It’s the powerless who suffer when free speech is threatened

Kenan Malik in the Guardian 19 July 2020 reminds us that censorship aids the powerful. This has been almost forgotten in the West where woke authoritarians want to shut down the free exchange of ideas. Free speech is a vital weapon for those struggling for change.

The cartoon shows a bearded man in paradise, reclining on a couch in a tent, with a virgin on either arm. God pokes his head in. “Do you need anything?” he asks. “Yes, Lord,” the man replies. “Get me some wine and tell Gabriel to bring me cashews. Take the empty plates with you. And put a door on the tent, so next time you can knock before you come in, your Immortalness.”

Four years ago, Nahed Hattar, the Jordanian writer and intellectual, shared the cartoon on Facebook, captioning it “The God of Daesh”. He was charged with inciting “sectarian strife and racism” and “insulting Islam”. In September 2016, outside the Amman courthouse where he was about to stand trial, Hattar was shot dead by a Salafist gunman.

Kenan Malik

Telling jokes in the Arab world is no laughing matter. Yet as a new bookJoking About Jihad, shows, poking fun at Islamists and jihadists has become an essential part of Arab culture. Comedians and cartoonists, the authors Gilbert Ramsay and Moutaz Alkheder observe, play an important role in “shattering once seemingly inviolable taboos, transgressing the boundaries of consensus while somehow also enabling conversations where they once seemed impossible”.

The context of the free speech debate is very different in the west. Many of the questions facing writers and artists and comedians are, however, similar. What is taboo? How far can we upset people? Should we transgress consensual boundaries?

In the Arab world, those pushing the boundaries of speech work within brutally dictatorial states and know the dangers of provoking popular outrage. Hattar is only one of dozens of writers and artists who have lost their lives in recent years for transgressing taboos. It takes immense courage to stand up for free speech in Jordan or Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Read more