NEW YORK CITY—If the adventures of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have lulled you into believing censorship is a quaint fly we’re swatting into the past, then spare a moment for a young Palestinian man who’s been in jail for two months.
Walid al-Husseini, 26, was arrested in the West Bank city of Qalqilya at the end of October. He was accused of “blasphemy against the prophet and the Qur’an” for posts on his blog and on the social networking site Facebook.
He’s neither the first nor will he be the last to be detained for his blogging in the Middle East, where online activists are becoming adept at irritating governments and regimes. But Walid’s fate is a reminder that while some go online to escape the red pen of censorship in the “real” world, the red line of religion remains very much indelible in the “virtual” world, too.
Aware of the creeping conservatism in the region, authorities know they’ll face much less popular disgruntlement when they throw an “infidel” blogger into jail than one who shamed their brutal police forces or their farcical elections.
A Jordanian journalist told a conference on freedom of expression in Copenhagen that I attended recently that up to 60 percent of journalists in her country supported some kind of censorship, especially to prevent insults to religion.
Many nominally secular dictators across the Middle East have become adept at arm-wrestling over Islam, with the Islamist opponents breathing down their neck. What better way to burnish your Islamic credentials than a full-throated defence of the prophet and the Qur’an, especially at the expense of a young man who identified as atheist and mocked that prophet and that holy book, to the shame of his family and many for whom religion is that last red line.
Remember, Walid is in a West Bank jail of the Palestinian Authority, which Islamist rival Hamas kicked out of Gaza.
Egyptian authorities used a similar tactic against Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer, who served a three-year sentence for insulting Islam and one year for insulting President Hosni Mubarak. Notice that symbolic calibration there — Islam got Kareem more jail time than Mubarak.
Kareem was jailed at a time when the Muslim Brotherhood comprised the largest opposition bloc in parliament.
I was born a Muslim and I have made an adult’s choice to remain in the faith. It should go without saying that such faith is meaningless unless Walid can renounce his.
I do so for many reasons. The bar for freedom of expression has been slipping lower when it should be climbing higher. Presidents, kings or emirs cannot be guardians, custodians or gatekeepers of religion. It is especially poignant to remember that, and to unequivocally defend Walid’s right to insult and provoke and renounce any faith he wants during this month, which marks the 5th anniversary of manufactured outrage over the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammed.
The cartoons were published at the end of September 2005, but demonstrations against them didn’t break out until January 2006. To understand the reason for that time lag is to understand why throwing “infidel” bloggers into jail can get you the support of their family: Kareem’s disowned him.
Whether the cartoons offended you or not, surely the political jockeying for maximum outrage between regimes and Islamists that fueled a lot of the demonstrations five years ago also offended you? Surely the violence committed by some in the name of Islam was as offensive, if not more so, than some of those cartoons which depicted Islam as a violent religion? Up to 50 Muslims died when demonstrations in various Muslim-majority countries turned violent, and the editor of the paper who commissioned the cartoons as well as one of the cartoonists have lived with death threats for years.
Left unchecked, that jockeying over who can defend Islam the most creates self-appointed custodians of the faith out of anyone. I got a death threat in 2009 when I criticized a decision by Yale University’s Press to pull cartoons and pictures of the Prophet Mohammed from a book it was about to publish on the cartoon crisis.
The way to stand up to those bullies of the faith — of any kind — is not to stop publishing “offensive” cartoons but for Muslims themselves to refuse to be coddled by either regimes, Islamists, or the self-appointed and enraged.
Islam has been around from more than 1,400 years. If cartoons or a blog were to zap it away today, then it wasn’t much of a faith to begin with. Instead, the best way to “defend” it is through confidence.
That was the sentiment permeating a petition in defence of freedom of expression that I signed, along with dozens of North American Muslims, last year when U.S. cartoonist Molly Norris went into hiding and changed her identity at the FBI’s urging. Norris had drawn the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” cartoon on Facebook in response to Comedy Central’s editing of South Park after the satirical animated series received threats for portraying the prophet in a bear suit.
“We, the undersigned, unconditionally condemn any intimidation or threats of violence directed against any individual or group exercising the rights of freedom of religion and speech; even when that speech may be perceived as hurtful or reprehensible,” said the petition, published on the website The American Muslim.
We knew that in signing the petition we defended not just the right of Norris — and, as far as I’m concerned, Walid — but also our own individual rights. That indelible red line of religion moves in mysterious ways that can trip up any one of us.
I am the captain of my faith.