Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

September 24, 2012

OP-ED: Toothess Hate Speech Laws Fail all Religions

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News/Al Arabiya

24 September 2012

Three years ago, French law authorities arrested and later convicted famed fashion designer John Galliano for making anti-Semitic remarks to a couple at a Paris café.
It was a casual conversation that ended ugly, but John Galliano paid the price for his intemperance and bigotry due to France’s hate speech laws. President François Hollande also stripped Galliano of his Légion d’Honneur award following his conviction for “public insults based on origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity.”
Ten percent of France’s population is Muslim, yet bigoted comments from print publications, media outlets and even politicians run rampant with the sole intention of abusing Muslims. Extremist American and European writers and politicians claim they are simply exercising their right to free speech. In reality they hide behind free speech protections to voice hatred.
This week the French weekly Charlie Hebdo, on the heels of the release of that anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims,” published new cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that even to an atheist is insulting. Defended by Charlie Hebdo editors as satire, the cartoons badly miss the mark and border on the repulsive. This new round of cartoons only serve to heighten tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims.
So how did it come that bigots face prosecution for directing hate speech toward Jews, but not Muslims?
France’s hate speech laws have been on the books since 1881, but the courts more often than not rule against religious organizations no matter what the affiliation.
And to be fair, Christian groups in France have lost more civil and criminal hate cases than any other religion.
The courts refused to ban “The Last Temptation of the Christ” in 1988. The courts also refused a request by Christian groups to remove a movie poster for the 1996 film “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” for its sexually suggestive imagery mixed with Christian icons. In 2005, the courts denied a request to remove a fashion clothing billboard depicting female models and a shirtless man in a scene from The Last Super.
Likewise, French courts refused to ban Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Versus” in 1989. The courts acquitted Charlie Hebdo’s editor in 2006 on charges of maligning Islam by republishing the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet. The court ruled that the cartoons were directed at fundamentalists and terrorists and not the entire Muslim community.
Yet in 2008, a court convicted France’s most beloved actress, Brigitte Bardot, for inciting racial and religious hatred against Muslims. She had complained in a letter made public that Muslims are destroying the country.
The Muslim question, if you want to call it that, is relatively new, having arisen in the past 20 years with the rising number of immigrants coinciding with the mainstreaming of the right-wing lunatic fringe into European and American politics and media. These secular and religious extremist groups demand that free speech protections be exported worldwide without respect to the sensibilities of other religious organizations, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim.
The argument from the West is that a religion targeted for satire should be strong enough to take ridicule. More important, the attacks should not be taken personally. Since many Christian branches made a pact with governments centuries ago to separate church and state, Westerners generally view religion as private and at a distance. As Stanley Fish put it in the New York Times recently, religion in secular countries is an “add-on” to personhood, much like a political party or sports team. There is no such division in Islam or Orthodox Judaism. Faith is not a part-time endeavor. The entire person-hood is faith. This is what distinguishes Muslims and Orthodox Jews from other religions. While there are a great many Muslims who may believe in secularism or are indifferent to the haters — after all, Islam is not the monolithic religion the media portray it to be — for the vast majority in the Middle East and South Asia denigration of their religion is indeed a personal insult.
If secular groups want to drag Jesus through the mud in the name of free speech, must Muslims accept this denigration? Of course not. Such depictions of Jesus, Muhammad or Abraham are unthinkable in the Muslim community.
While French hate speech laws seem toothless, success in the courts depend on how Western societies regard their minority populations. For now, the laws treat Islam pretty much the same way it does Christianity. However, organized advocacy among disparate religious groups will help the courts rethink their approach to hate speech cases.
I am not singling out France. I am holding it up as an example of how Western nations in good faith keep hate speech laws on the books but apply the law inconsistently. They have yet to reconcile such protections with the increasing prominence of hate groups that abuse that right. The line between free speech and hate is so fine that governments can’t confidently prosecute the latter because it may come at the expense of the former. The United States is an entirely different matter, where the First Amendment is so highly regarded that it’s unlikely that lobbying to legislate hate speech will gain any traction.
Regardless of the path governments take to control hate speech, those who take offense to such things can take solace that thousands of insults have been hurled against the prophets and their religions still stand tall and sturdy as ever.

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December 22, 2011

Christmas in Saudi Arabia: Cheerful But Chaste

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line/Kuwait Times

22 December 2011

In Land of the Two Holy Mosques, authorities overlook quiet celebrations

Christmas in Saudi Arabia. The phrase doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. But celebrating the holiday in some areas of the kingdom is possible as long as expatriates use a subtle approach.

Christmas has always been kept under wraps in the kingdom as a holiday celebrated in the privacy of one’s own home. There are no church services in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques, but private services are held in Christian homes and residential compounds. Holiday parties complete with festive decorations are commonplace in virtually all the compounds, although they are usually kept indoors.

