PHILADELPHIA -- It has been fascinating and instructive for me during a few lectures and university classes in the past 10 days in Missouri, Boston and Philadelphia to exchange views with scholars, journalists and the general public on an issue that has dominated many discussions here recently: freedom of expression and the American Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of the press and of expression. Leading columnists, scholars, politicians and ordinary Americans alike -- following the lead of their President Barack Obama who spoke on this issue at the United Nations Tuesday -- are in overdrive emphasizing two related issues: the centrality of free speech to American values, and the need for Muslims around the world, especially those who demonstrated against the insulting and deliberately provocative video that was released in the United States recently, to adapt to the virtues of free speech.
The freedom of expression debate is fascinating and important on its own, but in this case I fear it is the wrong issue to be debating, because everyone I know around the world basically agrees that people should be free to speak out and give their opinions on a range of issues. Hearing the tone of what most Americans are saying, it seems to me that the real debate we should be having is not about whether freedom of speech is a good thing. It is rather about who sets the rules for global conduct, because both the commitment to freedom of speech and the desire to not have your sacred prophet insulted are both reasonable positions.
The unspoken assumption that emanates from the discussion in the United States is that Muslims who are angered by the insult to their prophet should grow up, get modern, and learn to live with the often irritating down side of absolute freedom of expression that allows anyone to say anything against any other person, group or organization. This legacy has served Americans and other Western democracies well. The freedom of the individual is the highest value in these countries, and must be safeguarded at all costs.
But what should we do when billions of people around the world may not adhere to these same standards? Billions of people around the world in fact do not see individual freedom as the primary human political and national value; rather, they see communal respect as the most important collective, personal and national value. Most people around the world live in societies that consciously curtail some of the individual’s freedoms, in favor of the common good and collective wellbeing that ensue from such a social compact.
This is not a debate about which approach to life and society is better; they are both appropriate, respectively, to their own communities. The debate is about whether one society can force the other to change and adapt. The situation now is that Americans are telling the world that the United States’ freedom of expression value overrides any other values that people hold in other countries. Americans are free to insult other people’s prophets and religions, and those other people -- Muslims in this case -- need to learn to live with this situation, hurtful, insulting or demeaning as it may be for them. Of course, Americans see this chain of values working only in one direction; so Americans do not need to adjust and learn to live with the values of other people who must accept American ways (or French or British or other Western ways).
This strikes me as the fundamental definition of intellectual or cultural colonialism, when one country insists that its principles should take precedence over the sentiments or values of other peoples. One wonders: On what basis does this equation stand? What does a country need to impose its will on the rest of the world? A bigger population? Greater gross national product per capita? Massive armed forces? When I ask this question to Americans, they either change the subject or revert to deeper wellsprings of colonial mentalities, mumbling that the American way is a good way, that all people aspire to freedom, that emigrants from all over the world still want to come and live in the United States, and other such arguments that are all true, but that evade the issue I raise about how countries decide they can dominate other societies.
Americans are understandably angry because some of their facilities abroad were attacked this month, and four of their officials were killed by criminal terrorists. The debates over free speech and the violent conduct of some demonstrators will go on and on, probably without resolution, unless we summon the capacity to address the more significant issue, which is, simply: Who writes the global rules?
We speak of freedom of speech this week, and in future weeks we could discuss sexuality, or free trade, or drugs, or marriage, or dozens of other issues on which honest and decent people will disagree.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2012 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global