Monday, November 10, 2008

Religion and Freedom of Expression

Freedom of speech and expression is recognised as a fundamental human right, and governments who uphold freedom in their press, media and ambits of human activity, are lauded for their efforts. It remains the cornerstone of democracy, and yet - wittingly or unwittingly - most countries follow a policy at loggerheads with the very essence of freedom, when it comes to religious practice. It is important to ask why that is.

The West has always been proud of its democratic systems of governance. Most developing countries in the world are, subconsciously, still viewed as the white man's burden. However, it seems, that here in the East, we are more open to letting people just be, when it comes to their religions. Some of us regard religion as a very personal choice; others think it is a public affair. But howsoever we view it, I know from experience and exposure that we will not raise hue and cry over anybody's religious attire and we will not question their worship rituals. At the end of the day, the rule of the law here is: To everybody, his own.

On the contrary, in the West, it is unfortunate that everything religious becomes a source of concern and antagonism for the upholders of freedom of speech and expression. Weirdly enough, this genre of freedom is seen as a threat to society and secularism (I thought it only had to do with the state, and not with individuals). Being a Muslim, it compels me to ask why it is that the French are scared of “signs and dress that conspicuously show the religious affiliation of students”, or why backlashes result, and then, are accomodated when muslim meatpackers ask for short breaks to pray and break their fast in one month alone, or how Columbia University, when inaugrating its Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life, decides that Salman Rushdie, an atheist, is the man for the job, or why Richard Dawkins is free to sponsor an advertisement on London buses, saying, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."!

We will hear endlessly, in their media, about women suppressed and dominated in Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia; but they make a million-dollar industry out of Hugh Hefner's Playboy, a brand that has only helped to - yes - glorify the fairer sex. Slavery is exotic! But then, those are free, working women, right?

And they - who object to the freedom of religious expression - argue that religion curtails freedom!

Copyright (c) 2008 Saadia Malik


Adnan said...


Irony is that the so called biggest Secular state Turkey doesn't allow first lady to wear scarf on her own will.

In reality secular states appear more strict in terms of freedom than non-secular states.

Saadia said...

Oh yes, and Ataturk was even quick to abolish the Turks' traditional fez with the Panama hat. Come to think of it, the secularists seem quite insecure!

Id it is said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Id it is said...

Not a big fan of Rushdie myself, I quite enjoy his talks as they often generate some interesting debates. I feel Mr. Rushdie deliberately riles up his audience to ensure he lives on in their minds because of the dissonance of ideas he generates in them. A powerful and erudite speaker no doubt, but I am wary of his honesty of thought. His posturing can often be seen through and that doesn't help.

As for Columbia inviting him...why not? These universities take pride in providing a platform for any powerful voice regardless of its leanings; that makes for their student body to think in creative ways. The Columbia School of Religion will send out graduates who will have heard many Rushdies and they will emerge more tested tried to take on their vocation in the real world.

Indeed, a thought provoking post, though I'm not certain I completely agree with all the things you say, hehe

Saadia said...

Rushdie thrives on sensationalism. I haven't read "The Satanic Verses" but I've been told by too many people - to not believe - that it was a very ordinary effort which caught fire after Khomeini's "judgement".

And of course, bring on the Khomeinis, Rushdis and Crones; I am all for an open debate (though Rushdie is hardly an academic). It is the convenience with which challenging peoples' religiosity is epitomized as freedom of expression in Western-style democracies, while simultaneously snubbing personal expressions of religiosity in the name of secularism, that pricks me.

...and you're welcome to disagree!

Adnan said...

I haven't read "The Satanic Verses"

well not different than visiting website so called "Faith Freedom" which is being run by an Iranian.