Look who’s asphyxiating free speech now

Last week saw free speech being smothered. Again. Nothing new, you might say. This blog has been tracking — and condemning — any kind of assault on an individual’s freedom of expression, particularly in the name of religion. In an April 11 post, Can religion be defamed?, I denounced the 57-state Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) for pushing Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to adopt a resolution on religious defamation. This was reported and criticised worldwide by all liberals. And rightly so.

But last week’s violation of free speech brought with it an ironical difference. In what can best be described as coming full circle, this time’s choking of free speech came from the very bastions of those who profess to protect this freedom — CNN and the government of United Kingdom (UK). Almost like the serpent eating its own tail.

On Thursday, July 8, CNN fired Octavia Nasr, its senior editor for Middle East news, after she tweeted a humane message, following the death of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah (74). Fadlallah was a Lebanese religious leader, often described as the spiritual guide of Hezbollah — described as a “terrorist organisation” by the US but that plays a part in the politics of Lebanon and operates schools and hospitals. His was one of Islam’s stronger and progressive voices, particularly on women.

Nasr’s message: “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.” It took just these 107 characters to end a career of 20 years.

“It was an error of judgement for me to write such a simplistic comment and I’m sorry because it conveyed that I supported Fadlallah’s life’s work,” she wrote subsequently on her blog on CNN. “Here’s what I should have conveyed more fully: I used the words “respect” and “sad” because to me as a Middle Eastern woman, Fadlallah took a contrarian and pioneering stand among Shia clerics on woman’s rights. He called for the abolition of the tribal system of ‘honour killing’. He called the practice primitive and non-productive. He warned Muslim men that abuse of women was against Islam.”

Surely, such a man deserved “respect”. When she further tweeted, “Regret tweet about Fadlallah death bc I didn’t explain specific respect for standing up for Muslim women”, I replied to her, tweeting: “CNN, not you, should regret.” But there is no further response, or tweets, on Nasr account.

Here’s how Nasr’s voice was stifled, according to a Guardian story: “The next day, Nasr was reportedly called in to see her bosses at CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta. The New York Times quoted an internal memo from a senior vice-president, Parisa Khosravi, which said: ‘We have decided that [Nasr] will be leaving the company.’ The memo added: ‘At this point, we believe that her credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised going forward.’ The company has not confirmed the news, saying only that the tweet ‘did not meet CNN’s editorial standards’. A spokesman added: ‘This is a serious matter and will be dealt with accordingly.’

Embers from the Nasr episode had hardly cooled, when the UK government put burning coals under the heated free speech debate, by removing a blog from the website of Frances Guy, its ambassador to Beirut, in which she praised Fadlallah. In her blog, titled ‘The passing of decent men’, Frances Guy wrote that she was saddened by Fadlallah’s death and that the world “needs more men like him willing to reach out across faiths.” Guy’s blog was removed “after mature consideration”, Reuters reported.

Guy officially regretted the statement. “The blog was my personal attempt to offer some reflections of a figure who while controversial was also highly influential in Lebanon’s history and who offered spiritual guidance to many Muslims in need,” she wrote in a subsequent post. “I am sorry that an attempt to acknowledge the spiritual significance to many of Sayid Fadlallah and the views that he held in the latter part of his life has served only to further entrench divisions in this complex part of the world. I regret any offence caused.”

Neither of the women endorsed Fadlallah’s terror activities. They expressed what one human must express at the death of anyone, even an alleged “enemy”.

Being declared a terrorist by the US is bad — but it’s not the end. Or the complete truth. “Fadlallah was a revered figure to a large chunk of the world, and was quite mainstream even in parts of the West,” Glenn Greenwald wrote passionately in Salon. “As the AP put it today, Fadlallah was ‘one of Shiite Islam’s highest and most revered religious authorities with a following that stretched beyond Lebanon’s borders to Iraq, the Gulf and as far away as central Asia.’

“As ThinkProgress’ Matt Duss put it: ‘So here’s the neocon logic: When a reporter acknowledges the passing of a revered, if controversial figure in a way that doesn’t sufficiently convey what a completely evil terrorist neocons think that figure was — that’s unacceptable. But when the United States spends nearly a trillion dollars, loses over 4,000 of its own troops and over 100,000 Iraqis to establish a new government largely dominated by that same ‘terrorist’s’ avowed acolytes — that’s victory.”

