(The statement below was prepared by a group of intellectuals, academics, and scholars -including yours truly- in response to the protests over the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. If in agreement, you may have your name added to the list of the undersigned by leaving a comment.)
A Call to Avert a Clash of Civilizations around Freedom of Expression
(Statement by a group of Muslim scholars, academics, and journalists)
February 8, 2006
As a group of scholars and intellectuals from various Muslim societies, we the undersigned express our deep concern over the latest wave of attacks on freedom of belief and expression that we have been witnessing in response to the publication of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper and elsewhere in the European press. We affirm the inviolability and universality of the basic human rights to exercise and defend freedom of expression and to organize and engage in peaceful protest. On the other hand, we regard violence, threat, and intimidation as methods that suppress open discourse, promote self-censorship, and eventually put an end to the process of dialogue between civilizations.
Inasmuch as reasoning is part of the human nature, the realm of religious belief is not immune to critical analysis. This is particularly true of Islam in view of its profound impact on the political, social, and cultural landscape of Muslim societies and its centrality to world politics today. Especially in parts of the world where the concept of red-tape and censorship is an anachronism, it is unreasonable to expect that open discussion of Islam’s political role remain a taboo, or the use of some of its directives by opportunistic and radical elements enjoy invulnerability to criticism. Further, it is our belief that criticism seeks multifarious channels for its expression and is not limited to satire and caricature, and to the extent that the recent caricatures of Prophet Muhammad have been singularly the target of protest and anger, we conclude that there are other elements at work that give shape to these protests.
Insofar as there has been no dearth of dissenting voices within the Muslim world that have faced similar reprisals under the pretexts of blasphemy, we are led to believe that the latest episode is not a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. Rather, the stark absence of open discourse and dialogue within Muslim societies is an aftereffect of the totalistic control of various aspects of life throughout the histories of many of these societies. One cannot explain the violent backlash to the publication of the caricatures except by resorting to this history of control and conformism.
We further express our deep concern at the political opportunism that has led to the hijack of freedom of expression as a potent political tool in the turmoil that currently engulfs the Middle East, especially in the aftermath of the victory of Hamas in Palestine, the Iranian nuclear crisis, and the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. There is no doubt that the ongoing discussion over the limits and bounds of freedom of expression is highly politicized. Therefore, it is high time that intellectuals and academics everywhere rise to the occasion and prevent the further politicization and exploitation of the current situation by extremists on all sides. We believe that it is uniquely important that intellectuals and academics within the Muslim societies take a stance on this issue.
In the end, reaffirming our belief in the inviolability and universality of the right to freedom of belief and expression, we condemn all resort to violent, illegal, and undemocratic means of confronting international issues. We call upon all the leaders of Muslim societies to work towards creating more open political spaces and building the foundations of civil society within their countries, and to protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities therein. Now more than ever there is a need to demonstrate in action that a culture of dialogue is the most rational, effective, and peaceful method to deal with issues of national and international gravity.