Monday, January 26, 2015

What is freedom of speech? Opinion or bullying and mocking?

Guest post by award-winning, bestselling author Samreen Ahsan 

Our world is trending on controversial hashtags these days: be it #JeSuisCharlie, #PeshawarAttack or #IWillRideWithYou. We all have our own opinions and thoughts—but what exactly does “freedom of speech” mean?

Is it having the right to express an opinion on something that you observe or read, or is it the power to criticize someone on the basis of their religion, nationality or colour?
To me, it is simply the power to generate your idea and raise your voice for justice.
I’d like to emphasize that I’m not here to criticize any theory or ideology. Everyone in this world has the right to believe in their own ways and no one has the right to mock them. God gave us the freedom of making our own decisions and taking charge of situations. He never asked us to rely on Him for every act. True, there are certain things that are in His hands (like our life and death) but on the journey from life to death, He has given us the power.
And what are all we doing here with that power? Just passing discriminatory remarks about each other and bullying in an immature way. Sure, it boils your blood if someone bullies your faith or ridicules your religion, but does that mean you should take out the sword and cut his throat?
I believe that everyone has the right to form his expression, yet I also believe that if you know something will offend a certain group, why take that path? There are other ways to make your magazine it necessary to choose the sensitive path? Make it more controversial just to get fame or some buzz?
Religion has always been a sensitive topic. Be it Jesus, Moses or Muhammad, I don’t think anyone should criticize someone’s belief system or the way they respect someone. Freedom of speech does NOT mean criticizing and mocking! It means you have the right to give your opinion on any matter without ridiculing someone’s ideology. And how do you do that? Work on the idea of think-before-you-speak.

On the other hand, I also believe that one should not react to someone’s criticism. I’m a practicing Muslim—why didn’t I react to Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons? Does that mean I don’t love my Prophet or I’m not sincere about Islam? NO! I believe no matter how much any other person criticize or mock, they cannot ruin Muhammad’s honor and dignity. He was chosen to be the last prophet and the religion and revelation of God is completed in him. So if someone picks Muhammad as a topic of criticism, it’s his mindset and his mindset own problem.
If I respect Jesus and follow Muhammad, I don’t expect the entire world to think the way I think and respect the way I respect. God is the one who gave us free will, so He is the one to give us freedom of expression. Everyone has the right to make an opinion. And this mocking won’t harm my faith and my honor toward Muhammad. It’s how God picked him. No one can cause dishonor because God honored him. We are not the ones to avenge Muhammad because his dignity is NOT going anywhere. He was and is a most noble man ever created.
The Quran says:
“We prescribed for them a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, an equal wound for a wound”

but it also says:
“if anyone forgoes this out of charity, it will serve as atonement for his bad deeds. Those who do not judge according to what God has revealed are doing grave wrong.”

When we are taking revenge—are we sure if it is eye-for-an-eye, or are we taking the entire head with it? When you try to form an opinion about Islam or Muslim practices, do you have an idea that incidents can occur as a backlash? Mocking Muhammad, hurting people’s belief for NO reason, in the name of “freedom of speech” or for the sake of fun, is not a mature act.

I’m a proud Muslim, I’m NOT oppressed. My religion gives me the right to practise how I want and how much I want because it has taught me that I will be going in my own grave and will be responsible for my own deeds. No one has the right to drag me to the mosque and pray five times. I’m responsible for myself.

Anyone can stand up and take out a sword; anyone can raise the voice and bully the other. We are not thinking about the collateral damage resulting from these revenges. Our governments are spending millions of dollars on nuclear weapons, ready to kill each other, while people around the globe are dying of exposure or the lack of food and clean water. It’s a shame to all of us!
We all have to live in this world till the Day of Judgement so why not make it a more tolerable and peaceful place to live in? When our house is burned, we don’t curse the fire or reason behind it. We try to either extinguish the fire or save what we can.

Being a Muslim, I condemn all these acts these Jihadists or unknown people are doing in the name of Islam. This is NOT Islam. Islam means peace and Jihad means fighting the demon in you first. Muhammad was dishonored during his time in Mecca and Medina, but he never raised his voice to kill anyone who disgraced him. There was NO blasphemy at that time.

Muhammad always stayed on this Quranic verse: “To you be your religion, and to me my religion”. And I think we should all follow this verse, whether Muslim, Christian, Jew or any other faith.

Remember, there’s a very fine line between an opinion and bullying. What is your freedom of speech?
Samreen Ahsan is the award-winning author of the "Silent Prayer" series, A Silent Prayer and A Prayer Answered, paranormal stories based on Islamic concepts.


History, art and literature are her passions. "I love digging out information about prophecies, divine miracles and paranormal events that are mentioned in history and holy books, that don’t sound possible in today’s modern world.

"Since childhood, I have been into reading and writing–and yes, it can’t happen without imagination, which luckily has no boundaries. Dance and music are also pastimes I enjoy, as well as reading romance fiction. I love to travel and explore historical cities."

