regular-article-logo Tuesday, 16 July 2024

The West's fatwas

Over the decades, Western media and political establishments have talked down to Muslim societies, in particular, and non-Western societies, more generally, on their free speech problem

Amir Ali Published 12.06.24, 07:13 AM
Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie File Photo

There is an eloquence with which Western spokespersons have defended free speech. This has often been in the face of a fatwa, which commentators like Douglas Murray, bewailing the threat to the West from an Islamic presence, considered incompatible with fundamental Western values.

But there is now a glaring inconsistency. Since Hamas’s attacks on Israel on October 7 and the subsequent brutal and disproportionate Israeli response, there has been a clampdown on speech critical of Israel, often seen as an enlightened and democratic Western outpost in the benighted Middle East. Consider four events in one week of April. The Greek academic and former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, was prevented from making a presentation at a Palestinian Congress in Berlin when the German interior ministry issued a ban on any political activity; the Glasgow University rector and distinguished British-Palestinian surgeon, Ghassan Abu-Sittah, was detained upon arrival at Berlin to stop him from speaking at the same event; after being subjected to a Congressional grilling on antisemitism in elite US campuses, the Columbia University president, Nemat Shafik, allowed police to arrest over 100 protesting pro-Palestinian students; a Muslim student, Asna Tabassum, was prevented from giving a farewell address at the University of South California.


Western defences of free speech arise mostly when the matter is fatuous or the consequence of a fatwa. The West has employed a repetitive and predictable template of defending free speech, especially since the time of the Rushdie affair. Salman Rushdie himself has commented vaguely, at best, on the free speech situation arising from the Gaza crisis. One would have thought that Rushdie, the embodiment of the valiant Western defence of free speech, would have been more exercised by free-speech clampdowns in the West. This is not to suggest that stands have not been taken. In his Oscar acceptance speech, Jonathan Glazer made a point on the Gaza crisis that earned him a great deal of flak. In several Western cities, citizens have come out to oppose their governments’ unstinted support for Israel. In India, there has been a loaded silence on the Gaza war, a telling commentary on the state of free speech in the country as we continue to slide down the press freedom index every year.

Over the decades, Western media and political establishments have talked down to Muslim societies, in particular, and non-Western societies, more generally, on their free speech problem. It is important to acknowledge that there is, indeed, such a problem. This must then become the historical basis to defend free speech as a universal value across all societies and countries.

This also implies attaining clarity on the purpose of free speech. Western defences have never really been able to answer the question, ‘Why free speech?’ At most, there are arguments to defend the right to be irreverent: Charlie Hebdo’s lampooning tradition is one example. But this does not come anywhere near to understanding the moral imperatives of free speech. It is important to understand that free speech does not exist for its own sake. It exists for the sake of the truth and, more specifically, to uncover the concealment of truth by political establishments.

Clarity on this question can expose the hollowness of the free-speech stances taken by Elon Musk as well as by far-Right enthusiasts of free speech such as Milo Yiannopoulos. These tend to be unthinking endorsements of free speech absolutism that end up facilitating hate speech. Free speech cannot be absolute for the simple reason that it is a value committed to uncovering the truth.

A foundational text in the West’s self-image of its own civilisational pre-eminence is On Liberty in which J.S. Mill argues that an individual can stand against the whole of humanity and has the right to express a contrarian point of view for the sake of truth. The crisis at the heart of Western hegemony is that it can no longer hide its hypocrisy over free speech.

Amir Ali teaches at the Centre for Political Science, JNU

Follow us on: