Free Speech and Muslim Unrest

The debate over freedom of expression in new Arab and Muslim democracies should be seen as part of a larger historical transition, says Duke University’s Timur Kuran.

October 2, 2012 11:00 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Arab unrest over a U.S.-made anti-Islam film has spurred renewed debate over the role of freedom of expression in nascent democracies in the Middle East and North Africa. Timur Kuran, an expert on politics in the Islamic world, hopes that recent events inspire a global dialogue about free speech and its limitations. However, Kuran cautions that when the line is drawn, "we make sure that we do whatever is necessary not to intimidate people who have legitimate ideas about the social order, and that we also do not give people a right not to be insulted ever, because that is not possible in today’s world." Rather than conclude that Islam is incompatible with democracy, he says this episode should be seen as part of a historical transition toward liberalization. He underscores that the Arab World in particular needs more free speech--not less--since "it is the last place in the world where you want to risk further impoverishing public discourse."

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Much has been made of the unrest over the anti-Islam video, especially in Arab countries that just went through tremendous upheaval. President Obama defended free speech in his address to the UNGA last week. What do you make of all of this?

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Censorship and Freedom of Expression

The video raised the general issue [of free speech] in the Arab world and whether there’s an absolute freedom of speech when it comes to matters that some people find sensitive on religious grounds. Some leaders in the Arab and in the wider Muslim world found this movie insulting to Muslims, wanted it banned for that reason, and felt that the United States needed to be punished as the country where this movie originated. Many people around the world have been horrified to see the death and destruction that has ensued because of what is an idiotic film that probably nobody would have taken seriously had these events not broken out.

Some people have said that the situation’s been exacerbated by opportunistic Islamic extremists, including Salafists and offshoots of al-Qaeda. What are your thoughts?

There are people in the wider Islamic world, Pakistan for example, who saw this as a golden opportunity to score points with voters. It’s not just the Salafists who have favored banning the video, and who have been supporting blasphemy laws and the enforcement of blasphemy that already exist, or the tightening of blasphemy laws that already exist. It’s also the so-called "moderate" Islamist leaders who seized this as an opportunity to prove that they are as determined as Salafists to promote Muslim interest. And it includes conservative and middle-of-the-road politicians who are not part of the Islamist camp, who have publicly come out and thrown their weight behind blasphemy laws just to win points in the competition for the hearts and minds of voters and citizens.

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The Organization of the Islamic Cooperation and Pakistan have gone to the UN Human Rights Council and petitioned for an international blasphemy law in the past, but that effort was abandoned in late 2010. Now it’s come up again. What’s the role of blasphemy in the international community?

I think people all across the spectrum can agree that things are said in the world every day that many people find distasteful, insulting, or just plain wrong. The key issue is who is going to define which groups are protected, what kind of speech is going to be treated as illegitimate, what kind of speech is punishable. What the Arab countries and the Arab League effectively have been asking is that this decision, at least in cases involving Islam, be turned over to Muslim leaders who would have a right, effectively, to censor speech around the world on matters they consider pertinent to Islam. It’s not clear where they would draw the line, or what is considered blasphemy, what falls under the category of blasphemy. So accepting their demands would be to put us on a slippery slope toward an enlarging sphere that is controlled by Muslim clerics.

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Another problem with the Arab League and Arab leaders demands is that it’s not clear that they enjoy the support of the Arab people. There are internal matters that are not properly discussed because religious leaders in parts of the Muslim world declare certain ideas, certain opinions, certain positions blasphemous. The Shias in Saudi Arabia don’t have the freedom to make their case on certain issues because Sunni clerics have decided what is properly Islamic and what is not. In Pakistan, the Ahmadis don’t have the freedom to object to certain policies because they’re considered a heretical sect and their speech is, by definition, blasphemous.

