Governments must draw a clear line between protected speech and its abuses

Kamel Ghozzi


Kamel Ghozzi

As an Arab American sociologist born and raised in the country of Tunisia, every time my American friends ask for my opinion on the high level of violence that accompanied the “Arab Spring,” I always respond that revolutions are by definition violent events. For they violently interrupt the course of history and violently unfold into new stages of its cycle. But I also always add that the history of revolutions teaches us that a revolution is prone to fail if it remains stuck in its insurrectional violent stage. To succeed, revolutions must proceed to new stages in which their elites are given all needed authority to channel revolutionary energy into constructive processes that turn their dreams into living realities.

The “Arab Spring” revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen started with the hope of a democratic ideal that would end decades of political despotism and set the ground for a new “Arab awakening” in the Middle East and North Africa. For a while, the process seemed to be working, but the unfortunate events of the last few weeks were a blow to so many hopes and disappointed so many proponents of democracy in the Arab world and elsewhere.

Now the “Arab Spring” is passing through troubling times. The provocative Internet posting of a low-quality film blaspheming prophet Mohammed has sparked outrage in the Middle East these past few weeks. The film, crudely produced by a group of fanatics residing in the United States, has awakened deep seated resentments in the Muslim world and has given Salafist groups (ultra conservative, literalist Islamists) a golden opportunity to defy democratically elected governments and mobilize angry youth in a dangerous cycle of mob violence. In Libya, in outright opposition to the spirit and principles of Islam, which specifically prohibit all forms of aggression against emissaries (diplomats), a furious mob stormed the American consulate in Benghazi and burned it. In the violence, the American ambassador Christopher Stevens, — a man fond of everything Arab and known since his “Peace Corps” years in Morocco to be a “friend of the Arabs”— was killed along with two other American diplomats. In Tunisia, Salafists led angry rioters in similar attacks where hundreds of youth — some are well-known thugs with heavy criminal records — outnumbered security forces and broke into the parking lot of the American embassy in Tunis and trashed it, then looted the nearby American school and burned several of its buildings. All these last events, and others of the same kind, made so many people question the ability of local governments to control pariah groups in their societies or to direct events in their areas in ways that serve transitions to democracy or the conditions of peace and stability.

To me, this cycle of blind violence and its horrible results appear to be disproportional to this Islamophobic provocation. We all know that in today’s globalized world of cell phones, email, video-internet communication, satellite channels and Twitter and Facebook, Islamophobia has become a daily practice. YouTube by itself displays millions of Islamophobic pictures daily. So why don’t we see daily violent reactions in the Islamic world? I am more inclined to believe in a political “instrumentalization” of this Islamophobic film. Both, the extremists of the Western world who produced this provocative film and the extremists of the Islamic world who so violently reacted to it represent the two poles of this “dirty” game. The first group intended to set off an angry reaction in the Muslim world by ridiculing the prophet of Islam under the banner of freedom of speech. The second group reacted to what it perceived as a humiliation to its religion, in violent ways that betray the very spirit of that religion. Neither the American people nor the American government had anything to do with the production of this film or with its distribution. So, why do American diplomats die for it?

It is true that the democratic wind blowing over parts of the Arab world has created more opportunities for extremist groups of all colors to recruit, organize and destabilize the democratic transition in the area. Yet, the world must know that the Arab societies are not turning into societies breeding extremism. Extremists in the Arab world remain tiny minorities but unfortunately amplified and given international visibility by a Western media eager to portray the Arab world as a scene of instability, extremism and violence.

In fact, as they deal with their extremist pariah groups, governments of the “Arab Spring” as well as Western governments find themselves constrained by the same limitation of democracy. In the “Arab Spring” countries, power elites appear hesitant to crack down on extremist groups out of fear for the life of their newly born and still fragile democratic processes and because they are themselves still suffering from the “traumatism of repression” they endured for decades under the “old regime.” Similarly, Western governments appear hesitant to curtail the power of their hate groups because these groups claim to operate under the constitutionally protected right of freedom of speech.

“Arab Spring” governments should put an end to their ambivalence in dealing with pariah groups who endanger their newly born democracies. They must know that since they are now democratically elected, they are justified to use legitimate force within the limits set by the law and without abuse to the constitutional rights of their citizenry. Western governments on their part should draw a clear line between the uses of freedom of speech and its abuses. In our globalized world in which geography has lost much of its old importance and where identities are becoming multi-spatial, freedom of speech would turn into a vector of destabilization if used as a pretext to protect those who insult peoples’ sacred symbols or their faiths. In this respect, why can’t we think of an international law that criminalizes hate speech? Or why shouldn’t we generalize already existing legislation prohibiting anti-Semitism to all faiths?

Kamel Ghozzi is associate professor of sociology at UCM and founding member of Tunisia “Islamic Tendency Movement” in 1981 (Now “Ennahda” ruling party in Tunisia).




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