As good children, we learn not to speak with our mouths full or accept sweets from dubious looking strangers lurking near shops and our school gates. As adults, we learn to feign interest in our bosses' 10th successful trip abroad and lie effectively when faced with awkward questions. Engrained into our psyche from a young age, this universal social etiquette worked very effectively until social media hit the scene. And social media hit the screen hard in Turkey with (for example) half the population of 80 million having a Face book account. But through a whirlwind of grammatically incoherent ramblings, wedding announcements and cancer eradicating ‘like’ buttons, our mode of communication has been completely transformed. Most communication managers thought the Face book fad would be as short lived as the MySpace craze in the USA, but the opposite happened. Online sharing sites grew faster than any other product or service in the world and especially in Turkey. While the sites are sometimes amusing, sometimes irritating and even humiliating, and often leaving you unable to fathom the idiocy of the human race, they’re definitely here for the long-haul. Free from the constraints of traditional social situations and shielded by a veil of anonymity, people feel compelled to share a wealth of private information online.
The Participatory Internet User
It's clear that we use internet as part of our new gained internet economy. And it's apparent that the web is attractive, ‘infotaining’, socially interactive, and delivers fast communication. But what we didn’t master and aren’t fully aware of is that the new benchmark in (online) communication now is one without a hierarchy: the vertical (top-down and bottom-up) and or diagonal communication sets the tone and almost everybody is reachable. Also: everybody is his own king or queen from their point of view on the net. And governments can only restrict access to certain domain(s) -- full monitoring is still opaque since we didn’t realize and had the ability to foresee the impact the internet has on our societies and the possibilities and opportunities it brings. Yes, we've been busted by our own newly established anarchistic digital world. If we only take the news for example, we see that the days of loyalty to a particular news organization and on a particular piece of technology (within 15 years) in a particular form are gone. The internet is now at the center of the story of how people's relationship to news is changing.
And with a new multi-platform media environment, people's relationship to news is becoming portable, personalized and participatory. These new metrics (USA, 2011, PR Week) stand out:
-Portable: 33% of cell phone owners now access news on their cell phones.
-Personalized: 28% of internet users have customized their home page to include news from sources and on topics that particularly interest them.
-Participatory: 37% of internet users have contributed to the creation of news, commented about it, or disseminated it via postings on social media sites like Face book or Twitter.
With this kind of super fast and millions of information streams, we became part of the news instead of news which is distant from us. We become part of it as we decide what to read and what not and reproduce this by what we put on the web by ourselves.
Poor is the human whose pleasure depends on the permission of another
Since there are no worldwide general rulings concerning the internet, most countries' laws regarding freedom of expression, freedom of thought, etc., are enforced when dealing directly with the digital world. It’s obvious that Western countries use the Trias Politica principle while many Muslim nations implement Sharia laws. And when governments inflict restrictions on freedom of speech, these countries do not place its imprimatur upon it when one of its citizens publishes something -- anywhere from a YouTube clip to a simple article. That may be difficult to understand for people who have come of age in repressive regimes which do not permit any expressions disfavored by the government. In such regimes, the publication of bigoted viewpoints can be taken as representing the views of the government. For example, when Iranian newspapers publish anti-Semitic diatribes, the views expressed in those diatribes are the views of the government. Not so with democratic states. Indeed, it is probably true that more anti-Semitic material is published in the United States than in Iran, simply because so much is published there and almost none of it is subject to any kind of restriction or censorship. That does not make the United States an anti-Semitic country.
To complicate things; while Holocaust-denial is standard in Iran, it’s allowed in the USA but punishable in some European countries. And to make it even more complicated; there are "religious insult" laws in 21 European nations… while the European Convention on Human Rights simply states; (considered canon of EU law by the European Court of Justice – 1969, and the EU Lisbon Treaty - viable since 1.12.2009) ‘’Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.’’
You understand now that when you put the Internet, censorship and religion together you get a dangerous cocktail. And specifically for Islam, "freedom" means something very nearly the opposite of what the concept connotes to Westerners – it is the freedom that lies in total submission to Allah and His law. That law, Sharia, is diametrically opposed to core components of freedom as understood in the Western world. While Muslims are fully protected by the above mentioned laws in the West against every form of discrimination, inciting hate etc., a new discussion has started for blasphemy laws.
Extremists are increasingly using the Internet for propaganda, No longer can hateful content only be found on extremist or terrorist websites or forums. With the earlier-mentioned massive growth of the social media, the expression of hate on the internet is becoming a serious problem.
