x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Red lines of offence cross both the West and the East

It is easy for those with ugly motives in the West to hide behind freedom of speech, just as it's easy for some in the Muslim world to command attention with protests.

Standing on a public road in southern France, a lone photographer snapped a handful of images that rapidly morphed into a legal and moral row.

Once the semi-naked shots of Kate Middleton, Britain's Duchess of Cambridge and a future Queen, found their way into publication in European magazines, they stoked a debate on whether such images should have been published at all.

No newspaper in Britain has published the photographs, most citing privacy. Yet there is an astonishing hypocrisy in the way some newspapers, particularly tabloids, have angrily condemned the publication of these photos in European magazines - while gleefully publishing more risqué photos of other women in their pages.

The editors of these tabloids clearly don't believe it inappropriate that nude photographs of women be published, nor that photographs taken without the consent of celebrities be used. Every tabloid festoons its pages with such imagery. Nor do they use the argument that such images are already in the public domain, as The Sun argued when it published naked photos of another royal, Prince Harry.

Rather, they feel that, in this particular case, publication of such photos would be inappropriate, not because of any legal or moral objection, but because it would be socially unacceptable.

The British tabloids understand there is a social line, and that a majority of their readers would be offended if it were crossed, so they choose not to cross that line. Is this self-censorship, or the calculations of cold cash and hard circulation?

Such social lines permeate all societies. There are some things that can't be published legally - for example Holocaust denial in some European countries - but there are lots of other things that can be published, but simply aren't, sometimes out of respect, but mostly and mainly out of a sense that the community at large would not tolerate it.

Americans are often shocked by the lack of respect with which British newspapers treat their leaders (and celebrities), but Brits are equally amazed by the po-faced fury with which Americans greet any lampooning of their country. The French consider it inappropriate to delve too deeply into the private affairs of their public figures. The British press consider that a mandatory part of democracy, but are astonished at the open nudity on continental television. There are social lines everywhere.

Which brings us, rather unsurprisingly, to the recent offensive depictions of the Muslim Prophet.

It has been amusing - though still astonishing - to see people trying to defend such portrayals with the language of free speech, a veneer of ideology over what is, certainly in the case of the silly YouTube film, simple prejudice. These defenders misunderstand both the West and the Muslim world.

They misunderstand the West because they imagine it as some alternative Hobbesian world of free speech, where everyone insults everyone on every front page every day, and vitriol about minorities pours forth from television screens. They appear to mistake the freedom to tackle all topics with the obligation to tackle some topics.

In reality the West has all sorts of social red lines, formed out of each nation's specific history and mix of communities. Those who imagine all speech is equally acceptable in the West fail to understand such nuances. Some imagery, such as crude racial stereotyping, is possible, but practically unimaginable.

For these defenders, even humble racism is framed as lofty free speech and the pronouns "we", "us" and "them" much bandied about. There is an easy pleasure in speaking so; everyone likes to be part of a tribe, however fictional.

At the same time, the defenders mistake the nature of the protests, seeing the few thousands protesting in the Muslim world as an indication of a country or a creed or a region, rather than the violent minority they are - and ignoring the much larger protests for freedom of expression and tolerance that have taken place in Libya, Egypt and Pakistan. Equally, they ignore protests in non Muslim-majority countries, like Greece.

Much of the criticism has taken the form of an imperative beginning "Islam must ...", itself a nonsensical formulation.

It is one thing to speak of the Catholic Church, which is an institution, but since the demise of the caliphate there is no global institution for the Islamic faith. There are individual leaders and, to their credit, religious and national leaders have generally condemned the protests.

And still there are the protests, which continue to sweep across majority-Muslim countries. As others have pointed out, it is easy to understand the context but harder to understand the spark. The truth is, the Arab world - and indeed the wider Muslim world - is as keen to understand this phenomenon because it affects their societies more.

Yet the mischaracterisations of both those in the West and in the Muslim world hinders such analysis and empowers the extremists.

It is easy for those with ugly motives in the West to hide behind free speech, and easy for those in the Muslim world who wish to command attention - or worse, seek to bring in restrictive laws - to use this spark.

If only the world was so simple, so easily divisible into rational and emotional camps, so simply delineated into the worlds of religion and modernity.

Unfortunately, the very complexity of the world pushes people to seek refuge in breezy platitudes and dangerous assumptions.

 

falyafai@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai