Wilders is back on the freedom of speech bandwagon, blowing the trumpet of the right’s sacredness to European hearts and relegating any attempts to limit it as sacrilegious. He has called for a competition to draw cartoons of the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa inside his offices in the Dutch Parliament to be judged by American cartoonist Bosch Fawstin, winner of the ‘draw Muhammad cartoon competition’ in 2015. This is of course not the first time the Dutch have spurred controversy on the issue, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten publishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammadsa in 2005 which sparked a global outrage amongst Muslims.
It brings to mind Thomas Paine’s prodigious words when he says, ‘The greatest tyrannies are always perpretrated in the name of the noblest causes.’ Freedom of speech is indeed a noble cause, being a fundamental right and crucial for ensuring legitimate and constructive discourse within society and a vital communicative force. Yet, even this noble freedom of language, to speak and exchange ideas freely, has been used as a tool to advance pernicious ideologies to incite violence and at times even genocide, as was the case with the Tutsis in Rwanda.
Accordingly, it makes sense that most international law instruments recognise the unabashed and uncontrolled perils of language and prescribe legitimate restrictions to be placed on free speech in certain circumstances. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights both contain for example qualifying clauses to the articles guaranteeing freedom of expression, stating that the right carries special ‘duties and responsibilities’ and may thereby be subject to necessary restrictions. Pertinently, both these instruments are unanimous in their support for placing legitimate restrictions on the freedom of expression in order to respect or protect the rights and reputations of others.
This latter point is important for it almost certainly would encompass within its ambit caricatures of the kind drawn of the Prophet Muhammadsa in the past yet ensuing debate while passionately defending free speech has done little to pay so much as lip service to these provisions. This is ironic since such laws have been invoked in order to pass legislation making holocaust denial a crime in certain European countries.
Notwithstanding Wilders attempt to provoke and anger Muslim populations across continents, it must be said that responses to cartoons of the Prophet Muhammadsa in certain Muslim-majority countries causing upheaval and turmoil are equally condemnable. The Quran prescribes no temporal punishment for blasphemy and makes it clear that there exists no material jurisdiction for penalising irreverent statements or acts against the Prophetsa or God. The actions of vigilantes who seek to avenge blasphemous acts or words against the Prophetsa or God are thus utterly misguided and misplaced.
In fact, the Quranic standpoint on free speech mirrors the philosophy behind these provisions calling for speech to be limited in particular circumstances, including where it would harm the rights and reputations of others. The Quran provides that if discourse is to be undertaken on thorny issues, it must fulfil the requirements of morality, dignity and civic virtue. God states that, ‘Call…with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in a way that is best.’
More about Author: Editor of the Law and Human Rights Section of The Review of Religions. Regular contributor to conversations on Islam and contemporary issues in national media. Graduate of Harvard Law School