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Freedom of expression between anti-Semitism and contempt for religion

January 25, 2014 at 3:00 am

Freedom of expression is an inherent human right which has been fought for by people all over the world. It allows for everyone to display their creativity in different ways, and to defend this and other rights vigorously. Such freedom is therefore regarded as one of the “mothers” of all human rights. Thus, it is hard to imagine contemporary life without it, which explains why democracies promote it as much as possible despite the risks inherent in its abuse, and make every effort to ensure that the freedom is maintained.

However, that has not prevented some Western-style democracies from enacting laws which criminalise “anti-Semitism”, making it illegal to question the veracity of the Holocaust. In October 2004, the US Congress passed the Anti-Semitism Act, ratified by President George W. Bush immediately after it was issued; many European countries followed suit and introduced similar laws.

The justification was the need to protect humanity from the evils of racism and discrimination against religious, sectarian or ethno-specific minorities. It soon became clear, though, that these laws were introduced under pressure from the pro-Israel lobby with the intention of preventing criticism of the State of Israel and its government. Thus, even when Israeli actions violate international laws and conventions, legitimate criticism is condemned as “anti-Semitism” and brushed aside. The West, perhaps out of guilt for the Holocaust, has sacrificed the sacred cow of freedom of expression on the altar of Israeli exceptionalism. As such, those writers, journalists and philosophers who have been critical of Israel’s use of the Holocaust as a blackmail tool have themselves faced censure, legal action and worse.

As Western anti-Semitism has receded, relatively speaking, it has been replaced by “Islamophobic” discrimination against Muslims, who are all tarred with the terrorist brush. Articles, books, drawings and films have all been utilised to denigrate Islam and Muslims, especially the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, peace be upon him. When Muslims have complained and demonstrated against such abuse, they have been told that democratic governments must ensure freedom of expression for all.

If this were not the same West which issued laws criminalising Holocaust denial and did not hesitate to prosecute a man like the late Roger Garaudy for his views, I would be the first to defend its position. I am convinced that the damage caused by the abuse of freedom of expression may be less than that caused by restricting it. But as the West has already resorted to such restrictions, ostensibly to prevent discrimination against the Jews, it is a fortiori necessary to restrict it even more to prevent discrimination against Muslims. The best scenario would be to amend the anti-Semitism laws to criminalise defamation against all faiths. However, if Western governments insist on maintaining the status quo, then they become partners, if not the instigators, of the current anti-Muslim fervour.

It is ironic that Arab Muslims, Semites every one, are the main, and perhaps the only, victims of laws criminalising anti-Semitism and laws that guarantee freedom of expression at one and the same time. While the anti-Semitism laws give Israel the green light to violate the collective rights of the Palestinians, freedom of expression laws give the green light to abuse of Arabs and the Prophet of Islam.

In the name of equality, another sacred cow, Western governments should either criminalise contempt for all religions and their followers, or repeal the anti-Semitism laws as they stand to ensure freedom of expression. Failure to do so will confirm a darker agenda at play against Islam and Muslims in this world.

The author is a lecturer in political science at Cairo University. This article is a translation from the Arabic which appeared in Almasry Al Youm, 16 September, 2012

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.