Freedom of speech in the Middle East

Arabs follow fake news, while the dream of progress dies

In the Arab world, freedom of opinion collides with a societal juggernaut that silences imagination with remarkable efficiency. Egyptian author and novelist Khaled al-Khamissi describes the mechanisms of repression in Arab society

Do Arab journalists have the freedom to write whatever comes into their heads, as long as what they write doesn't break the law?

Can Arab writers freely express the full range of ideas they consider to be conducive to progress?

Can they invoke Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? According to this article, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Press freedom an illusion

When reading these questions, some people's thoughts will undoubtedly turn directly to mechanisms of repression at political, criminal justice or constitutional level that are calculated to shackle any kind of free thought. The focus here, however, is instead on the repression prevalent in the Arab world at a societal level.

In this context, the above-listed questions can quite simply and decisively be answered with a "no": anyone in an Arab society who is serious about writing does not enjoy such freedom.

And while people in these societies generally like to act as if they are indefatigable defenders of freedom, it seems to me that the majority of Arabs defend tooth and nail the existence of political instruments designed to censor artistic and literary creativity.

 Egypt: protesting freedom of the press. The banner reads 'Journalism is not a crime' (photo: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS/A. Sayed)
Freedom of speech in shackles: "while people in these societies generally like to act as if they are indefatigable defenders of freedom, it seems to me that the majority of Arabs defend tooth and nail the existence of political instruments designed to censor artistic and literary creativity," writes Khamissi

This raises the following questions: how can it be that people who do not hold political office have become tools of social repression? What weapons of oppression do they use? Who has trained them to repress others? And what ideas form the ideological framework for this repression?

The conservatism of Arab societies and the guardians-of-morality mentality

Generally speaking, about half of Arab societies are staunchly conservative. In other words, these are societies that are geared towards preserving traditional societal institutions: they seek stability, prefer pyramid-like hierarchies to equality, view any form of innovation with suspicion and attach supreme authority to the concept of the prevailing "order" (nizam). In this way, they help ensure that wealth and social status always remain in the same hands.

For example, one article in the Egyptian constitution says the following: "The family is the basis of the society founded on religion, morality and patriotism. The State strives to preserve the genuine character of the Egyptian family – with the values and traditions it embodies – while affirming and developing its character in relations within the Egyptian society." This article of the constitution sets out plainly in black and white the values of the conservative society, which is geared towards the preservation of traditional values.

These societies all but encourage their members to poke their noses into other individuals' business and to judge the morality of their behaviour. In most cases, it is the least educated and most backward who are most unrestrained in this respect.

Some see the reason for such people's brazen meddling in the fact that they interpret the Islamic doctrine of promoting virtue and preventing vice in the way described in the following hadith: "Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart – and that is the weakest of faith." Sadly, most meddlers do not ask themselves what qualifies them in particular to define vice.

A society's identity is not set in stone

Finally, members of conservative societies are constantly using the word "identity". They take it for granted that a society's identity is fixed and unalterable. As far as they are concerned, changing it in any way is tantamount to the ship going down, the implosion of the social structure, a decline in values.

Egyptian novelist Khaled al-Khamissi (photo: YouTube screenshot/France24)
Khaled al-Khamissi is a well-known Egyptian writer, author of several novels, university lecturer and cultural activist. In his novels "In the Taxi. On the Road in Cairo", "Noah's Ark" (both published in German translation) and "Shamandar", Khamissi dissects Egyptian society in the second half of the 20th century. His works have been translated into numerous languages. His first non-fictional work "2011" (title of the English translation) was published in 2014. His essays, published in Egypt and abroad, provide a comprehensive insight into his work as a political analyst and novelist

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With the rising strength of Islamist movements from the late 1970s onwards, meddling was no longer restricted to the prying of the omnipresent doorman into the changing lifestyle of Mr So-and-So in apartment X. It was at this stage that entire armies of lawyers with close ties to such movements began bringing charges against anyone who wrote anything that brushed them and their ilk up the wrong way.

In the 1990s, this mantle was increasingly assumed by squadrons of cyber soldiers who used the Internet to train users in repressive attitudes against any form of new ideas and to sound the attack on a love of liberty and creativity. It was around about this time that print media began introducing below-the-line comment functions on their websites.

The role played by hired trolls such as these was to ferret out any expression of opinion that ran contrary to their beliefs and then to come down on the author like a ton of bricks in the form of dozens – if not hundreds – of comments.

Most of the time, these comments took the form of invented accusations and bizarre lies about the private lives of the authors. Sometimes, the author's father was accused of having committed war crimes; sometimes, the author's mother was accused of being a dancer in a house of ill-repute. No lie was too crude or too improbable to be put out there, as long as the reputation of the person who had the brass neck to write a text from an innovative angle was dragged through the mud.

"Curtailing freedom of opinion is commensurate with the curtailing of freedom of thought"

In an article entitled "Islam, Freedom, Creativity – free access to rights, yes, but not a free pass for excess", the Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi wrote about freedom of speech and criticism: "Islam grants the freedom to speak and to criticise, indeed it has transformed it into something that goes beyond freedom. After all, it has raised speech and criticism – when it is for the good of the umma, for the good of morality – to an obligation."

As already indicated in the title of the article, there is a freedom that leads to excess. Such excess is seen as reprehensible. Criticism is subject to the condition that it must be for the good of the umma (i.e. the community of Muslims). What is the definition of this good? And what exactly constitutes the umma? And why the umma and not the state? They are all nothing but empty catchwords.

Egyptian journalists demonstrate in Cairo (photo: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS/A. Sayed)
Clipping the wings of thought, imagination and creativity: "in an age of inefficiency, this societal juggernaut is highly efficient in its muzzling of imagination. In Arab societies, only the banal and the superficial are celebrated and cheered, things that do not seriously deal with big ideas," laments Khamissi

Tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of online comments have been written along the lines of articles such as the one mentioned above. Only today, for example, I came across the following below-the-line comments and questions beneath an article that dared to break new ground. These comments and questions were written by normal people without any links to politics:

Are you an expert in this field?

You are quite obviously an attention-seeker.

Are you being paid by foreign backers?

Do you despise Islam?

You are calling into question the deeply rooted values of society.

What you write is a threat to national security.

Have you any concrete alternatives to offer or are you just criticising for the sake of it?

Have you any practical solutions that can be implemented?

What are your sources?

Are you a racist?

Are you an atheist?

Many use the term "agenda", which has become a real buzzword over the last ten years. It is often used in sentences like: you are following a foreign agenda. Or: What is your agenda?

This is a pre-prepared toolkit of sentences and questions, the purpose of which is to fetter the imagination of anybody who writes and to prevent them from publishing any fresh ideas.

In an age of inefficiency, this societal juggernaut is highly efficient in its muzzling of imagination. It also reminds me of Kant, who said that curtailing freedom of opinion is commensurate with curtailing freedom of thought.

The key to understanding the regrettable situation in which Arab societies find themselves lies in being aware of how everyone in the Arab world keeps colliding with iron boundaries and how their wings of imagination, thought and creativity are clipped.

In Arab societies, only the banal and the superficial are celebrated and cheered, things that do not seriously deal with big ideas. And while texts that spread fake news flourish, the dream of progress dies.

Khaled al-Khamissi

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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