(Neocons, a shortened form of neoconservatism, “is a right-wing political philosophy that emerged in the United States of America, and which supports using American economic and military power to bring liberalism, democracy, and human rights to other countries,” according to Wikipedia. Critics say neocons are Israel’s proxy. “The closer you examine it, the clearer it is that neoconservatism, in large part, is simply about enabling the most irredentist elements in Israel and sustaining a permanent war against anyone or any country who disagrees with the Israeli right,” English author, editor and political commentator Andrew Michael Sullivan said in the Atlantic. “That’s the conclusion I’ve been forced to these last few years. And to insist that America adopt exactly the same constant-war-as-survival that Israelis have been slowly forced into… But America is not Israel. And once that distinction is made, much of the neoconservative ideology collapses.)

That’s as far as the physical analysis goes. When I look at this issue, it is one that belongs to five realms — the political and humane (discussed above), and religion, spirituality and culture — all of which intersect with one another in apparently incongruous and incompatible ways but without seeing the big picture of all five simultaneously, are prone to hurried, and sometimes incorrect, conclusions.

Is, for instance, the fact that Fadlallah was a Muslim and declared a terrorist by the US enough for journalists at CNN — the rest of the world — to forget our religions and humaneness? Is paying respects to an adversary, assuming he actually was one and not just neocon rhetoric, a sin in any religion? What Nasr and Guy did was to put an end to hatred once the source of that hatred ended. When the war of Ram with Ravan or the Pandavas with Kuravas was over, the last rites were not performed only for the winners Ram or the Pandavas; their “enemies” got that respect too.

It’s like saying goodbye to the soul of a person, once it has left the body. Spiritually, individual souls are parts of a larger spirit. When cultures pay their last rites to a body, it is really the soul they’re bidding goodbye. It is in this light that the leaders of the past, and many even today, ensure that the “enemies” were given dignity in death — finally, we are one.

Nasr and Guy were both paying their respects to the “good” in him, even if he was declared “bad” by international politics. They were behaving as humans ought to, shedding the surface skins of politics or ideologies they routinely wear — and that’s how it should be.

Is it something to do with the two young religions — Judaism and Christianity — that compels its adherents and followers to continue to disregard someone whose views might differ from theirs, given the recent history of religious wars the two have fought with Islam? I don’t know but there’s no other logic I can figure out.

I think by painting Fadlallah in dark black — with no shade of white to his personality — the West is showing its Hollywood-driven intellectual and spiritual hollowness. In the land of liberty, where individual rights have been put at the highest pedestal, the individuality of “them” is no longer being respected by “us”. In a perversion and restriction of that liberty and that freedom, it is turning state-sponsored caricatures into state policy — agree with our version or face the consequences.

Paying the price is this delicate matter of free speech. Earlier, the West has laughed off the Islamic protest against the religion in what they see as being unduly sensitive. So, drawing Prophet Mohammed, even if it hurts the sentiments of Muslims, is ok. So is setting up such a page on Facebook, following which the world condemned the actions of Pakistan and Bangladesh for banning Facebook, Youtube, Wikipedia and so on. Terming Hindu conservatives who screamed murder when M.F. Hussein drew naked sketches of goddesses as “the militant face of that religion” was alright too. All that was freedom of speech — and I agree with that.

But clearly, paying last respects of Fadlallah is not acceptable and if voices have to be stifled, so be it. The shallowness of their double-standards is appalling. Freedom, these leaders of morality and politics at CNN and in the UK government need to know, is colour- and religion-neutral. Time for the West to stop preaching Freedom of Speech.

