Midweek Opinion – Finding the balance: Freedom of expression and responsible speech

Fazal Masood Malik and Farhan Khokhar, Canada

Provocative questions swirl regarding the limits and responsibilities of free speech. For example, can someone recklessly shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre without facing the consequences? Can people freely express their opinions about international conflicts like Russia-Ukraine or Israel-Palestine without accountability? Based on contemporary headlines and public debates in recent media, the layered answer often hinges on the speaker’s identity, privilege, and ideological stances.

Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of open, democratic societies. When people can freely share ideas and debate social issues, it drives social progress and innovation. However, this fundamental right also requires responsible use to prevent harming others or dividing communities. As global disputes over offensive speech reveal, inflammatory rhetoric can promote discrimination, misinformation and even violence when taken too far. What is the right balance between protecting free speech and placing ethical limits to foster social cohesion?

Religious teachings provide wisdom here. Despite the fact that political factions weaponise religions for their own benefit, the scriptures of Islam, Christianity and other religions emphasise compassion, justice and unity. When the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed cartoons mocking the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa in 2005, Muslim leaders worldwide condemned the offensive images and called for physical actions against the perpetrators.  Our beloved Khalifa, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaa, cited the blessed life of the Holy Prophetsa as an excellent example of refraining from retaliation against much worse persecutions in Mecca. In addition, he guided the entire Jamaat to hold events, highlighting the excellent virtues of the Holy Prophetsa. This incident highlighted the Islamic emphasis on responsible speech – conveying truth without repaying harm with harm.

Likewise, in the 1980s, many Muslims protested Salman Rushdie’s fictional novel The Satanic Verses and its vile depictions of religious figures. Yet, Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh, Mirza Tahir Ahmad, focused on scholarly rebuttals, arguing insults against revered prophets destroy communal bonds. This global saga underscored the need for responsible speech, even in so-called literary works. Such religious principles emphasising ethical dialogue – words spoken with civility and graciousness rather than lies or hostility – can guide modern debates.

In politics, racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric has increasingly been exploited by far-right populist leaders to amass power, fuel divisions, and pass discriminatory policies. 

Labelling immigrants from Mexico as “rapists” and “criminals,” a certain US politician rose to high office by spreading false claims about his predecessor’s birthplace and advocating for bans on immigration from specific religious groups. Bigoted speech has normalised under the mantle of “free expression,” inviting dire consequences.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) made significant gains in the recent general election, securing 37 out of 150 seats. This outcome, following Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s resignation, represents a significant shift in Dutch politics, as mainstream parties face challenges from the PVV’s growing influence. However, forming a stable government under Wilders remains uncertain due to his polarising anti-Islam and anti-immigration stance, which has led other parties to hesitate to form coalitions with the PVV.

In Argentina, Javier Milei, an anarcho-capitalist economist, achieved electoral success with radical laissez-faire policies, reflecting a global trend of far-right ideologies merging into mainstream politics. Despite his refusal to align with the extreme right, Milei’s political stance, including advocating for controversial policies like organ trade and arms liberalisation, signals a worrying convergence between mainstream and far-right politics. This trend is indicative of a broader shift in liberal democracies, where once fringe right-wing extremist ideologies are increasingly becoming normalised and central to political discourse.

Hateful rhetoric also translates into abusive state actions against minorities, as growing Hindu nationalism in India shows. Incendiary claims that Muslims are “infiltrating” India have accompanied disturbing policies disenfranchising this community. True democratic discourse means marginalised groups should not face violence or oppression over practising their faith. Otherwise, India’s founding secular vision is betrayed.

Just as worrying are restrictions on speech in places like Pakistan, where oppressive blasphemy laws have fostered profound intolerance. Pakistan’s regulations expressly target the Ahmadi Muslims’ right to practice their beliefs. Quranic principles are violated when totalitarian control suppresses religious freedoms.

The issue of blasphemy in speech presents a complex dilemma. On one hand, every emerging religion has historically been “blasphemous” to dominant religious paradigms. Ahmadi Muslims, for example, challenge the divinity of Jesusas, a stance considered “blasphemous” in mainstream Christianity. However, blasphemy becomes problematic when it ceases to be a part of constructive dialogue and instead incites discord and unrest. The Holy Quran’s advice against speaking ill of others’ gods underscores this balance, highlighting the need to respect beliefs while engaging in open discourse.

Historical examples like the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, where Prophet Muhammadsa agreed to seemingly unfavourable terms for the sake of ensuring the freedom to propagate Islam, demonstrate the precedence of free expression in religious contexts. This incident, where Islam’s following grew significantly post-agreement, underscores the power of open dialogue and expression.

So, how do we balance liberties with ethics? As the examples illustrate, responsible speech considers potential consequences rather than blindly permitting inflammatory claims under the motto “free speech no matter what.” Societies must thoughtfully weigh protections for expression against usage promoting bigotry, violence or deception. If words divide communities and fuel attacks against vulnerable groups, ethical priorities like compassion and justice are undermined.

Granted, reasonable people disagree on what constitutes “going too far” and when censorship answers are needed. Holocaust denial, for instance, is restricted in Germany, given the Nazi legacy, while more protected in the US. Some support campus speech codes limiting racial insults; others argue students should confront offensive language. Despite good faith debates, however, responsible speech necessitates strongly condemning racist propaganda and confrontations threatening students’ dignity. Values matter, even amid disagreements on policy.

Advocacy of wise, ethical dialogue bringing people together, not dividing them, is vital today. Religious groups – having faced censorship historically while simultaneously promoting peace, are well-positioned to spearhead these efforts by reviving teachings on unity and justice. Constructive engagement, creating mutual understanding rather than retaliation over disagreements, represents the right path. With care and wisdom, cherished liberties like free expression can be exercised responsibly to achieve the common good. But more voices must stand up to shift social norms, promote truth and put community well-being before personal attacks.

As Ahmadi Muslims residing in pluralistic societies, we have a distinct responsibility to champion the Quranic principles of religious liberty encapsulated in the tenets of “no compulsion in religion” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch. 2: V.257) and “For you, your religion, and for me my religion.” (Surah al-Kafirun, Ch. 109: V.7) By exemplifying tolerance and understanding in our words and deeds towards people across belief systems and cultural backgrounds, we can promote the organic growth of peaceful, harmonious communities under the enlightened example set by the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa.

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