Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Importance of Free Expression

Harry's Place links to an interesting interview with Canadian-Pakistani novelist Tahir Aslam Gora. According to the interview, Gora translated Irshad Manji's The Trouble with Islam Today into Urdu, and "is currently translating Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel." Gora is a strong advocate of an Islam built on freedom and tolerance, a stance which resulted in his having to flee Pakistan in the face of death threats.

Having himself been subjected to Islamist threats and intimidation, Mr. Gora has consistently stressed the importance of free expression to the process of reforming Islam. He expands on this point in the interview:

There are many challenges on the path of reforming Islam. Liberal, reformist Muslims have to deal with those challenges at each and every step. Liberal Muslims are not only silenced by literalist Muslims, but also by those non-Muslims who have developed the hollow pattern of being ‘fair’ and ‘tolerant’ to every religion. The existence of ‘political fairness’ among large circles of non-Muslim activists is actually a much bigger obstacle than extremist Muslims because those non-Muslim activists dominate the media outlets across the world and often ignore genuinely liberal Muslim voices. Here I would like to include an extract from my column from the Hamilton Spectator, which addresses the issue:

Even some Westerners suggest that the stance of the West regarding Salman Rushdie is a defining line between Islam and the West. But they don’t advise what the West was supposed to do in response to a death fatwa by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Would they hand Rushdie over to Iran for the sake of harmony with Islam? More to the point, was there any such harmony before the Rushdie issue? From my perspective, the answer is no. The West was viewed as an infidel and sinful world long before this controversy. Muslims may argue it was because of the West’s support for Israel. But, looking further back, they may also cite colonialism as a cause of bad relations. They contend that much of today’s tension could be avoided if the West condemned acts such as caricaturing the Prophet of Islam, or if Rushdie were not awarded a knighthood. In arguing such delicate issues, though, we take in the whole course of history, but ignore its evolutionary aspect, which comprises a few fundamental human values. Freedom of expression is, perhaps, the most basic one.

Again, the same people claim there must be limits to free expression. And they don’t mind redefining those limits, especially in the context of increasingly multicultural societies in their own homelands. The emerging multiculturalism is threatening to give rise to even more conflicts between West and Islam. Such conflict has already been predicted by Samuel Huntington in his book, The Clash of Civilizations. Another famous intellectual, Noam Chomsky, doesn’t agree with Huntington’s formulation. Rather, he blames the United States and Britain’s political hegemony for all the miseries of today’s relationship. But neither Chomsky nor Huntington suggests how to retain such values as freedom of expression - values which are the pillars of liberal democracies and open societies. Snubbing Rushdie or condemning any caricaturist is not the remedy for this conflict. These intellectuals are forgetting the fact that supporting free expression was as difficult in the West about a century ago as it seems in the Muslim world today.

(Emphasis added-DD; both Gora links via the interview)

As Mr. Gora notes, defending and fostering free expression in both the Islamic world and the West is essential to defeating radical Islamism over the long-term.


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