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Freedom of Speech: Finding a Breeze in Chaos

We all have the right to make our voices heard. Practicing this is a basic human right that all people, from childhood and onwards, should enjoy. It is our freedom of speech. Yet freedom of speech has at times caused chaos when it was detached from a sense of social responsibility.

Freedom of speech has become a magical phrase. It has been used to cast its power and justify certain situations. While some see freedom of speech as a tool to bring justice and truth forward, others see it as a tool for any type of expression and even those that are purposely offensive. Freedom of speech would then be regarded as unconditional and absolute, but others would disagree and as John Stuart Mill said, “The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited: he must not make himself a nuisance for other people.”

Under the banner of freedom of speech, hatred and racism were given room. If such offensive characteristics found a home in such a glorious concept, then it’s time for a reality check to limit this chaos. The idea of a limitless freedom of speech is a myth. Everyone puts a limit to this freedom, but where the limit is put differs depending on people’s values and morals.

The values and morals in Islaam place certain limits on the definition of freedom of speech for the goodwill of society.  Islaam sees freedom of speech as a tool to bring justice and truth forward. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “Whoever among you sees something which is munkar (hateful or evil in Islaam) should change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; if he is unable to do even this, then by his heart – and that is the weakest kind of faith.” (Muslim. Reported on the authority of Abu Sa’eed al-Khudri.)

This Hadeeth by the Prophet (PBUH) shows that taking action and speaking up for what is right is a necessary task. The least preferred method is remaining silent, by the heart, which illustrates how freedom of speech is advocated in Islaam. It is the freedom to speak up against what is wrong in hope of changing it, and not the freedom to insult for the sake of insulting.

The concept of freedom of speech as a tool for justice is also emphasized in the Qur’anic verse, “O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest you swerve, and if you distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do.” (4:135).

We each have our faults when we raise the freedom of speech banner, but we are here to understand its dimensions as we know one another, appreciate the diversity, and not to despise as we focus on the positive intention.

On the power of defining, from the book The Second Sin, the American psychiatrist Thomas Szazs wrote, “In the animal kingdom, the rule is: eat or be eaten. In the human kingdom: define or be defined…he who first seizes the word imposes reality on the other; he who defines thereby dominates and lives; and he who is defined is subjugated and may be killed.”  Thomas Szazs directs us to the dynamics at play when words and expressions are subjected for certain agendas, and have at many times been sugar-coated as freedom. It is indeed powerful.

When chaos, therefore, takes place in the world with various uses of freedom of speech, we remain committed for its responsible role against injustice use. Along the way, to find within it the much-needed breeze that brings clarity and progress.