Share & Connect
In the past weeks Muslims around the world have been offended, hurt and upset as a consequence of Westerners feeling the need to stress their freedom of expression — but for what reason?
Except for a few details, the recent incidences have had remarkable similarities with something we have seen before: the short film ‘Submission‘, made in 2004 by Theo van Goghon, a Dutch film director, and Somalia-born Ayaan Hirsi and the Mohammed Cartoons incident by a Danish newspaper in 2005, which caused the Arab world to boycott Danish-produced goods like dairy products. These are just a few of the examples to be mentioned.
Most Muslims in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world keep their feelings to themselves and their family and friends, or express them in a peaceful way – just like many Westerners fail to comprehend the purpose of publishing that type of material, time and again. However, it seems like a controversy that we, on both sides, are forced to witness again and again which makes it valuable to investigate some potential underlying dynamics for the recent incidents.
According to Politiken.dk, a feeling exists in the Arab world of differential treatment practiced by Western Governments; examples include that Western Governments support free will except in cases where Islamic parties win elections. They fight for human rights except in countries where the oppressor is a dictator who cooperates with the Western world; Western Governments support freedom of religion, except when it concerns Islam.
Additionally, Western politicians continuously make hostile comments about Muslims and Islam. This is reinforced by my research (to be published in Arab-West Report in April 2013) on the migration of Egyptians where Muslims indicate that they feel as second class citizens in their own country next to expats living there. At the same time they feel unwelcome in Western countries such as the U.S.A. and several European countries.
So while Western countries claim they are fighting for equal rights, freedom to be whoever you are, as well as the right to control your own life, it easily comes across as the exact opposite in the countries that are the target for that fight.
Politiken.dk continues that while the mentioned examples by people in the Arab World are perceived as differential treatment and interference, Western Governments understand it as isolated reactions to specific incidents. This could be related to what Charles Clay Lemert, Professor in Sociology, characterizes as ‘colonization’ in his book Sociale Forhold -En indføring i det sociologiske liv (2004), which he defines as the process where people with power and money get the idea that their theories and perspectives of the world gives them the right to take over other countries, their assets and sometimes even the soul of the native people, who rarely are in a position to defend themselves.
And it is all justified by the perception that the invasion will result in a better moral, a better political system, and in general a better way of living. But according to whom?
If the world is believed to be a social construction that only makes sense in relation to the society in which it exists, it makes sense that people around the world have not only different ways of living, but more importantly different perceptions of what ‘the better way of living’ is. No doubts that people in the Arab world are dreaming about a better world, as witnessed during the Arab Spring that last year permeated in several Arab countries. We are still, at the time of writing, witnessing how Syrians fight against the local regime, or how Palestinians continuously experience their rights to land reduced — but is this battle a cry for the Western world to free them from Islam, Islamist or Islamic values?
Without a doubt there is a perception in the Western world that politics and religion should be two separate entities in a modern society, anno 2012 — or is there? Maybe it is more the perception that politics and Islam should be separated? This leads back to the imagination of the world as a social construction: if we acknowledge that different people have different perceptions of ‘the better way of living’, it might again be reasonable to assume that different societies have different ways of structuring a democracy.
Can democratic values not be implemented in a religious society? It is true that according to the construction of democracy that exists in the Western world, it is difficult entities to unite, but Egypt and the rest of the Arab world have a different way of constructing their societies. In this light it might be fair to assume that the construction of a democracy, in these countries, would contain different elements than what we see in Western countries’ understanding of democracy -elements that focus less on freedom of expression and more on mutual respect and the right to practice your religion.
However, as Ahram Online writes in an article on their English website, the challenges may lay in the rapid development of technological tools that connect the world, crossing societies of different social constructions. This means that a film like that of the recent controversy can be made and distributed online in Western countries where legislation is developed in the context of Western social constructions, without repercussions. One such filmmaker, or a cartoonist for that matter, may be perceived as offensive to a group of people but cannot be indicted for a criminal act, because one segment of the world does not perceive it as such.
However, in the same breath it must be stressed that individual action, like the ones discussed here, does not represent perceptions, opinions or acts of neither entire populations nor every politicians. But because of societies based on different social constructions of what is legal and what is not, a Western politician cannot demand the person behind such material brought to trial. But does this mean that Western countries should consider reversing their understanding of democracy and put restrictions on what can be expressed and what cannot?
As one of the focal points for democracies in Western countries it is hard to see that happen. Being a Westerner, brought up in the social constructions of a Scandinavian country, it is believed that having the freedom to speak up against the current government, the practices of the church, or other societal institutions that are disagreed with, is a crucial fundamental right, which should neither be restricted nor jeopardized.
But does this give the people in Western countries the right to offend the values of people in countries where social constructions of societies are different?
With an economic crisis dominating most of the Western world, it might be time to start rethinking what used to be ‘the center of the world’ – to a growing extent, the Western world depends on countries and people around it. It may be worth considering if respecting other cultures’ way of life wouldn’t be more productive than upsetting them purposefully.