Free Speech Can Be Offensive. Lebanon Should Get Over It.

A recent cartoon in a Saudi Arabian newspaper suggested that the Lebanese state is a joke. The cartoon showed a picture of the Lebanese flag captioned by the words "April Fool's."
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A recent cartoon in a Saudi Arabian newspaper suggested that the Lebanese state is a joke. The cartoon showed a picture of the Lebanese flag captioned by the words "April Fool's." Naturally, it elicited many reactions among the Lebanese. While some retaliated with like-minded satire - for example by pointing out that the real joke would be to consider Saudi Arabia "a country of human rights and freedom of opinion", others decided to take matters in their own hands.

A couple of Lebanese men entered the newspaper's Beirut office, made a lot of noise, and knocked around a few things. Then, being social media "activists", they shared a video online to document their "activism" on behalf of all Lebanese people. The ringleader was arrested the following day, and most of the other men turned themselves in to the police at the time of writing.

I will not go into the details of the incident or the context of the growing Saudi-Lebanese rift since January 2016, (which I discussed briefly here). Neither am I going to reiterate the need, mentioned by many Lebanese commentators by now, to respect freedom of expression and guard against similar attempts to intimidate journalists or curb free speech.

Instead, the point here is to discuss an alarming tendency in Lebanon to be overly sensitive when it comes to dealing with any news item that might be considered "offensive" and cite two examples that are particularly instructive for our society.

Currently, there is no disagreement in Lebanon on the fundamental right to freedom of expression. It is guaranteed in Article 13 of the Constitution: "the freedom to express one's opinion orally or in writing, the freedom of the press... are guaranteed within the limits established by law."

But there is a discrepancy when it comes to what those "limits established by law" are, and whether they are consistent with Lebanon's international obligations, as rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch have pointed out.

One of the main issues of disagreement relates to the "right to offend." And, from popular and official reactions to a number of social, political, and religious issues, it is clear that many Lebanese do not yet grasp the notion that free speech can be offensive and shocking.

Yet, offense is inherent to the right to the freedom of expression. As Frank La Rue, United Nations' Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, states,

"the right to freedom of expression includes expression of views and opinions that offend, shock or disturb."

La Rue's definition is expansive, as it should be. Otherwise, what is the use of free speech if what is said, written or drawn has already been agreed upon and tacitly approved by a society?

On the contrary, disturbing some people is often necessary and unavoidable in the pursuit of vital social aims. For example, exposing corruption sometimes means breaking taboos and accusing people who are held to be beyond reproach.

Obviously, there will be some voices that will object: is there not enough disunity and strife already? Furthermore, can a society where religion plays such a central role tolerate shocking and offending views about issues held sacred?

To be sure, local religious figures are often at the forefront of efforts to curb public expression in the Middle East. But as two recent examples show, it is possible to be religious and at the same time defend the right to offend.

The first example occurred during the infamous Charlie Hebdo killings. French policeman, Ahmed Merabet, died protecting the Charlie Hebdo buildings in what became a message of tolerance and peace widely circulated on social media.

The fact that Ahmed, a religious Muslim believer, was protecting Charlie Hebdo's right to crassly offend his faith and himself is perhaps the purest form of respect one can show towards freedom of expression, and, more specifically, freedom to offend. Merabet's manner of death was a powerful expression of civility and nobility in defense of public liberties. And, it showed that the killings were not a true reflection of the Muslim faith. As one of the reactions to the shootings nicely put it:

"I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. #JesuisAhmed."

The second example is the Archbishop of the Church of England Justin Welby's response to a comedian - Stephen Fry - insulting the Deity with extremely harsh words. The Telegraph had the following headline on the 4th of February, 2015:

"Stephen Fry has every right to call God an evil, monstrous maniac ... says Archbishop"

The Archbishop further explained what he meant:

"Well, if we believe in freedom of choice, if we believe in freedom of religion, what is good for one is good for all. It is as much the right of Stephen Fry to say what he said and not to be abused improperly by Christians who are affronted as it is the right of Christians to proclaim Jesus Christ."

So, next time a news story, a caricature, a play, or a movie offends you - politically, culturally, and even religiously - remember Ahmed and Justin.

Free speech includes the right to offend. And it is high time for Lebanon and Arab countries to get over it.

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