Samreen Ahsan lives in Toronto, Canada.

Monday, January 19, 2015

It’s prognostication season

Creative Commons
Every January, pundits put on their Janus masks to look back and forward at the same time and make predictions about the year to come. They try to give their words as much gravity as they can, but if we look at history, we see they’re somewhat less reliable than the weather.
Some of the most prominent, and repeated predictions I have read for this year:
  • Interest rates will finally go up after a decade at near zero. The prevailing prediction is that the Federal Reserve, the central bank of the US, will raise its rates in the second quarter—but maybe sooner, depending on the performance of the US economy—which will prompt the Bank of Canada to move its rate up at its regular rate-setting, which it hasn’t done for the past 34 rate-setting meetings, or seven years. I have lost count of the number of times some economist or pundit has predicted that “interest rates have to go up sooner or later.”

  • On the other hand, big, bad investment bank Morgan Stanley has just announced there’s a “subjective probability of one in three that the Bank of Canada cuts interest rates in 2015. That terminology is interesting: a “subjective probability.” The closest translation to clear language I can come up with is it’s the writer’s personal feeling.

  • Oil prices may keep falling and there’s no telling when they’ll stop. Over the past couple of months, we’ve been treated to successive economists in expensive suits saying “if the price of a barrel of crude goes below $80—$70—$60…” It’s now under $50, and the latest prediction is that the floor will be $43 before prices start to go up again. Of course, this comes from the same expensive suits, Morgan Stanley, who put forth their “subjective probability” about Canadian interest rates.

The falling price of oil will have far-reaching effects on economies around the world. In Canada, the conservative government has delayed its budget for at least a month to give it more time to “gather data.” This after eight years of betting the economy on oil and other raw resource extraction industries, at the expense of manufacturing industries. Talk about all your eggs in one basket. 

How is it they didn’t see this coming?

Economists have poor track record when it comes to short-range predictions, especially for the coming year. The price of oil is the best example. It has followed a classic bubble pattern: a steep rise followed by steeper decline. It’s happened so many times in the past, in so many other sectors, that it astounds me that no one saw this coming.

Predictions? Maybe they’re useless, when it comes to the economy. From now on, when I read another prediction about the economy, I’m just going to laugh.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Word of the week: offend

Photo Credit: CanStockPhoto under creative commons licence
Where is the line between the right to free expression and the responsibility to respect others?

There’s a debate going on now about whether media outlets should republish the cartoons from Charlie Hebdo that enraged three men in France enough to kill 25 people at the magazine and at a kosher grocery store, and wound another 20.

In Canada, several newspapers, most of them French-language, republished the cartoons. Most English-language newspapers, however, did not. The New York Times’ editor changed his mind twice about the issue, ultimately deciding not to publish them.

The French language side of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Radio-Canada, published them on its website. The English-language service made a point of not doing so. David Studer, CBC's director of journalistic standards and practices, said that there was no need to publish the cartoons to understand the story, and that since CBC would not have published them before the shootings, there was no reason to publish them after.

Last Friday, the lunchtime radio call-in program in my home town debated the issue. Most of the callers, Muslim or not, agreed with the sentiment that the cartoons should not be published because they are offensive, particularly those that depict the prophet Muhammed in sexual situations.

Think of the children!

One caller who identified herself as a Muslim said that “I am trying to raise my children to respect Muhammed, and how can they when they see images like that?”

Protecting children is important. In Canada, 344 people drowned in 2012. Open water can be dangerous for anyone.

How do we protect children against drowning? We teach them swimming and water safety. As a result of increased numbers of children enrolled in swimming lessons, the drowning statistics for children under age 18 has been declining steadily.

Automobile accidents claim thousands of lives every year. Yet we teach children to drive cars. We acknowledge that the danger is best met and mitigated by teaching people how to deal with real danger.

But we have such a different attitude when it comes to offence, insult or criticism of figures that some people revere.

Why? What could happen to the Prophet were someone to criticize him? I haven’t seen any harm come to Islam itself as a result of cartoons. And don’t imagine that the murders were somehow divine retribution. That was the action of three angry, petulant and ultimately immature young men who decided on their own to react to an insult with deadly force. The same way a playground bully will use force to react to an insult.

I understand that people do not like to be offended. But we all have a choice when it comes to offensive material: we don’t have to look. No one has to look at pornography. No one has to read satire. You don’t have to read or watch The Last Temptation of Christ.

In a pluralistic, egalitarian society, which is what we are trying to build in the West, we respect each other’s right to practise any religion we choose, as long as we’re not harming anyone else. But your right to respect your religion does not trump my right to express my ideas. And if I feel the need to criticize a religious leader, that’s my right.

To my Muslim friends: if you are afraid of being offended, do not scroll any lower. I am going to republish some of the offensive cartoons from Charlie Hebdo. Not gratuitously, not just to make fun of a revered man, but as part of a question I want candid answers to.

Are you offended by this?