There is a strong tendency to publish or display anything on the web, no matter if it is defaming, inciting to racist violence, or even murder. And those who do, notably those politicians, writers or any individual who reject publicly Islam, all receive thousands of death threats. While the dominant aspects of these publications are moral judgments, they seem to be hedonistic rather than freedom-loving: my personal pleasure versus the rights of others to have it or even discuss it.
Any and all groups and ethnicities can be a target, but right now anti-Semitism rules the global waves of hate, closely followed by incitement against gays and lesbians, Roma and Sinti, Muslims, Christians, apostates, converts and atheists. Also inter-religious and political venom is on the increase. (Magenta Foundation, Amsterdam)
Cyber-hate has a corrosive effect on Internet users, mainly on the youth. The side-effects of cyber-hate: the propagation of disinformation, myths, biases and a distorted world views make it harder to assess information. Cyber-hate creates and enhances fear, and opens the door for recruitment into (often violent) groups that offer easy religious or political solutions for complicated problems.
As we see in the Western world (also known as the Occident) that freedom of speech goes hand in hand with the responsibility to have respect for the rights and/or reputations of others and their lives and physical integrity, we need to be extremely careful when setting boundaries to freedom of speech, but we also need to be very careful in giving hate-mongers, extremists and terrorists a free reign. History has proven that the threat of censorship always lurks, but has also proven that free speech without ethics and responsibility can have deadly and devastating consequences.
The tradition in the Western world, of giving individual rights privilege over the sensitivities of groups has always had costs. As the globe shrinks because of the internet, we encounter cultures that do not share our traditions, and regions where religion and its laws are not hours. So we don’t need to address the problem solely from the legal point of view, but from ethical and human sides too -- as long as political power plays don’t set the tone. And when blasphemy laws are there to cut our freedom of speech, which steps have to be taken are the main questions as well as who will be the judge, the jury and the executors. A movie trailer such as "Innocence of Muslims" is a crude and despicable film. But freedom of speech is non-discussable ( it’s absolute free), and that includes insulting remarks because -- where do we draw the line for what is insulting and critical, right?!
The OIC wants now "Islamophobia" be outlawed and, like anti-Semitism. But the term Islamophobia, fear of Islam – thus paralyzing societies out fear being branded as racist when being critical - is not the right word since it describes what some Muslim leaders want: not being critical of Islam, thus, not criticizing their dictatorial rulings. It doesn't describe what non-Muslims feel. And how do you make something you feel illegal? And since there is no ostensible relation between being afraid of something and actual violence, how can you deem it illegal or prosecute someone for their phobia?
Is "Islamnausea" more appropriate? Does it cover disgust, displeasure, and aversion to Islam? No, our language needs a term that describes exactly what Muslims encounter on the same level and with the same intention when Jews encounter anti-Semitic writings and actions, or when people are discriminated against because of their race, religion, sex, and or color of their skin. It can be simply impossible, but when there is a logical cause & effect, when you can prove that it causes damage, puts people in unfavorable positions, or leads to direct violence and killings, you have a chance.
The Islamic world has to speed up its discussion about ethics in general and blasphemy in particular. And start listen to Muslim leaders such as M. Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) andthe writers and pundits like Tarek Fatah in Canada, the Egyptian writer Sayyid Al-Qemany, Mustafa Akyol in Turkey, and Canadian Irshad Manji, to name a few. But remember, if you want to make insulting the Prophet Mohammed illegal, Judaism ascribes to 47 Prophets and 7 Prophetesses, Christianity to 48 and thousands of holy saints, scriptures, and crosses, Hinduism has around 250.000 gods and other religions more as well. The Muslim world in general and the OIC in particular cannot say that only blasphemy laws are there to protect the Muslim faith; neither can they say what is blasphemous and or holy or not. More than 5.5 billion non-Muslims are earnestly waiting on steps taken by the OIC and the countries it represents. We only can hope that they are aware that the freedom to think out loud on certain topics, without fear of being hounded into hiding or killed, has already been lost. Therefore they must learn that if they make belligerent and fanatical claims upon the tolerance of free societies, they will meet one day the limits of that tolerance.
Hans A.H.C. de Wit* - Analyst, Strategic Outlook
*International Communication Manager/Public Affairs
Magenta Foundation - www.magenta.nl
International Network against Cyber Hate (INACH)
University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands, Communication- and Information science