not speaking entirely about the West, but that there are problems and we must learn to “listen” to the ambassador because there are many people like him and we must listen to them. Then he contradicted himself by saying the Geert Wilders knows exactly what he is saying and doing and does it intentionally and we don’t need to listen to him. Prof. Ramadan waffled on many issues and he lacked clarity.

Two Iranian women spoke after me and challenged him on the fact that Muslims are more persecuted by Muslims than in the West. They gave their examples and asked him why he doesn’t clearly condemn atrocities against Muslim women? He replied that that was not the subject of today’s debate.

It’s clear that the idea of victimology plays well into the hands of the Islamists – and here I make a clear distinction between political Islam – the Islamists – and Muslims like me, who are practicing and trying to promote the spiritual message of Islam.

The OIC have a powerful grip here at the UN because their numbers are high and they and their allies have an unspoken agreement to stand up for one another, regardless of cause. So if the word “sharia” for example is ever used in any resolution or speech it can be stricken from the record. The stoning of women can be condemned, but the fact that it is prescribed by the sharia cannot be mentioned.

–Raheel Raza

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