The Wilders case and the responsibility of free speech


If you don’t know who the man in the title is, here’s the crux. Geert Wilders is a far-right member of the Dutch parliament who came into the spotlight after producing a wannabe Al-Queada like video that tries to show that Islam=Terrorism/Holy War on all Non-Muslims. His misrepresentation and manipulation of Quranic verses, along with a tasteless use of sound bites from selective Imams, would humble even Bin-Laden. The name of the documentary is “Fitna”, and it is a sloppy compilation that could have been made by the average YouTuber.

Wilders is now being inspected by the Dutch court for inciting hatred, though he has of course gained some popularity elsewhere among anti-Islamic and free speech groups. Recently, there was much controversy when he was not allowed into the UK, where he was invited to show the 17-minute film in the House of Lords by a parliament member. The British government claimed that the event would “threaten community harmony and therefore public security in the UK”.

This has once again sparked the age old debate about the limitations of freedom of speech. Some, like Baroness Sarah Ludford, have said that while Wilders’ views are unacceptable, he has a right to speak his mind. The argument is that it is always difficult to draw the line with regard to hate speech. She feels that this can only be decided by the courts.

There is also the matter of bringing him into the spotlight by imposing a ban, and therefore giving him publicity/credibility. Some people think he should be allowed to rant like a senseless lunatic, and then ridiculed by the rest of society. That Muslims should raise their voice in showing the faults in his opinions and reveal his true face, rather than allowing him to be seen as a symbol for the right to speak freely.

So the regular view from this side is that such matters should be dealt with on a case by case basis. Only when violence is promoted as a result, should the case be regarded as hate speech. Here it should be pointed out that Wilders has called for a ban on the Quran, and has refused invitations to debates by various Islamic scholars. Still there are others that believe there should be no boundaries at all, no matter what the person has to say.

But shouldn’t freedom of speech come with responsibilities? Just because one hates someone or some group, should he/she shout in their face telling them they don’t belong in society? Will a society be able to properly function in an environment like that?

Mohammad Shafiq, founder and chief executive of UK’s Ramadan Foundation, believes that by allowing this type of speech we would be vindicating the egregious views of the likes of Wilders. After all, giving an equal hearing to people with differing views is one thing, and asking a member of the Ku Klux Klan to give a presentation about his beliefs is another. By the way, US Republican Sen. Jon Kyl had invited Wilders to show his film on Capitol Hill. The screening has already taken place.

Isn’t a call to ban the book that 1.2 billion people hold in at least some sort of esteem enough of an incitement of hate? Mr. Shafiq also points out the backlash a call to ban the Torah would. Therefore, one may think that it surely isn’t worth it to hurt the feelings and sentiments of so many people.

What’s your view? Because here’s where I say mine.

I believe that society and governments should allow freedom of speech without any limitations, but on one very vital condition. They should have a law that legally binds the person who holds radical views, that don’t go along with contemporary thinking, to accept invitations to debates by those who disagree with him. This debate should be broadcast at prime time on leading television networks. Alternatively, there could be a government channel dedicated to the entire purpose.

This is because today the truth often loses its way before getting to the public. Take the Wilders case for example. As much as we’d like to believe that Muslims will voice out their opinions, it is foolish to assume that media in the West will give them an equal or any hearing. They’ll usually portray the protesters as fanatics or put a large lens on actual fanatics, and thereby set up a defense for the antagonist no matter how illogical his/her thoughts are.

It happened in the case of Salman Rushdie, who ultimately ended up being knighted. Through the mess of the death sentence, no one actually bothered to read his sick book. The prominent Muslim speaker Ahmed Deedat told large networks in the US and UK that he would donate $50,000 to the charity of their choice, if he was given airtime to narrate just a couple of lines from the book. But he was denied; denied the simple right to quote from Rushdie’s book. Where was freedom hiding then?

So to the sane members of society, let us practice freedom of speech with responsibility. To the people who govern it, responsibly allow unbounded freedom of speech. And then we can finally say in unison to the racists and fascists—rant away.

Posted March 01, 2009, The Comment Factory

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