Justifying the need for the 'war on terror'

When freedom of speech becomes the centre of the debate, other very important questions fail to be asked: Who speaks? Who has the power and resources not just to speak, but also to be heard, listened to, and even followed? Who is silenced and by whom?

The following document was written as a response to the publication in early March of Manifesto: Together Facing the New Totalitarianismauthored by Salman Rushdie, Irshad Manji and ten others. Even though the “cartoon controversy” is not in the news or the editorials any more, we find it important to circulate this response to the “manifesto.”

We believe that the main assumptions behind the “manifesto” as well as the dominant Western media interpretations of the controversy are based on a “clash of civilizations” framework which has been seeping more and more deeply into the way Western citizens are encouraged to interpret international relations, foreign policy and the actions and speech of Muslims.

This framework is serving to create and stir distrust and hatred of Muslims in Western countries and is helping to convince the people of those countries of the justifiability of continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and possibly of starting new wars.

In addition to legitimating racism and warmongering, the assumptions of the “manifesto” also contribute to an aura of self-congratulation and self-delusion in Western states which allow them to present themselves as beacons of democracy, human rights and freedom of speech, precisely in a period when important decisions are made in non-democratic ways; civil rights are being limited and violated; and increased censorship and limits to information are carried out both by the state and by corporate media.

Ironically, when the ideological war to legitimize the invasion of Iraq has clearly been lost, we find that Islamophobia is being kept alive and thriving in attempts to convince the public of the need to continue a so-called “war on terror.”

Several specific developments in Canada in recent weeks convince us that there is an urgent need to examine the dominant set of assumptions surrounding Canada's foreign policy and relations with those with Muslim backgrounds: Attacks on Muslim students at the University of Toronto — including specific attacks on female students on International Women's Day; the re-defined and intensified role of Canada in Afghanistan, enthusiastically justified and sold to the Canadian public by daily media reports as being about building Afghan democracy; and Canada's sudden withdrawal of aid to Palestine following the election of Hamas, celebrated by editorials in the mainstream media as the appropriate kind of action against a “terrorist government.”

Let us shift the frame of this debate

After a lot had already been written on the cartoon controversy, a piece was published in The Star (Toronto) on March 2 by an international group of mostly Muslim intellectuals. Declaring Islamism as the new totalitarian threat facing the world, the authors declare that we are now facing a global struggle between “democrats” and “theocrats.”

The primary focus of these intellectuals and much of the Western media has been to present the notion of free speech as an abstraction — disregarding the inequalities and the double-standard in its application. We are concerned that this “manifesto” as well as much writing on the cartoon controversy has been one-sided and misleading in serious ways.

We are also writing to intervene as we think there may be a need to shift the frame of this debate altogether. The presentation of the controversy as one between religious extremists versus free speech advocates serves to pigeonhole the protestors into one simple category — “theocrats” according to the manifesto — denying a voice to the diversity and complexity of concerns expressed.

Such simplification distorts reality, helping neither with an accurate understanding of the problem, nor with easing any tensions around it. This way of framing the issue rather contributes to the already prevalent stereotyping and marginalization of Muslims and can be used to justify aggression against them nationally and internationally.

We think that the cartoon controversy is not just about freedom of speech — certainly not in the abstract and legalistic ways that freedom of speech is generally conceptualized. It is rather about other issues that the Western governments and most of the Western media would choose not to address.

While both Muslim fundamentalists and right-wing Western commentators have preferred to frame the issue as an issue of “Muslim rage” we find it more accurate as well as more productive, to frame it as an issue of “human outrage.” For the great majority of people who have expressed frustration, concern and anger over the cartoons, the context that surrounds the controversy and the real issues are the increasingly anti-immigrant and racist environment in many Western countries and imperialism, militarism and Western double standards in international politics.

Framing the cartoon controversy as one solely about freedom of speech poses three significant problems. First, it mystifies and distorts the issues that are easily understandable in other terms by presenting them as examples of a “culture clash.” It leads to a simplistic and misconceived juxtaposition of “Western values” versus “Muslim values.” Reducing the nature of the critical response to the cartoons to “Muslim values” and defining these as opposed to and incompatible with “Western values” makes them appear as irrational and incomprehensible — if not outright barbaric.

As such framing places Muslim reaction to the cartoons beyond comprehension by what is assumed to be a modern, secular “Western” mindset, it also conveniently absolves Western states and Western societies of any responsibility in the developments. It completely externalizes the problem to what gets interpreted as completely “foreign” values and sensibilities.

Ghassan Hage, an Australian sociologist, has expressed in a different context that the fear that racists and war-mongerers experience is not a fear of the “foreigner” — as the term xenophobia implies — but rather the fear that the “foreigner” would be recognized and acknowledged as human beings. While a “culture clash” perspective can easily lead to the denial of the humanity of Muslims, identifying and understanding the issue as based in the realities of national and international politics may help us realize that there is nothing foreign, incomprehensible or even specifically “Muslim” about the anger and outrage over the symbolism of the cartoons.

