Monday, May 17, 2010

A Time to Reflect


Is religious correctness stifling freedom of speech or free expression testing religious boundaries?

Multi-religious and multi-cultural societies have still much to learn by way of harmonious coexistence, not the least of which is finding a balance between freedom of speech and religious correctness.

Starting with the controversy aroused over two decades ago by Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’, a trend was set into motion that continues to threaten social cohesion in many societies even today. The Danish Cartoon Controversy rendered the world even more divided on the issue of freedom of speech and religious sensitivity, and now the 200th episode of South Park has sparked off the latest debate on what is seen as religious correctness vs. freedom to ridicule. This is a debate that keeps coming back to haunt us and hence worth a few moments of our consideration.

South Park, an animated comedy series production of the American television network, Comedy Central, is a social satire depicting life through the eyes of four fourth-grade boys living in a fictional town in Colorado. Intended for adult audiences only, it is known for the use of crude humor and strong profanity while spinning some spitting satire. Some previous episodes have received criticism; including one titled ‘Bloody Mary’ condemned by the Catholics, and another on Scientology caused Tom Cruise to demand further reruns of the episode be cancelled.

The contentious issue of the depiction of the Prophet of Islam in the costume of a teddy bear, though now censored, has aroused reactions in the Muslim world ranging from quiet indignation to fatwas and threats made in the murky cyber world. With political correctness getting in the way of direct communication, one ends up trusting Newspaper websites and blogs to depict the public mindset. Queries range from questioning the sense of humor – or lack thereof – of Muslims, to why Prophet Muhammad remains beyond ridicule if Jesus and Moses have been targeted in earlier episodes with no threat of violence from either religious community. But, more importantly, a heated debate rages over where the concept of freedom of speech rests in view of the decision to censor the offending episode? Valid queries, all.

With the Satanic Verses and the Cartoon issue, the voices of reason within the Muslim community were silenced by those supporting retaliation with force, ‘Are you part of the Muslim community or not?’ – a version of the infamous Bush era theme of ‘with us or against us’. At that point, many peaceful Muslims would have liked to see some understanding for their sensitivities and hear from the non-Muslim or Western community, ‘We're sorry you feel offended and can also see why, given the high respect you accord your Prophet, but we believe in freedom of speech and cannot take away that right even from offending voices.’ Instead the message that came through was, ‘We have the right to abuse anyone we like, that's our concept of freedom of speech – accept it or leave."

This lack of sensitivity for religious concerns of Muslims at that time also alienated the reasonable voices to an extent by changing their indignation against the violent lot in their own community towards those supporting the offensive words and images. Everyone lost perspective. Groups of Muslims went on the rampage in a show of resentment, and a corresponding rise of sympathy and support was seen for the offending material from the proponents of free speech. Material which was probably doomed for the dustbins of time managed to etch an eternal plaque for itself in the annals of history, and continues to color our perceptions even today.

The South Park issue and the response to it are very similar to the Cartoon Controversy. The censorship seems to have taken care of the immediate threat to violence for now, but there is no guarantee future issues will be similarly contained, and whether that is the right solution in the long term. How much censorship a society used to unrestricted freedom of expression will tolerate, is also a question that will keep on urging us to face uncomfortable realities and make some uncomfortable choices. While religious correctness need not stifle freedom of speech, targeting religious sensitivities is also not the only form of humor one needs to learn to appreciate. However, the politics of violence will have to be shunned unequivocally.

Civilized protest is a right guaranteed to all, but no legal framework or religious code of conduct encourages violence. Muslims have every right to feel offended by attempts at humor at their cost and express their displeasure, but they must learn some peaceful and effective forms of protest. That might actually win them some sympathy, since most people of all affiliations still choose civility over the right to ridicule. Overt or covert references to serious consequences only produce hatred.

In this regard, Muslims need only recall the example of their beloved Prophet in terms of his response to ridicule and scorn during his lifetime to decide their own reactions to such provocation. The authenticated records of the Prophet’s life, the books of Hadith, depict the Prophet responding with kindness to people who openly ridiculed and abused him. He neither did himself, nor asked his companions to retaliate with force, but instead chose to teach by example of forgiveness. A Hadith from Sahih Al-Bukhari, establishes the same point: "And you do not do evil to those Who do evil to you, but you deal With them with forgiveness and kindness."

The basic message imparted by all major religions is of forgiveness and kindness. Some of us either have convenient memories or tend to overlook that important message to promote our own agendas. Isn’t it time to set our perspectives and priorities in order and learn to coexist peacefully to benefit the societies we inhabit?

Published: The Radicla Middle Way on May 17, 2010

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