Freedom of expression -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Freedom of expression

Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi

Pakistan has become a breeding ground for extreme religious and ethnic views. Religious and political leaders seem to use inflammatory views to gain short-term benefits of votes or legitimacy. These views are then flashed on the television screens and make headlines in the newspapers without much regard for their effects on the masses.

Freedom of expression can be unsettling if used without paying attention to the choice of medium or grasp of the context of the message. Socrates had to drink a chalice of poison for his dissenting social views. Galileo was incarcerated for suggesting that the earth revolves around the sun. For politicians, words are an important tool to convey their vision and appeal to the electorate. The struggle to define the acceptable boundaries of expression is as old as human society. Secular democracies of the West pride themselves for the freedom of expression they grant to their citizens. These freedoms are not limitless but are bound by adherence to a constitution that applies to all citizens through a fair application of law. The boundaries of these expressions have been continuously expanding as new technologies of communications evolve and new advancements are made in understanding the human psyche.

Western obsession with individual liberties has produced ever-expanding boundaries of acceptable social behaviour. For instance frequent use of curse words, open mingling of homosexuals and minimalist dress have become norms without any social reprisal. The larger question is what are the limits of freedom of expression that does not damage the social, moral and spiritual fabric of a society? What should be the code of conduct in a diverse society? And where does Pakistani society stand in this time of competing ideologies and values?

The dilemma faced by the West is the acceptance of a political system that has no room for divine interference and strictly believes in secular evolution of species even though a majority adherent of this system accept the existence of God in their daily practice of religion. At the community level social limits are defined by human instincts that get accepted through the democratic process of majority vote. But the issue with this approach is that human behaviour is evolutionary and can be easily manipulated by various internal and external influences. The process of evolution has pushed human intellect to develop new methods of organising society and create technologies to improve the quality of material life. But it is the nurturing of the spiritual being that has been ignored by this process of change.

Culture plays a significant role in defining boundaries of social behaviour within a geographic territory. For instance, Asian cultures are highly hierarchical and look down upon free expression in the presence of elders and seniors. On the other hand, western cultures are individualistic and grant equality regardless of age, education or social status. It is wrong for the West to assume that their cultural values have universal application without regard for other cultures. For instance, in the West it is not unusual to make jokes about Jesus Christ, but when they apply the same standards to allow publishing of caricatures of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), it resonates strongly in the Muslim world. This unilateral definition of freedom of expression not only creates stress, but in some instances can create frictions resulting in violence.

Contrary to culture, religion, especially monotheistic religions Islam, Judaism and Christianity, promote universal definitions of boundaries on social behaviour mandated by the divine sanction. In this approach the boundaries are largely fixed and immovable. Although followers of Judaism and Christianity have subordinated their religious teaching to secularism, Muslim societies, on the other hand, continuously strive to impose those limits on social behaviour. The issue becomes complex when members of a Muslim society are illiterate in the Quranic teachings and rely heavily on orthodox maulvis (clerics) for interpretations. Most of these maulvis are graduates of unregulated madrassas that do not apply scientific, social and economic concepts in understanding of spiritual matters. The presence of multiple schools of thought with varying interpretations of Quranic precepts adds further to the complexity. One drawback in most Muslim societies is the absence of think tanks to undertake research on Quran and Sunnah. This becomes a recipe for disaster as women and minorities are the most affected in a society where there is no clear understanding of their rights and privileges.

Pakistan has become a breeding ground for extreme religious and ethnic views. Religious and political leaders seem to use inflammatory views to gain short-term benefits of votes or legitimacy. These views are then flashed on the television screens and make headlines in the newspapers without much regard for their effects on the masses. Disenfranchised and disoriented youth become the fuel for these views and get consumed in the process, leaving a terrorised community in their wake.

To function as a normal society, we have to take action at various levels but the first step starts with self. As individuals we have to take the first step of reading Quran in totality from start to finish in our native language so that we get a firsthand experience of its message. The second step could be that we condemn all expressions of division, regardless of our political, religious or ethnic orientation. At the community level we must raise our voice against abusive language or personal attacks by sending signed petitions to media outlets and their advertisers. It is about time that religious schools are regularised and their curriculum approved by the ministry of education. The last step could be rejection of all those politicians through an electoral process that promote divisions and raise emotions in the name of religion and ethnicity.

A nation is a collection of individuals who are cognisant of their roles and responsibilities towards each other. We cannot sit idle by assuming that our politicians, imams (prayer leaders), judges, generals and bureaucrats are some alien force imposed on us. They are part of the nation and we have to tell them what we expect from them.

The writer is the Chairman Council of Past Presidents, Pakistan Chamber of Commerce-USA. He can be reached at abdul.kundi@gmail.com
Source: Daily Times
Date:7/18/2011