Something To Declare

Posted: September 30, 2012 in Uncategorized

There’s a story doing the rounds this week about President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt standing before the UN and calling for ‘cultural limits’ on freedom of speech.

Reportedly answering Obama’s earlier spiel in defence of the first amendment, Morsi said: “We expect from others, as they expect from us, that they respect our cultural specifics and religious references, and not to seek to impose concepts or cultures that are unacceptable to us.”

The Egyptian premier is of course not the first person to endorse, for cultural reasons, a nuanced approach to basic human rights. Many educated people opposed toppling Saddam’s atrocious regime because (as they would sagely argue) it’s not for us to impose our culture on them.

Yet isn’t it rather presumptuous to declare a culture incompatible with freedom of speech? Doesn’t it sound a tinge bigoted to say that a nation’s culture is innately one of repression? In truth, the absence of free expression is the absence of culture. What are the artistic fruits of authoritarian government? The Zhdanov Doctrine, Mein Kampf and the stern, moustachioed posters of Ba’athism?

But still, this chauvinistic assumption that freedom is culturally western lingers. Freedom is considered an import and, like any mass-produced import, is found to be toxic to its quaint, domestic counterparts: demagoguery and tribalism. The assertion that feudal culture is natural to a group, and that it should therefore be preserved, is inherently racist.

So, when arguing against intervention, it’s tenuous at best to accuse those asserting basic human rights of cultural crusading. The logic is tantamount to watching someone getting roughed up in the street and refusing to interpose because ‘that’s their lifestyle choice.’

However, in Mr Morsi’s case, there is no intervention to even speak of. In Egypt, the demand for freedom is home-grown and was at the centre of the revolution that swept him to power; the ‘culture’ of silence he claims for Egypt is self-discrediting. Nor are his claims legitimised by his election victory, given that the choice for Egyptians was between an Islamist promising moderation and the security state that had just been deposed.

This isn’t, though, just a matter of free speech in Egypt. The reason for this debate is the trailer for the movie, Innocence Of Muslims; a 14 minute clip so appallingly crap that even if it wasn’t offensive to Muslims, it would still be offensive to cinematography.  The United States has been asked, in clear violation of the first amendment, to ban it.

Thus what we have is an Egyptian president declaring uninhibited free speech to be culturally western. Then, having argued that other cultures should be respected, asking western culture to self-abnegate.

President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan – appealing to the most reactionary members of his populace – has made similar demands, calling for a worldwide blasphemy law. In effect, he is demanding the right for the religious to be protected from offence. So, if an author publishes a sacrilegious book, there would be legal recourse, but if I get offended by, for example, female circumcision, then it’s a matter of respecting cultural institutions. What happened to legal equality?

In the meantime, the long walk to representation continues for Egypt’s secular community. It’s sad that sometimes those who shout loudest, shout longest.

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