Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Freedom of Expression and Protest in Peace and War

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Al Salam Alaykoum (Peace be with you!)

The greeting above, used among Muslims across the globe, calls for peace. Over a billion people say the word, Al-Salam or Peace countless times a day. By inviting us to greet others with the word Peace, religion, knowing our tendency to opt for conflict, reminds me to choose the former.

However, the events of last week, a string of protests condemning the blasphemous anti-Islam film makes me think; give us freedom to express, or to protest, and we do not necessarily use it peacefully.

War is not culture-specific, I would argue. Religions are not inherently violent. Islam, certainly is not; Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) is best known for his forgiveness and impeccable manners. The tendency to abandon peace and pursue conflict, could be a universal human flaw.

Human beings cannot function, it seems, without a designated enemy. One cannot identify himself in a vacuum, it is always how you relate to ‘the other’ that shapes who you are. Sociologists such as Stuart Hall, Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Derrida among others attempt to uncover why ‘otherness’ is so compelling an object of representation. They theorize that difference is essential to meaning, that without it, meaning would not exist. So, we basically need ‘difference’ because we can only construct meaning through a dialogue with the ‘other’. The ‘other’ is therefore fundamental to the constitution of the self.

Freedom of expression, deemed the cornerstone of democracy and by extension, everything that is good and fair and free, is not always a progressive tool that harnesses openness and rainbows and justice. Because at times, through expressing ourselves, we find it necessary to attack ‘the other’ to better represent our identity.

I’m all for freedom of expression. I have said, once or twice, or maybe a thousand times, that put limits of freedom, and it is rendered irrelevant; the keystone of freedom is the lack of chains. But given our predisposition, as human beings, to use it for war, rather than peace, I am forced to reconsider.

In the past week we have seen two equally saddening phenomena; a blasphemous twist on freedom of expression in the form of an anti-Islam film that outraged Muslims the world over, and on the other hand, an exhibition of non-peaceful protests that yielded the death of the U.S ambassador to Libya, and only generated more outrage.

Over a decade after the heinous crimes of 9/11 the United States, when terrorism set in motion a war on terror that arguably did its part to boost panic and ultimately led to polarity across the globe, we witness, in the short span of a week, the abuse of freedom of expression to attack ‘the other’ in a manner that fuels the flames of hatred, and pushes the notion of peace farther away from grasp.

In his book, Covering Islam, Edward Said (1981) criticized the sloppy discourse about Islam in the Western media; he believed the individuals behind the content produced about Islam are not adequately invested in the search for the truth or for fair representation. On the contrary, they demonstrate a lack of concern with the reality of Muslims. They find it easier, perhaps, to perpetuate stereotypes that create a regenerative hostility that impedes peaceful interaction and coexistence..

“The misrepresentations and distortions committed in the portrayal of Islam today argue neither a genuine desire to understand nor a willingness to listen and see what there is to see and listen to,” (Said 1981).

The reactions to the trailer of the profane anti-Islam film show that it puts Said’s case in point; the movie misrepresents the character of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), smearing the image of Islam.

Dressed up as freedom of expression, this attack on Muslims was naturally, and unfortunately, met with violence of another kind. In the past week, anti-U.S protests spread throughout the Middle East, only rendering the image of Arabs and Muslims more violent in the eyes of media-observers across the globe, even though their actions were in the name of self-defense and religious fervor.

The freedom to create thought-provoking art was abused, and the right to peacefully protest was equally misused.

In many ways, war and peace are very much the same- while deemed polar opposites. They are closer than we think. Today, they are merely alternative routes to resolution, alternative paths to progress. It takes courage and persistence to sustain war, but it also takes such qualities to maintain peace.

It will remain a mystery, why we choose war, as opposed to peace, as a way to settle differences that exist between you and I. But if history is any indication for the future, then war is not going anywhere.

We all speak of peace plenty of times a day, be it in greeting or in conversation. But what is peace anyway? Today, it almost seems as if war and peace were not mutually exclusive. You cannot recognize one without the other; the word peace, often defined as freedom from conflict, refers to that state before or after war. But surely, peace means more than that. Until we understand what it is, in isolation, what it is to express ourselves freely without attacking ‘the other’, war is all we’ll ever know.


Until then,

Al Salam Alaykoum (Peace be with you!)


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Sara Elkamel is an Egyptian journalist living in Cairo. She has been working in the field of journalism for the past three years, writing for various local papers, including Daily News Egypt and Egypt Independent, as well as foreign publications such as the Guardian and GlobalPost. In addition, Elkamel is an aspiring artist, and recently participated in art exhibitions in Cairo and abroad. Elkamel is currently pursuing Graduate Studies in Journalism at the American University in Cairo, and is a senior Arts and Culture reporter for Ahram Online.