So I don’t think that this is feasible, even though in certain instances, there would be narrowly defined benefits. If we had such a law, perhaps this fellow in California wouldn’t have made that idiotic film, and we wouldn’t have had these riots and the deaths. But the cost in terms of squashed discourse, in terms of intimidation of what should be legitimate speech would be enormous, and the chilling effect on discourse within the Muslim world itself, putting aside the rest of the world, would be quite substantial.

We’ve seen this type of unrest before in 2006, there was a furor over the Danish Mohammed cartoons. What kinds of things need to happen to spur a global dialogue about freech speech in a globalized world?

If these riots lead us to have a genuine discussion, involving not just leaders of the United States and leaders of the Arab world, but others, like the Chinese, who are themselves trying to decide what the limits of speech are and whether Western standards are appropriate to Chinese society, I think it will be a very good development. Sooner or later we have to decide as a global community whether there are going to be certain limits. Even within the United States, we have certain limits on free speech.

I think that certain limits will eventually emerge, and the sooner we start the dialogue the better. I would hope that when we end up drawing the line, we make sure that we do whatever is necessary not to intimidate people who have legitimate ideas about the social order and that we also do not give people a right not to be insulted ever, because it is not possible in today’s world to prevent that. To pick up a newspaper today or to go on the Internet is to encounter lots of things that are potentially insulting. I don’t think we should be singling out one group for special treatment. The very fact that they have signaled that they are very sensitive to certain speech will encourage lots of people all over the world, not only in the United States, to provoke via various media.

One of the things that’s been debated for sometime is whether Islam is incompatible with democratic ideas. In looking at the countries involved in the unrest, how fair an assessment is that?

There are plenty of examples from European history [up until] even the early modern era of people who were punished severely for saying things that the church found distasteful or otherwise objectionable, but the West went through long struggles lasting many generations, and that ended, or that led to various checks and balances and a general understanding that living together in a heterogeneous society requires allowing people to say what’s on their mind, and that living in a democratic society requires accepting or learning to live with some distasteful speech.

This whole process has started relatively recently in the Islamic world. Some countries are farther along in this process; Turkey is a good example, compared to most of the Arab world, but these countries still have a long way to go. There are going to be many ups and downs while democratic institutions are being established, while political checks and balances fall into place, while discussions over the limits of free speech and the costs and benefits from controlling free speech are discussed. I think what we’re seeing is just one chapter in this long struggle. I don’t think that the Middle East or the wider Islamic world is going to resolve this any time soon.

Sooner or later, though, I think the principles that have served the United States and Western Europe quite well will take hold in the Middle East as well. We should keep in mind that the Middle East and the Islamic world in general have undergone a massive transformation since the nineteenth century. If we look at the economic institutions of the Middle East today, they are fundamentally different from those that prevailed in the nineteenth century. Many institutions that identified with Islam were part of Islamic law have been discarded all across the Islamic world, and relatively quickly. So I think there is reason to believe that changes can take place, fundamental changes can take place in a predominantly Muslim society. We’re just going to have to be patient and wait for this democratization process to work itself out.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The Arab world in particular, more so than the rest of the Islamic world, is a place where intellectual life is extremely impoverished. I’ll just give you one statistic that is I think quite revealing: The Arab development report of ten years ago indicated that the number of books translated from a foreign language into Arabic per year is about 330. This number is one-fifth the number of books translated each year into Greek. So what we see is that the number of books translated into Greek is 150 times higher [per capita] than those translated into Arabic. One other similar statistic that sticks in my mind is that the number of books translated into Arabic since the year 1000 is less than the number of books translated in Spain each year.

When we talk about the Arab world, we’re talking about a region that is in desperate need of new ideas, new ways of looking at things, [so] it is the last place in the world where you want to risk further impoverishing public discourse. It’s a place where if anything, you want to err on the side of freedom. And, as some very courageous Arab intellectuals and other Arab public figures have said, it’s time to promote an intellectual revitalization in this part of the world.


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