When we recognize the intense reaction to the cartoons as representing reactions to experiences of imperialist intervention, military aggression, racism and humiliation, it becomes difficult to even imagine how individuals or collectivities with “Western” values would react differently to similar conditions and similar treatment.

The second problem is that even as the issue is framed as one about freedom of speech, it does not address these freedoms in substantive terms as they are experienced by most people. Most contributors to this debate have posed the issue simply in terms of whether or not there should be any limits to freedom of speech.

When this question becomes the centre of debate, when freedom of speech is conceptualized in purely abstract and legalistic ways, other, very important questions fail to be asked — questions such as: Who speaks? Who has the power and resources not just to speak, but also to be heard, listened to, and even followed? Who is silenced and by whom?

Seeing extremists as the only threats to freedom of speech creates the illusion that we otherwise enjoy full and equal freedoms. Living in societies where there is heavy concentration of ownership of most forms of media, we need to acknowledge that even when freedom of speech is legally available, access to the means of dissemination of ideas is largely unequal. Treating the illusion of free speech as an already existing reality does not help improve the cause of freedom of speech. It rather makes it appear as hypocrisy.

If we want to discuss freedom of expression, we also need to ask the meaning of this freedom in different contexts. There is a world of difference, for example, between using this freedom to “speak truth to power” to powerful economic and political forces and to “speak power to truth” — as Rick Salutin has put it. When freedom of speech is used by American government and neo-conservative pundits in the media to “speak power to truth,” lying their way to declaring war against Iraq; when the dominant majority in a society abuses its power to create and spread racist images and myths, as we have seen in the long and dirty history of anti-Semitism, or in the present anti-Muslim sentiments, we cannot celebrate these “freedoms” as principled and brave acts of expression.

In the Canadian context, we do not believe that most of the silencing is done by Muslim extremists. Those of us who have concerns over the cartoons come from a diversity of political, ethnic and religious backgrounds. In expressing these concerns and being heard and understood about the nature of our concerns, we feel silenced not by intimidation by extremists, but rather by those who pose the issue as based on differences between “Muslim values” versus “Western values” or “democrats” versus “theocrats.”

A third and final problem with the framing of the cartoon controversy is that the narrowly framed discussion on freedom of speech does not address these most important and ubiquitous forms of silencing that Muslims in the Canadian diaspora experience daily and over time.

Muslims in diaspora, as well as many anti-racist and anti-imperialist non-Muslims feel concerned, but largely silenced and powerless on a number of issues: the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and the ongoing occupation of Palestine; Canada's direct and indirect participation in or passive acceptance of these; and an escalating anti-Muslim and anti-Arab environment which prevails everywhere from daily discourses in the media to the interpretation and enforcement of anti-terrorist legislation, the use of security certificates and other limitations on civil liberties.

Some participating in the debate on freedom of expression have pleaded for respect for and sensitivity to religious beliefs. We believe, however, that unless the real issues and concerns, and the main forms of silencing that takes place through foreign policy and national practices of racism are addressed, gestures of “respect” and “sensitivity” to religious beliefs would be considered tokenistic and superficial at best.

Let us change the frame of this debate. Instead of using categories that help racialize and demonize a people, let us develop an understanding that would help bring about justice and peace.


Signed:

  • Tariq Amin-Khan, Assistant Professor, Department of Politics and Public Administration, Ryerson University
  • Sedef Arat-Koc, Associate Professor, Department of Politics and Public Administration, Ryerson University
  • Feyzi Baban, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Studies, Trent University
  • Abigail Bakan, Professor, Department of Political Science, Queen's University
  • Malcolm Blincow, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, York University
  • Mike Burke, Associate Professor, Department of Politics and Public Administration, Ryerson University
  • Janet Conway, Associate Professor, Department of Politics and Public Administration, Ryerson University
  • Enakshi Dua, Associate Professor, Women's Studies, York University
  • Grace-Edward Galabuzi, Assistant Professor, Department of Politics and Public Administration, Ryerson University
  • Ratiba Hadj-Moussa, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, York University
  • Amina Jamal, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Department of Sociology, Concordia University
  • Mustafa Koc, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Ryerson University
  • Colin Mooers, Professor, Department of Politics and Public Administration, Ryerson University
  • Sherene Razack, Professor, Sociology and Equity Studies, Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, University of Toronto
  • Judy Rebick, Sam Gindin chair of Social Justice, Ryerson University
  • Kim Rygiel, Doctoral Student, Department of Political Science, York University
  • Mitu Sengupta, Assistant Professor, Department of Politics and Public Administration, Ryerson University
  • Uzma Shakir, Executive Director, South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario
  • Aparna Sundar, Assistant Professor, Department of Politics and Public Administration, Ryerson University
  • Sunera Thobani, Assistant Professor, Women's Studies, University of British Columbia
  • Cynthia Wright, Sessional professor, York University
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