Hypocrisy in the guise of freedom of expression

By M. Zajam, TwoCircles.net

There are uproars against social networking site Facebook for carrying the caricatures of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). The creators of the “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” page, invited users to send in caricatures following an American cartoonist Molly Norris’s satirical suggestion that people draw images of the Prophet to promote free speech. Earlier Norris had drawn picture of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) as a show of support for the creators of Comedy Central’s “South Park,” which had featured an episode depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a bear suit. “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” page had upward of 109,000 supporters and more than 12,000 photos within 3 days of launching.

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The Western society has always claimed to be protector of Freedom of Speech. But is it Islam bashing in the garb of Freedom of Speech? Does the West really practice what it preaches? Before Freedom of Speech, the West used to lecture all Asian/ African countries about human rights. But when its own hypocrisy about human rights was exposed in Iraq and Guantanamo and in cases of illegal detentions, West’s human rights chants have reduced drastically.

Likes of Norris are nowhere to be seen or heard when Holocaust denier is jailed. Each European country has law against denying Holocaust. Did we have a page on Holocaust cartoons on Facebook, the ultimate place of liberty? Bishop Richard Williamson was last person to be fined 12,000 Euro on 27th Oct 2009 in Germany. On 14th Jan 2008, Wolfagang Frohlich was imprisoned for 6.5 years in Austria for voicing his opinion about Holocaust.

An Iranian paper, in 2006, hosted an International Holocaust Cartoon competition and suggested Western newspapers to publish few of those. Jyllands-Posten Cultural Editor had initially agreed to publish few selected cartoons but later the paper backed out. The Cultural Editor was sent on indefinite leave. The website of Hamshahri newspaper which had organized this competition was hacked and suffered a denial-of-service attack. Jews all over world protested against the competition. Rabbi Marvin Hier termed it as classic formula of Adolf Hitler, which says if there’s a problem, it’s the fault of the Jews.

Muslims in Mumbai protesting against Facebook on May 21, 2010

In April 2003, a Danish cartoonist Christoffer Zieler offered some cartoons of Jesus Christ to Jyllands-Posten, Denmark’s largest daily paper and generally seen as right-wing. Zieler received an email back from the paper’s Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, which said: “I don’t think Jyllands-Posten’s readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them.” But the same paper in 2005, showing blatant double standard published Prophet Mohammed cartoons.

All the countries have fair share of curtailing Freedom of Speech. There are many movies banned by various ‘Freedom of Speech’ flag–bearing countries. Australia has banned Susan and God and UK banned ‘Visions of Ecstasy’ under blasphemy laws. All western countries including USA banned Monty Python’s Life of Brian for showing controversial themes about Christianity. Deepa Mehta’s Fire was released amid protest from right wing Hindu protestors in India. Another film by the same director, Water, caused controversy by showing aspects of Hinduism in a negative light. This film was shot in Sri Lanka instead of India which was earlier planned, due to protest and attack on film sets. In Israel, Hitler: The Last Ten Days was banned in a unanimous decision by the censorship board because Hitler was shown in too humane character.

Lately The Da Vinci Code and The Last Temptation of Christ bore the brunt of protesters. Vatican Archbishop Angelo Amato, specifically called for a boycott of the film version of The Da Vinci Code. The Last Temptation of Christ was under attack from religious communities much before the film had even finished production. This movie was banned in Savannah, Georgia in the United States, due to which its release was delayed for 6 weeks. On October 22, 1988, a French Christian fundamentalist group launched molotov cocktails inside the Parisian Saint Michel movie theater to protest against the film. This attack injured thirteen people, four of whom were severely burned. Director of movie Dogma, Kevin Smith received over 30,000 pieces of protest/hate mail and several death threats. Catholic groups around the world staged protests against Dogma.

Few recent acts of Western society, which is known for openness and liberty, have shown hollowness of their claim. By banning Burqa and minaret of mosques, the West is turning out to be an intolerant society which is not ready to accept what it does not practice.

Enforcing Burqa in any country is as bad as enforcing not to wear it. It violates women’s rights to be independent in making her choices and to freedom of religion, thought and expression.

France’s claim of keeping state out of religion was exposed when President Sarkozy visited Vatican to meet Pope Benedict in 2007. He happily described the late John Paul II as his “role model” in front of Pope Benedict. Mr. Sarkozy also gave the Pope a copy of his book, The Republic, Religion and Hope, which he co-wrote in 2004 with Father Philippe Verdin and Colin Thibaud, a philosopher. His book also advocates reducing the separation between church and state.

Almost every country places some restrictions on what may be published. Books are banned for a variety of reasons ranging from religious to obscenity. Governments have also sought to ban certain books they perceive contain material that could threaten, embarrass, or criticize them.

There are more than 100 writers banned by various countries for different reasons. I am sure apart from Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin, names of others in the list have not been heard by many. There are many books that have been challenged by a variety of groups and agencies to prevent a particular work from being read by the general public. In USA alone there are more than 100 books which fall under this category. In India, apart from Satanic Verses, a few books on Maratha warrior Shivaji like Shivaji by Queens University Prof Jayant Lele, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India by American scholar James Laine and Laine’s translation of the Sivabharata, entitled The Epic of Shivaji are banned. Hindu groups have attacked many artists and art galleries for hurting their sentiments.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam have recommended severe punishment for Blasphemy. But only Islamic connection makes it to headline. Even UN General Assembly has passed several resolutions which called upon the world to take action against the “defamation of religions”.

Every community reacts in same way when their religious feelings are hurt. It is rightly so. Artist should take care in not hurting religious sentiment of any one. These acts are regrettable. Artists are supposed to be broadminded, creative, caring and imaginative and should use their skills to create work of art. But of late few of them are disgracing artist community by playing with people’s religious sentiment. They have found short cut to fame. It is duty of artist community, media and people to isolate these elements who like to make mischief to create few fast bucks.

Artist with their creative mind should think of ways to reduce the suffering of people from current problems and crisis. It seems Artists are running out of ideas. Instead of leading the way, they are being led by the society. As per Wikipedia “Art serves as a tool of education, or indoctrination, or enculturation. Art makes us more moral. It uplifts us spiritually.” If we go by this definition, Art is failing us. Now it is up to artist to draw a line and concentrate on constructive work. If this does not happen quickly, only people with wrong intention will be left in this honorable profession. Future generation will only remember works marred by controversies and honest creative work will be forgotten for ever.