Personally, I think this is funny, riffing on a scene from a Brigitte Bardot film. I think it’s important to poke fun at revered figures, because it allows us to question our leaders, to hold them to account, and to question our own assumptions. We need to do this every so often, so we can make certain we are not being hypocrites.

And really, we are seeing a man’s bare ass. How does that hurt anyone? Even if it’s not beautiful, it’s not harmful. We’ve all seen someone’s bare ass at some point in our lives, and we’re none the worse for it.

How about this one?
It’s a reference to the film “Intouchables,” about a disabled, rich white man who hires a poor black man to care for him. The dialog bubble means “We must not be mocked.” Is it funny? Does it offend you? Tell me in the Comments section.

And what about this one? 
What do you think?

Even if it is disrespectful, Charlie Hebdo did not harm anyone or anything. And here’s a suggestion to those who did feel offended and disrespected: consisder satire like Charlie Hebdo’s like a vaccination. If you can deal with the disrespect and come up with a response—one that does not involve violence or repression—maybe your faith will be stronger for it.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Charlie Hebdo: On the front lines in the war on freedom of expression

There is a world-wide, religious war going on right now, even though Western, democratic and governmental leaders don’t want to admit it.

It’s not a war prosecuted by all Muslims, not by any stretch. But it is a war, a campaign against freedoms the West purports to stand for: freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom from arbitrary exercises of force and authority.
According to news
sources, after three men with assault rifles murdered 12 people and wounded another 20 at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris today, one yelled “Allahu akbar!” and one yelled “Hey! We avenged the prophet Muhammad! We killed Charlie Hebdo.”

Apparently, these murderers were offended by the satirical magazine’s cartoons depicting, and making fun of Muhammad.

This isn’t the first instance of this kind of thing.  Charlie Hebdo’s offices were firebombed in 2011 following the magazine’s cover with a cartoon of Muhammad on the cover. In Islam, any depiction of Muhammad is forbidden.

Thing is, France is not governed by Islamic law. The magazine’s editor, St├ęphane Charbonnier, who was killed in the attack, once said he did not live under Sharia law.

And neither, thankfully, do I. I am happy to live in a secular, pluralistic society, one which allows each person to follow whatever religion or philosophy they wish, and which allows me to express myself as I wish.

But back to the war on expression and on democracy, freedom of expression and secular humanism.

In 2005, the Danish newspaper Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten, or Morning Jutland Post, published cartoons of Muhammad, setting off a storm of protest that escalated into violence, attacks on churches and nuns and more than 200 deaths.

Boko Haram continues to kidnap children in Nigeria in the name of its perverted conception of Islam. The name of the group apparently translates to “western education is forbidden.”

The Islamic State organization, also known as ISIS and ISIL, continues its war in Syria, Iraq and the Levant with the goal of establishing a caliphate, a religious state ruled by strict, fundamentalist Islamic law—which includes rejection of secular law, the embrace of violence to achieve religious goals and death for anyone who leaves Islam. It’s also known for beheading aid workers and journalists.

Those are just a few examples. And the threat against freedom of expression isn’t carried out only by people who think they’re Muslim. Christians in the US and Canada have been known to ban Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and various school boards have from time to time banned books that represent same-sex couples or homosexual relationships. China jails  members of Falun Gong; Cuba jails dissidents who dare criticize the government.

Granted, banning books is not as extreme as the murders of journalists, writers and other artists. But they are indicative of the threat against a freedom and a right that I, and many others, believe is fundamental to the society I live in and wish to live in.

The logical clash

I believe that the overwhelming majority of Muslims and all people in the world do not wish to impose their beliefs on other people, but are just trying to live their lives. Unfortunately, there are always obnoxious assholes in every society who believe they can tell other people what to do and think.

To me, and I hope to others, the right to think freely and to express my thoughts freely is fundamental, sacred and not to be infringed.

However, to the murderers of St├ęphane Charbonnier and the others at Charlie Hebdo, their religious sensitivities trump freedom of speech and the right to life.

The necessity of freedom

Freedom of expression is essential in a democracy, because history is replete with tyrants, religious and otherwise, who repress expression to hide their misdeeds and shortcomings.

But we can take a narrower perspective. As a child, I learned how important it was to tolerate teasing and insults. Reacting to an insult with anger only leads to a worse opinion of the target of the insult in the eyes of others. The far better reaction, the one that will be best for the original target of the insult, is humour and to tease or insult right back. If you can be funny while doing so, even better.

That’s a lesson that those who get offended by criticism of their beliefs need to learn.

Where do you stand?

This is a war, a war between hard-won freedom and the protection of elites—because what ideas will be repressed, other than those that oppose the powerful?

We who live in open, democratic and (mostly) free societies, like France, Canada, the US and other countries, and those who want to live in a free, open society, have to make a decision: do we support free expression of ideas that we might find personally offensive? Or do we think that some principles are so delicate that they must be protected against insult?

In short, do you agree with Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”?