Outward displays of non-Muslim religious symbols or prostlyzing can lead to nasty experiences with the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, but a personal copy of the Bible is allowed into the country. However, Saudi attitudes toward Christmas vary.

“We had Saudi friends with kids who had lived abroad and used to enjoy Christmas, not as a religious holiday, but as a social one,” says a 41-year-old Christian Arab-American, who lives in the port city of Jeddah and asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of Christian holidays in the country.

Given the pressure to keep one’s faith close to the vest, celebrating Christmas for Saudi Arabia’s 1.2 million Christians  is a tricky proposition.

An American blogger who writes under the name Susie’s Big Adventure told The Media Line her early Christmases were unlike any she had ever experienced. “My first two Christmases in Saudi Arabia were pretty non-existent, except for my son and I watching our favorite Christmas movies all day,” says Susie, who is married to a Saudi.

Subsequent holidays brightened when she purchased a small tree, lights and glass ornaments. “Our Christmases have been very low key,” she adds.

Yet Christians celebrating Christmas and the retailers who cater to the expatriate population, which numbers about eight million, have taken a page from the St. Valentine’s Day playbook to ensure that all the trappings of the holiday are recognized: Christmas tree ornaments, tinsel, colorful wrapping paper, material for Santa Claus suits and food.

To cater to the increasing popularity of St. Valentine’s Day, florists traditionally stock up on red roses. Lingerie shops carry more stock and prominently display playful red and white-laced lingerie. Christmas celebrations in some regions of Saudi Arabia follow a similar pattern with varying degrees of success. Riyadh and the rural villages and towns are barren of any signs of Christmas. And Madinah and Makkah are closed to non-Muslims. However, cosmopolitan Jeddah and communities in the Eastern Province are islands that subtly mark the holiday.

“I feel the Christmas season every year,” says Filipino expatriate Bayani, a Christian, told The Media Line. “I work at a big department store in Jeddah and about two months before Christmas we get a shipment of displays and inventory that sell the Christmas spirit.”

Christmas often immediately follows the Islamic holiday of Eid. The Eid holidays follow the Hijri calendar and are held at different times of the Gregorian calendar. Department stores order inventory and displays to reflect the festive nature of Eid, and by doing so ensure that Christmas-style decorations pass through customs without interference, says Bayani. This Christmas season provided challenges for the department store since the holiday arrived three months after Eid.

“We still managed to dress the store in red and white, maybe a little tinsel,” he says. “It doesn’t scream ‘Christmas’ but customers get the idea.”

Islam does not recognize specific dates as holidays except for Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha. Saudis often ignore birthdays, including the birth date of the Prophet Muhammad. Sufis, however, celebrate the prophet’s birthday with elaborate meals and singing, which perhaps comes closest to how Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Yet some expatriates say that Saudis are not blind to the emotional resonance of Christmas.

Australian expatriate Steve Smith, 37, of Jeddah, told The Media Line that he and a Briton are the only non-Muslims employed by an information technology company. He expected a lonely Christmas.

“We worked Christmas Day, of course, but after work my Saudi boss invited us to his home for a Christmas dinner,” Smith recalls. “He had his cook make us a full dinner with trimmings. I was gobsmacked. We didn’t talk about Christmas at the dinner table, but it was his way of saying he appreciated that we were alone in a foreign country and that we needed this holiday.”

Yusef A., 57, a Saudi who supervises about a dozen Western non-Muslims at an Eastern Province company, told The Media Line that he makes it a habit that his Christian employees have something to do during the holidays. Speaking on the condition that his full name is not used, he says that he usually schedules a private room at an upscale restaurant or hotel for a dinner or to contribute funds for a party if they live in a residential compound.

“They are a long way from home and Saudi Arabia can be tough on foreigners,” he explains. “Besides, I want to keep them here and working for me.”

While religious authorities take a dim view on any hint of public Christian holiday celebrations, one Saudi businesswoman, who asked not to be identified, says that some Saudis are learning the holiday is more secular than religious for many Christians. As a result, some people take a relaxed view. She said many Saudis studying in the U.S. and Britain appreciate the holiday atmosphere, department store displays and home decorations.

“My husband and I studied at MIT in Massachusetts in the’90s, so after five years we were fully exposed to the holiday and were often invited to parties by our non-Saudi friends,” she says.. “We’ve come back to Saudi Arabia with the habit of giving each other one gift on December 25. It’s pretty harmless and reminds us of the old good days in the States.”

An assistant manager at an upscale hotel on Jeddah’s Corniche at the edge of the Red Sea says he notices a surge in dinner reservations on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Day is another holiday largely unnoticed since Saudis follow the Hijri calendar.

“A lot of people come in on Christmas and New Year’s with their families, and even Arab couples, although I don’t see any Saudis,” he said. “I see couples exchange gifts at the table. It’s not a big deal.”

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