Religion this week

World Cup, global religion: Resources on ‘football’ and faith
The 2010 World Cup is under way and will conclude on July 11, but not before fans and observers offer up numerous analogies between soccer — or what most of the world calls football — and religion. ReligionLink has a running tally of stories and resources for reporters looking for an angle on the tournament in South Africa.
Most sports these days seem to prompt comparisons to religion among both devotees and critics, but soccer seems to produce more than its share of spiritual moments. Part of the reason may be the global reach of the game. It is estimated that more than 2 billion people will have watched matches throughout the tournament, and they bring a cultural, national, ethnic and, yes, sometimes religious identity to their fandom.
But as experts say, after organized worship, athletic competition is perhaps the oldest communal impulse known to mankind. In ancient times, games were often part of religious rituals, and vice versa. While Christianity largely sundered the connection between sports and religion, many experts say that the two mirror each other today as much as they did at any time in history.
Bangladesh bans religious punishments
The Bangladesh High Court has outlawed punishments handed down by religious edict, or fatwa, after a series of cases of Muslim women being beaten and caned, a state lawyer said Friday.
The court ruling came late Thursday on public interest litigations by human rights groups who highlighted examples of women being publicly whipped for “crimes” like adultery, having a child out of wedlock or even just talking to people of other faiths.
In some cases, rape victims were flogged for being a “participant” to their assault.
Muslim Mob Kills Wife, Children of Christian in Pakistan
A Muslim mob in Jhelum, Pakistan murdered the wife and four children of a Christian last month, but local authorities are too afraid of the local Muslim leader to file charges, according to area Muslim and Christian sources.
Jamshed Masih, a police officer who was transferred 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Gujrat to Jhelum, Punjab Province, said a mob led by Muslim religious leader Maulana Mahfooz Khan killed his family on June 21 after Khan called him to the local mosque and told him to leave the predominantly Muslim colony. Jhelum is 85 kilometers (53 miles) south of Islamabad.
“You must leave with your family, no non-Muslim has ever been allowed to live in this colony – we want to keep our colony safe from scum,” Khan told Masih, the bereaved Christian told Compass.
Are Eastern Religions More Science-Friendly?
Religion comes into conflict with science when it is defined by unprovable claims that can be dismissed as superstitions, and when it treats as historical facts stories that read like legends and myths to non-believers. Other aspects of religion — what I would consider the deeper and more significant elements — are not only compatible with science but enrich its findings. The best evidence of this is science’s response to the religions of the East over the course of the last 200 years. As the French Nobel laureate Romain Rolland said early in the 20th century, “Religious faith in the case of the Hindus has never been allowed to run counter to scientific laws.” The same can be said for Buddhism, which derives from the same Vedic roots.
Most of the Hindu gurus, Yoga masters, Buddhist monks and other Asian teachers who came to the West framed their traditions in a science-friendly way. Emphasizing the experiential dimension of spirituality, with its demonstrable influence on individual lives, they presented their teachings as a science of consciousness with a theoretical component and a set of practical applications for applying and testing those theories. Most of the teachers were educated in both their own traditions and the Western canon; they respected science, had actively studied it, and dialogued with Western scientists, many of whom were inspired to study Eastern concepts for both personal and professional reasons.
Is The Bible More Violent Than The Quran?
As the hijackers boarded the airplanes on Sept. 11, 2001, they had a lot on their minds. And if they were following instructions, one of those things was the Quran.
In preparation for the suicide attack, their handlers had told them to meditate on two chapters of the Quran in which God tells Muslims to “cast terror into the hearts of unbelievers.”
“Slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them,” Allah instructs the Prophet Muhammad (Quran, 9:5). He continues: “Prophet! Make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites! … Hell shall be their home, an evil fate.”
When Osama bin Laden declared war on the West in 1996, he cited the Quran’s command to “strike off” the heads of unbelievers. More recently, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan lectured his colleagues about jihad, or “holy war,” and the Quran’s exhortation to fight unbelievers and bring them low. Hasan is accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, last year.
Given this violent legacy, religion historian Philip Jenkins decided to compare the brutality quotient of the Quran and the Bible.
Spiritual malaria?
A recent fatwa from a ‘Saudi Council of Muftis’ has this advice for fellow Muslims: Do not say [or write] ‘mosque.’ Always say ‘masjid’ because mosque may mean mosquito. Another myopic case of Saudi malaria perhaps?
Certainly. But that’s not all. The grand fatwa goes on to suggest that Muslims should not write ‘Mecca’ but Makkah, because Mecca may mean ‘house of wines.’ I am serious. But then so are the Muftis. They certainly need to get a life.

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